I have to confess at the outset that my purchase of Victoria Hislop’s ‘novel’ was a last-minute impulse buy at Waitrose in Abergavenny (my nearest supermarket) only days before coming to Symi last October. As somebody generally resistant to discounts and special offers, this lapse from form can probably be best explained by physical exhaustion and the desire for some relevant ‘lightweight’ reading when I got to the other end.
In May I eventually got around to reading Cartes Postales from Greece and was pleasantly surprised. What surprised me even more, however, and in a dispiriting way, was the superfluous arguments of its critics (many of them, I regret to say, women – so much for sisterhood!). Some of the them focussed on technical issues relating to the Kindle edition. Some of them seemed to be indulging in that perennial British pastime of knocking the successful. (You’ve had your moment in the sun – in this case the critical praise lavished on Hislop for The Island and The Return – now we need to put the boot in to preserve the order of the universe!) Some of them were obsessive anoraks (when did you last wear one of those?) who delight in trivial nit picking. Others complained that the work wasn’t a novel.
What’s the truth?
Well Cartes Postales from Greece isn’t a novella let alone a novel! It’s also not a travelogue! The title alone should have signposted the nature of the enterprise. Are the accompanying photographs a distraction? No, they support the text, but in a limited way. This isn’t Homer’s Odyssey or Joyce’s Ulysses. But then again why should it be? Instead what Hislop offers us (albeit from a Punctum Archimedis) is a fascinating insight into the beauty of Greece and the extraordinary complexity of its society. Gradually as the short stories overlap each other, we become increasingly aware of the interplay between myth and reality, humour and hubris; the closeness between good and evil, light and darkness. More than that, Hislop, not least in the very simplicity of her stories, draws us into something much greater: namely the relationship between ἔρως and Θάνατος. And that, I believe, is a considerable and worthy achievement.