The Saddest Story: Menis Koumandareas’ "Koula"

Koumandareas, Menis (2005), Koula, Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN 1-56478-406-1
[Translated by Kay Cicellis]

Generally, and I think most would agree with me on this, a pitch-perfect novel is usually short and the longer it is the more likely it’s fraught with problems. Some of the very best –think Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, the best novel I have ever read (not my favorite novel, by far. That would be Gaddis’ The Recognitions), think Salter’s Sport and a Pastime– are brief. Koumandareas’ novel, originally published in 1975, is very short, so short that I would tend to disagree with the publisher and call it a novella (especially since it fits that old description of Lessing’s, y’know) or simply: récit, or story. And it’s immensely imperfect. It is a real chore to trudge through through the 80-odd pages. And there are so many reasons why it’s not successful. On the other hand, it’s not a complete disaster and Koumandareas may very well be a writer worth reading.

There are two central flaws. One is the writing. It may be Cicellis’ translation, but the way the book cannot even be described as purposeful. There are writers like Chandra, who, in his Sacred Games, never dazzles, never impresses stylistically, but is still a joy to read. Chandra manages a whole world of characters and stories in a clean, functional style, which is clearly subservient to the story. Koumandareas uses a cold, reduced language that appears to be an effort to match classics such as L’Étranger in faux-existentialist distance. While I personally consider Camus less of a writer than many, it’s clear from the first pages that Koumandareas is in way over his head here. The way that Koumandareas strings words together is often awkward, even careless. Competent, without a doubt, but not much more than that. It is this observation that made me think that the fault is not Koumandareas’, but Cicellis’, since the translation reads like a common run-of-the-mill interlinear translation, 20 pages per hour.

Do not let this keep you from enjoying the novel. There is a rare economy in the way this story is told. There are many facets and complexities to it that a different writer could have explored over some hundred pages. Koumandareas, however, picks and chooses a few scenes to invoke the tragedy of a life. This is a common technique, especially amongst short story writers. It needs to be done well to work or else the story will bore the socks off its readers. This story did not quite cause my feet to freeze, but it was a close call. The basic story is well known and has been told countless times in novels, plays, films and TV shows. Older woman begins a doomed affair with a young (often underage) student. Affair ends badly. Often a writer will attach special circumstances to it to make it more interesting. Bernhard Schlink, in his singularly tedious novel Der Vorleser, transplanted the standard plot into Nazi Germany and turned it into a disquisition about sex and guilt. That did not help. Koumandareas, however, is on a good path.

He focuses on the problems of being a woman in a paternalistic society such as most of our societies are. The story contains many specifically Greek references, but it is “universal”, to use that trite expression. It is clear that the novel examines Koula, the older woman, which is a marked difference to, for instance, Schlink’s novel, which treats the woman in the story like a strange animal (I think I remarked on this blog about the misogynistic use of the term “Cougar”, haven’t I?). Koula, a married woman, is attracted to the boy not because he is particularly charming or beautiful or brilliant. She has been attracted to other men and even boys before. This desire is, in a sense, a symptom of her place in society. She is oppressed by her duties, as a citizen, woman, wife, which is not enough for her. She feels uneasy in the weeks in her pregnancy when she is unable to work.

Her job is joyless, what is attractive about it are two things. One, the regular rhythm it gives her days. Koula expresses a profound satisfaction about the morning routine to get to work. She does not, apparently, leave her work in the same state of satisfaction. It is on the way home that she picks up the boy. Leaving the job leaves her empty. This leads us to the second attraction: empowerment. This is never made explicit, but evidently the fact that she is good at her job earns her quite a lot of respect and a power of sorts. When she decides to take a day off and her boss calls, concerned, she is genuinely pleased. This explains her emptiness upon returning to her home, returning into the fold, so to say. At home where she is wife and mother her role is fixed, her duty is well-defined, a good performance is expected and respect for achievements of her own is hard to come by.

The boy is, of necessity, a terribly conceived character, a caricature. It’s not important who he is. Anyone could fill that role. The trouble is, the novel dwells far too much upon him, it hands him too much room to be the teenage idiot that he is. In such a short, reduced piece of prose these passages seem excessive, needlessly detailed. It makes the book hugely irritating. There are perfectly detailed scenes and ideas. The fact, for instance, that the subway, which is the place that Koula and the boy meet, is likened to the Odyssey at the end, makes us realize how much gold Koumandareas mined from that meager metal quarry. I am unable to reconcile the almost careless concentration upon the boy with this precise use of detail. The novel just feels unfinished.

I do realize that drowning the woman’s voice in the immature screeching of the boy’s fits the novel’s argument, but it does not make reading it any more enjoyable. I understand how it works but that’s no excuse to write a bad novel. The whole book feels like a sketch for a better, more precise novel, not necessarily a longer one. I like the mind behind it, but the writing is dissatisfactory. The actual novel is not good, but Koumandareas is a writer to check out. Wiki tells us he’s written quite a few books. Let’s hope they are more of a finished product.

This could be a very sad story if finished by Koumandareas the writer. The saddest story is the one in Koumandareas’ mind, it’s what I called the universal quality of the portrayal of Koula. There are women going to work every day to escape the emptiness, there are women staying at home to cope with the emptiness. The saddest story is the one of the wife across the street who is staying in an abusive marriage because that’s what you do. It’s the man in the suit declaring how tiresome feminism is these days, squat before the TV, watching the reactionary programs and ads churned out by the industry. Nobody smart blames the industry. As Adorno says: the industry only makes transparent what is at large in our society. So do good novels, and even mediocre ones like Koula (still the industry, eh?).