The Memory of Tides
A tale of wartime love between a Cretan girl and an Australian soldier is as unpredictable as it is apt, writes Liam Davison
September 23, 2006
The Memory of Tides
By Angelo Loukakis
Fourth Estate, 393pp, $32.99
AUSTRALIA'S involvement in the Battle of Crete during World War II ranks as one of the most enduring stories of courage in the face of defeat. In 1941, the ill-fated Allied expedition to defend Greece was driven from the mainland to the island of Crete, where the German Luftwaffe mounted the largest airborne invasion in history. The occupation had disastrous consequences for the Cretan people, despite their fierce resistance. Thousands of Allied troops were evacuated. Many, including Australians, missed the evacuation and those who were not taken prisoner owed their lives to the heroic support of the Cretan resistance movement.
As far as war stories go, this one has it all: exotic location; mythic potential; a battle of epic proportions; secrecy and subterfuge; unspeakable acts of atrocity; and the unquestioning kindness of strangers that forges bonds that will outlast the war. Introduce a lone Australian soldier and a beautiful Cretan girl and we should all know the rest.
But Angelo Loukakis, whose parents came to Australia from Crete and whose mother endured the years of German occupation, is not solely interested in recounting a romantic wartime yarn. He follows the changing fortunes of Vic Stockton, a stranded Australian soldier, and Kalliope Venakis, a young member of the Cretan resistance, through the horrors of war and across the ensuing 50 years. Their separate but intersecting paths are in equal parts predictable and satisfyingly surprising.
Loukakis offers the novel as a tribute to those who suffered through the war and took risks to protect Australian soldiers from the Germans. It's also an examination of the bonds formed in war between two seemingly different people and how they can resonate through a lifetime.
Vic is a likable, sandy-haired larrikin. A veteran of North African and Greek mainland battles, he's the sort of bloke who calls his mates "cobber" and stands by them in times of adversity with ironic good humour. He can fashion a pillow from the butt of his rifle and repair a boat with scraps of wood. If there's something of the caricature about him, he's also recognisable as a particular breed of Australian that is a componential part of our culture.
Kalliope is a young and beautiful Cretan girl. Her burgeoning political awareness has its origins in her pre-war relationship with teenage sweetheart Andreas, who has since departed for Australia in search of a better life in exile. Constrained by family and village traditions but longing for a richer life, Kalliope vows to fight the German occupation and secretly joins the resistance. Her first assignment is to supply food to the Australian soldier concealed on the outskirts of the village in an abandoned shepherd's hut. There, over food and secret meetings, a tentative relationship develops.
Much of the wartime narrative unfolds as a conventional story of endurance against the odds with stock characters acting to type. The Germans are suitably monstrous and brutal, "agents of Satan", motoring into the village "like so many tidy demons on steel and rubber wheels" to commit acts of stupefying atrocity. The local villagers are well-meaning but bumbling and seemingly ineffectual despite their brave show of resistance. A call to arms collapses into farce. There is a requisite madwoman and a monastery full of monks. The Italians, installed by the occupying forces, are lazy and disorganised with carnal desires.
Bad things happen but scenes of high drama and action are balanced with moments of humour and a historical back story that provides a potted account of Cretan politics and history. It all moves at a cracking pace, with the relationship between Vic and Kalliope unfolding with a sort of innocent inevitability that is tinged by an awareness of promises made by Kalliope to join Andreas in Australia.
While certain expectations are set up early in the novel, Loukakis knows better than to deliver too readily on them. The post-war sections of the novel trace the lives of Vic and Kalliope in Australia but resist the potential for easy romantic drama. Both lives take unexpected turns as Loukakis explores the social and political trends of Australian post-war development. Hard times lead to boom times. A wave of European migration brings old tensions to the surface that in turn are complicated by the paranoia and suspicion of the Cold War.
A lot happens quickly. The 1960s and '70s unfold and, before we know it, Australia has changed almost beyond recognition. Loukakis is good with social history and telling detail: the spread of suburban housing developments and council swimming pools; trends in music and theatre; the arrival of the bean bag. But he paints predominantly with a broad brush and relies on summary to the extent that his characters often operate primarily as reflections of social trends.
The legacy of war is never far from the surface. It manifests itself through traumatic memories that can't be shared and a general restlessness and dissatisfaction arising from something deep-seated in need of resolution. It's a legacy with which a generation of men and women have lived and Loukakis gives voice to it here, revealing how the legacy is passed on to the next generation, often with disturbing consequences.
Early in the novel, Vic ponders on what makes a person one nationality or another. "Possibly it was just luck where you were born, but people turned out different from one place to another, didn't they? He wondered what it was that had made him who he was."
By the end, the question resonates equally for Kalliope as it does for Vic. Both are shaped by Australia and Crete, yet neither is the same place they knew in 1941. The question is not only what shaped them but where they now belong. Is it possible to be in exile at home? Appropriately, given the scope of the novel, it's a question that extends beyond the particular circumstances of these two characters.
Liam Davison is a prize-winning novelist.