Here Comes A Greek Tragedy
Eight hours and thirty-five minutes. That’s the average flight time from New York to Greece. It’s also the original title of Fotini Tsalikoglou’s heartbreaking familial tale The Secret Sister. Traveling 600 miles per hour in a seat 35,000 miles above the ground, Jonathan Argyriou has plenty of time to reflect on the anguished, fractured lives of his sister, mother, and grandmother. As he works to carefully untangle the mysteries surrounding his family’s past, can he eventually arrive at a way to push his present day pain aside and move forward? It won’t be an easy undertaking, but he’ll be aided by the familiar and comforting voice of his sister on his mental journey backwards through time.
Amelia. Where is she and why has she chosen not to join her brother on his first adventure to their family’s homeland? As the two exchange dialog back and forth in Jonathan’s mind it becomes increasingly clear that as much as they love one another, something is very, very wrong between them. This rift in their relationship is yet another thing he’ll have to learn to come to terms with, another mental wound that he’ll have to push aside if he wants to get at some version of the truth that makes sense. For even as her voice continually contradicts and challenges his beliefs, he must eventually accept that the Amelia he is communicating with currently is nothing but a figment of his imagination.
For Jonathan, a third generation Greek American, unravelling the threads of the past means understanding the complex, ever changing social and political climates of Greece. The beginnings of his family’s story lie in the Greco-Turkish War of the early 1920s, where his then seven-year-old grandmother Erasmia and her five-year-old sister Frosso fled the battle in Smyrna to forge a new life with their uncle in Athens. Years later, during the fighting of the Second World War, the seemingly inseperable pair will be forced to split apart by arrival of Menelaos Argyriou, a gentle, hard-working young man with future prospects in America whom their uncle has arranged to marry Frosso. Just a week after meeting for the first time the pair wed and then board a steamship bound for the United States. This should be a turning point for the younger sister, a fresh start, a chance to once again escape the ravages of war, but instead embarking on this exciting, yet terrifying voyage ultimately leads to tragedy.
Who makes the rules? Who enforces them, and at what cost? Each family is fed by its secrets. Like a strangely bulimic climbing vine, the unrevealed secrets embrace the family’s flesh a little tighter each day, until in the end they become one with it. You can’t tell the vine from the flesh. A couple joined for all time, and if you try to pry it apart, you destroy it. Dust, damp, lichen and bugs erode the leafy, green body. In the summer, when the smell of something rotting won’t let you be, you pray to God for a breath of fresh air.
Frosso can’t bare to apart from her sister. She can’t stand the cramped, overcrowded confines of the ship. She begs Menelaos not to take her away, but he simply shrugs her off. In the end she throws herself overboard, becoming one with the icy waters of the ocean. As a result Menelaos returns to Athens, marries her older sister Erasmia, and once again makes for America. This time, husband and wife will arrive without incident.
Yet Erasmia must somehow learn to live with her guilt over her sister’s passing. She will remain haunted by it until the day she dies. Assuming the life meant for her dead sister, having a daughter with the man they both called husband, escaping what she could not, it’s all a heavy burden. Naming the girl Frosso after her departed sister, she’ll pass along the weight of the family’s tragedy to its newest member and thus the cycle of pain will be destined to repeat itself. This new Frosso will grow up and change her name in an attempt to shed the past. She’ll have Jonathan and Amelia with an unnamed father. She’ll take to drinking to ease her sorrow. She’ll never be happy. She’ll never outrun history. And she’ll pass along the now well-established, trademarked brand of familial misery to her daughter as well.
How much power can a single name hold? Can we ever truly outrun the catastrophes of the past or are they destined to hold sway over us forever? These are the questions that are central to Jonathan’s journey. As Zalikoglu traces back the traumatic history of a single family she draws upon the larger tragedy of a country divided, a homeland in turmoil, and a people suffering from displacement and a loss of identity. Her story and Kitroeff’s translation of it are engrossing, thrusting the reader immediately into Jonathan’s head space, compelling them to travel with him on this psychological journey to center of shared grief. It isn’t always exploring the happiest of subject matter, but nonetheless The Secret Sister offers readers an unshakable trip that’s well worth taking.