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book review

Tess Fragoulis

Every language has single words, slang and formal, that are only available in other languages as a cluster of words: poudeur in French, largom in Swedish, deke in Canadian English. In Greek, that word is filotimo. Understanding current Greek times requires understanding filotimo, a core concept for all Greeks. Filotimo encompasses human dignity, national pride, respect, honour. More than even the absence of work and money (both critical), Greece now howls against the violation of filotimo.

To understand modern Greece, one must know the impact of the Tourkokratia – a four-century occupation of Greece by Ottoman Turks, lasting until Greek independence in 1821. Then came Greek kings (actually German), murderous colonels, Greeks fighting Greeks in a civil war – and now Greece, too long dependent on tourism, feels owned by Germany, which, the Greeks believe, wants them to be hotel workers (when there are jobs) in their own country, which is being bought to pay a debt they are helpless to pay without their own country being the ever-insufficient purchase price.

Montreal writer Tess Fragoulis's The Goodtime Girl begins in 1922, in Anatolian Smyrna (a Greek place ruled by Turks), where Kivelli Fotiathi goes in an eye-blink from being the privileged daughter of a wealthy merchant to a refugee fleeing a massive fire and Ottoman attack that fills the streets and sea with dead bodies and bayoneted babies, emptying her world of all she knew, loved and believed would always be there.

Kivelli washes up in Piraeus, then as now a major port, with a sizable population of hashish-smoking manghes (toughs: everything from bullies to street-king gangsters). People of all ages are huddled everywhere, in alleys, on beaches, clustered in the ancient Acropolis. Raised to look lovely and flirt widely, Kivelli has no occupational skills. Her soft-skinned beauty brings her to the attention of fellow Anatolian Madam Effie, whose bordello houses others with few options. Kivelli, who is expected to offer her virginity to a rich suitor or a romantic lover, refuses Kyria Effie's entreaties. The canny madam, thinking desperation will eventually change her mind, gives her sleeping space.

It turns out that Kivelli does have an important talent: She sings wonderfully, in a traditional form called Rembetiko, also known as Greek blues. Singing these extraordinary songs becomes her freedom zone, the only time she can let down her guard and feel. This gives her income, and what would now be called a fan base. In terrible times, her life does not become less dangerous, but it does become fuller.

At one point, she takes her guarded self to a fortune teller, Xanthi, a reader of the marks left in an upturned coffee cup when the grounds are left in the saucer. Xanthi tells her that emotions have to win. "Without emotions, Kivelli, you would be dead. They are trying to show you that you are alive, or that it's time to start living, no matter what happened to you on the other side … what happened to you happened to all of us."

The book, when true to time and place, is a magnificent piece of work. Colloquial Greek is difficult to translate. That said, I wish Fragoulis did not periodically use a sort of Al Caponian slang – 1920s men going "on the lam," "hit[ting] the road." women who "drop their drawers." The 1930s gangster-movie language occurs less than it might. It would be best if not there at all. This bounces the reader out of a book's world. Fragoulis is a splendid enough word painter not to need it.

The Goodtime Girl is an epic and very Greek book: passionate, lush, visual, sometimes melodramatic. Tess Fragoulis is a writer with all these characteristics, and an elegant and eloquent writing style that will transport the reader to a turbulent time and place. If you know Greece, you will see and hear it while reading. If you do not, doors and worlds will open to you. The best way to open them is to accompany reading with the score of the film Rembetiko, by iconic Greek composer Stavros Xarhakos.

Contributing reviewer Gale Zoë Garnett has lived extensively in Greece and loves the music, the country, the language and the people.