May 14 2018

Mani: Travels in the Southern Peleponnese by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Mani grew in the telling. Patrick Leigh Fermor meant it “to be a single chapter among many, each of them describing the stages and halts, the encounters, the background and the conclusions of a leisurely journey … through continental Greece and the islands.” He undertook the journey, “to pull together the strands of many previous travels and sojourns in all parts of Greece, for I had begun wandering about this country and living in various parts of it a few years before [World War II].” Combining understatement and insouciance as he will throughout the book, he adds, “The war did not interrupt these travels though for the time being it altered their scope and their purpose; and since then they have continued intermittently until this very minute of an early morning on a white terrace on the island of Hydra.” (all p. 5)

“All of Greece is absorbing and rewarding,” (p. 6) which tells the reader as much or more about the author as about Greece itself. Enthusiasm seems his natural mode; a published book of one of his correspondences is titled In Tearing Haste and I can see that as the closing in many letters, dashed off from here or there as he explored places, met people, discovered their pasts and presents, and filed away notes to charm multitudes of readers decades hence. “There is hardly a rock or a stream without a battle or a myth, a miracle or a peasant anecdote or a superstition; and talk and incident, nearly all of it odd or memorable, thicken round the traveller’s path at every step.” (p. 6) Considering his natural style and approach, a single volume encompassing all of Greece was clearly impossible. The 350 pages of Mani encompass a single peninsula in the Peleponnese, but this is no dry recounting of every nook and cranny. “Thus I could allow myself the luxury of long digressions, and, by attempting to involve the reader in them, aspire to sharing with him a far wider of Greek lands, both in space and time, than the brisker chronicle of a precise itinerary would have allowed. … there was now no need to furnish this free elbow-room with anything which had not filled me with interest, curiosity, pleasure or excitement.” And indeed he does.

The temporal dimension is particularly important, as Michael Gorra notes in his introduction to Mani. “In Leigh Fermor’s pages any account of the present begins a thousand years back, and to read him is to enter a mind that delights in bounding from moment to moment and century and century, a mind in which all times appear to exist at once. … [I]t’s instead as though they were each one indexed, and available for use.” (p. viii) Leigh Fermor sees the centuries that have shaped the settlements and the landscapes he travels, the ebb and flow not only of Greek power (both ancient and otherwise) but also Frankish, Venetian, Ottoman, and more, each leaving telltale evidence in building, names, technology, words, or local legend.

“The second aim, both of this and other books to follow, is to situate and describe present-day Greeks of the mountains and the islands in relationship to their habitat and history; to seek them out in those regions where bad communications and remoteness have left this ancient relationship, comparatively speaking, undisturbed. In the towns and the more accessible plains many sides of life which had remained intact for centuries are being destroyed apace—indeed, a great deal has vanished since my own first visits to Greece. Ancient and celebrated sites are carefully preserved, but, between the butt of a Coca-cola bottle and the Iron Curtain, much that is previous and venerable, many living mementoes of Greece’s past are being hammered to powder. It seems worth while to observe and record some of these less famous aspects before the process is complete.” (pp. 6–7)

In the end, he only managed one other book of similar depth about a Greek region, Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece. What might have been takes nothing away from the amazing achievement of Mani in bringing an obscure region vividly to life. Leigh Fermor carries his learning lightly and leavens it with personal encounters.

“See that old man?” our guide whispered. “Guess how old he is.”
“Eighty? Eighty-five?”
“He’s a hundred and twenty-seven.”
The old man confirmed this through toothless gums and followed his affirmation with a complacent chuckle. The departure of the bus cut off any further talk…” (p. 78)

The decomposing bus travelled, bucking and rearing, deeper into the Deep Mani. Restless hens clucked underfoot, olive trees whizzed past in the dark. At one stop, outside a rural café, a woman lifted a small boy to the level of our window and told him to take a good look at the strangers. “He’s never seen any before,” she said, apologetically; then added, “neither have I…” (p. 79)

His profound knowledge of the language and history allows him to draw people out on the depths of local history and lore. He swaps poetry from Crete that he has memorized for funeral orations in the Mani style; carrying these from place to place and starting with one helps to jog the memories of people in other locales, or to help them overcome their reticence about sharing their arts. Leigh Fermor’s enthusiasm was clearly infectious.

His puckishness comes across on the page; at one point adherents of Christian asceticism who chose caves as their retreats from the world are described as practitioners of “speluncar Christianity.” (p. 247) Of activities further north, he writes, “The cloud of Orthodox mystical feeling drifted to Russia; in that snowy world, its fusion with the Slav temperament threw off many curious spiritual phenomena, not least of them Dostoievsky.” (p. 248)

Here is what, perhaps, it was like to be Patrick Leigh Fermor of an evening in a room just above a Greek street:

“The soft murmur of the town was suddenly drowned by the furious jay-like voices of two women below my window, arguing across a narrow lane about something that I couldn’t quite catch. It didn’t matter. The point was the inventive richness of the language, the splendour of the vocabulary, the unstaunchable flow of imagination and invective. I often have the impression, listening to a Greek argument, that I can actually see the words spin from their mouths like the long balloons in comic strips; however debased and colloquial the theme, the noble shapes of the Greek letters, complete with their hard and soft breathings, the flicker of accents with the change of the enclitic and proclitic and the hovering boomerangs of perispomena sail through the air an, if a piece of high flown language or a fragment of the liturgy should be embedded in the demotic flux, which it often is, iota subscripts dangle. Some letters catch the eye more than others: the perverse triple loop of Xi, the twin concavity of Omega, the bisected almond of Theta, Phi like a circle transfixed by a spear, Psi’s curly trident and Gamma’s two-pronged fork. As the argument kindles and voices wax louder, the lettering matriculates from italics to capitals and out like dangerous missiles whizz triangles and T-squares and gibbets and acute angles, pairs of Stonehenge megaliths with lintel stones, and half-open springs. At its climax it is as though these complex shapes were flying from the speaker’s mouth like flung furniture and household goods, from the upper window of a house on fire. Then suddenly the conflagration subsides as abruptly as it started, the dialectic geometry fades from the air and silence ensues; as it did now. The soft murmur of the town took over again, wooing me down into its midst. It was time for a clean shirt and a shave.” (p. 336)

And then off to the next place, in tearing great haste.

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