Posted by: chartroose | June 19, 2008

The Daughter

Pavlos Matesis, translated from the Greek 2002, 214 p.

This novel was the first of my self-initiated World Book Day challenge picks, and I’m really glad it was the icebreaker.  The Daughter explores something I know next to nothing about; the Axis occupation and subsequent civil war in Greece during the World War II era.

Quite a while ago, I decided to avoid war novels due to their unerring ability to leave me emotionally shattered for a long time after finishing them.  I resolved that novels about World War II and/or the holocaust are especially damaging to my psyche and should be pushed aside and essentially ignored for the remainder of my life.  Like most of my reading resolutions, this didn’t last too long, because I ended up reading Schindler’s List* and then saw the movie afterwards.  This is one of the few times that I wished I hadn’t read the book before seeing the movie, because I knew what was going to happen during the film and started sniffling almost immediately after the lights went down.  By the end of the movie–when the Schindler families are laying rocks on the graves–I was a sodden, sniveling, weepy mess, and I snuck out of the theater early in order to avoid being seen.  My family was not at all empathetic because they had witnessed a similar incident when I was about eight or nine years old.  After watching a rescreening of the old Robert Donat version of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” I was afflicted by painful, gulping, post-weeping hiccups which lasted almost all the way home from the theater.  Chartroose and war just do not mix.

Thus it was with a little trepidation that I approached The Daughter.  I needn’t have worried, though–while the story is quite sad, it’s not nearly as heart-rending as Schindler’s List, and I was able to make it through with only an occassional sigh or a shudder now and then.  It’s written entirely in first-person, in fact, I remember thinking as I was reading that it is one of the “first-personiest” novels I’ve ever read because both the narrative and the dialogue are conveyed in a kind of off-the-cuff diatribe by the narrator.  There are hardly any quotation marks, but this fits in well with the character of the writing, so it works.

The narrator is an elderly actress named Roubini who relates what happened to her family during the war.  She grew up poor in the Greek countryside, and when the Italians and then the Germans took over in 1941, things quickly fell apart for everyone.  Neither the Germans nor the Italians seemed to care that the Greek people were starving as long as their troops were being fed.  Roubini’s mother (her father had disappeared) had sexual relationships with a couple of Italian soldiers in exchange for food.  It was the only way they could survive, and even then, they were always hungry.  One of the saddest parts of the novel occurs when Roubini’s little brother tries to grab a few potatoes in front of some German soldiers:

“Little Fanis makes a bee-line for the potatoes and picks up all three of them.  Nobody makes a move, then the smiling German with the machine-gun leaps down and smashes the boy’s hand with his rifle butt.  The potatoes tumble to the ground.  Fanis bends down to pick them up and the rifle-butt comes smashing down on his fingers over and over again…His hand was twisted backwards in the direction of his elbow…” (p. 52)

Fanis was crippled for the rest of his life.

After the War is over, members of the community round up all the women they can find who were suspected or real mistresses of Italian and German soldiers.  The women’s heads are shaved, and they are placed in a cart and paraded around town all day in front of jeering, abusive crowds.  Roubini’s mother was shorn and placed in the cart, and she did okay until she noticed Roubini get hit in the eyes with a filthy wet rag while trying to climb aboard the cart to be with her.  Then she falls apart:

“…her mother went berserk and started to scream ‘Get that Dog out of here, get that Dog away from me, get it away…I’m not its mother.” (p138-139)

It was the last time Roubini’s mother ever spoke until a few hours before she died.

↑          ↑          ↑

(A French collaborator is shorn after the liberation)

The entire head-shaving thing makes me very sad for women and ashamed of humankind.  These women shouldn’t have been judged and they shouldn’t have been punished.  They had their reasons for collaborating. 

I appreciate novels like this because they leave me wanting to learn more.  Here are some interesting facts about Greece during World War II:

  • The Greeks are a proud and feisty people and they don’t surrender easily.  The resistance movements (both Communist and Republican) were comprised of about two million members.  The fighters drove the Italians into the mountains and harassed the Germans from all sides.  In 1943, the resistors begin attacking each other (thus the civil war).

↑         ↑

(Greek resistance fighters)

  • The Germans fought the resistance ferociously by killing any men (and often women and children) found in an area of real or suspected sympathizers.  The isle of Crete, where both sides suffered heavy losses, was burned to the ground along with many towns and cities along the west coast.  Groups of Greek citizens from some of these towns were marched into the woods and shot by German soldiers.
  • 100,000 Greeks died of starvation in 1941, and about 7 million Greeks died altogether.  700,000 people were left homeless.  Athens was totally decimated, so lots of refugees were able to move into abandoned houses for free and repopulate the city.
  • Almost all Greek Jews were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz.  Many Greek citizens tried hard to hide and save their Jewish neighbors, but the final count of Jewish survivors was very small.  Only about 14,000 (out of almost 80,000) Greek Jews survived.

I think The Daughter has been adapted into a play entitled Dog’s Mother.  I’d like to see it if it’s ever performed in English.  Mr. Matesis has written quite a few plays, so I’ll bet it’s pretty good.

*The movie adaptation of Schindler’s List is much more moving than the book, so if you haven’t read it yet, don’t bother.




  1. This sounds fascinating, thanks for the great review! By the way, I’m adding you to my google reader – I’d love to keep up with your reviews. 🙂

  2. Fascinating stuff, Char. The photo of the woman getting her head shaved is upsetting, isn’t it? The Greeks are a proud people.

  3. Thank you Heather and Lisa!

  4. GREAT review. and I like hearing that the movie is better than the book. Sometimes, it happens. Rarely, but sometimes…

  5. Thanks, Care! I’m going to have to do a post on movies that are better than the books they were adapted from. Sometime, sometime….

  6. Thanks for this – it was helpful to me, this book is on my Modern Greek syllabus that I will be starting at uni next year, and I’ve just read the book.

    Do you have any views about what the major themes are?

  7. […] via […]

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