Content warning: references to and short descriptions of sexual harassment, sexual violence, xenophobia, homophobic & transphobic abuse.
Made by Sea and Wood, in Darkness, the debut novel by Alexandros Plasatis, weaves together a collage of stories that tell the experience of Egyptian immigrants in Greece through a variety of voices. The stories are primarily set in and around Café Papaya in Kavala, where Pavlo the waiter works nights, acting as both a main character and an observer of the Egyptian fishermen. In snapshots of a male underworld, violence dominates this narrative, as the central female character Angie the barmaid fights against being cast as a victim.
Blending fact and fiction, the book was born from the author’s experiences across four years of observing the people who became the characters in the book. Plasatis has a background in social anthropology. He presents anecdotes without judgement, with the aim of capturing his observations as accurately as possible in the authentic voices of the people involved. But this drive towards accuracy has its costs. At times, the position of the author is unclear, fluctuating between apparent objectivity and observing through Pavlo, whose perspective on events is far from neutral.
Translation issues also create questions around whether Plasatis can really be seen as delivering an accurate account. The stories on which those of the novel are based were originally told to Plasatis in his native language of Greek by Egyptian migrants, for whom Greek is a second language, and then written in Plasatis’ second language of English. When we tell our own life stories they change over time from the original memory in their retelling – this can only be exacerbated across multiple layers of translation.
The focus of the book is on the immigrant experience of Egyptians in Kavala, but in the first chapter this means the male immigrant experience. For example, when we are told a story of sexual harassment perpetrated against Soula, it appears that the only reason it is condemned by the characters is out of her husband Zaramarouq’s possessiveness over his wife. This results in violence between the two men, and Soula is left as the silent victim. By this point, we have already had the protagonist Pavlo objectify women in his descriptions, Zaramararouq call his wife a bitch, and Soula admonish young women for sexual behaviour.
By the second chapter however, we get an active female perspective through the accommodating barmaid Angie, adding further dimension to her character. She initially turns down drinks from a man, but then decides to join him, her laughter a defence mechanism against discomfort. It’s not clear why she comes back to join the stranger, referred to only as “the guy”, who makes hostile, racialised remarks about migrants. Angie doesn’t bat an eye at the man’s questionable behaviour, even when he is dismissive of her political ideas. She states that “my locals” are the ones that make her uncomfortable, even though the lone man appears more threatening than any of the others. As “the guy” becomes more aggressive, saying “all foreigners must go away” and raising his middle finger at Egyptians in the bar, the female character is decentred once again. The story centres instead on male violence, with the woman’s role being to act as a mediator, taking on the emotional labour in this underworld dominated by men.
The novel’s anecdotes frequently highlight the ways in which all patriarchal societies embed casual violence towards people of marginalised genders in everyday language. They also show how disinterested the ruling authorities are in preventing this violence, and how they actively participate in it – as Pavlo is told at one point, ‘The pimp is the police’. Elsewhere, a perpetrator of violence and death threats towards women is released from prison just by making a phone call, because he’s ‘a nice lad really’.
Violence is not just alluded to, however – it is often described in intensive detail. We jump from one disturbing story to the next, at a pace that can be disorienting. In many of these stories, women are the victims. Angie recalls being sexually abused by her parents at a young age. A young girl has sex with a man known as ‘The Blond Egyptian’ who deals with her purely as an object, disregarding her needs and emotions. This victimhood is as present in women’s fantasies as in their realities – Angie describes a rape fantasy in which she surrenders to a group of attackers before being rescued by her ‘Prince Charming’, One-Arm Mohammed.
It’s not only women who are the victims, however. Most of the violence depicted is inflicted on men by men. The role of the immigrant in Kavala is to learn a language of violence simply to survive. There are also repeated instances of homophobic and transphobic abuse. Transphobic slurs are frequent and treated as inconsequential by the characters. The threat of rape is used as a tool of control over men, employed to silence the boy on his way to university. The character Tolis is on the receiving end of extensive homophobic mockery, although he stands strong and turns his abusers’ language against them, saying ‘They turned my arsehole into a blooming carnation’ with a sense of pride.
Consent is a consistent theme. In one particularly unusual scene a currant-bun becomes a symbol of consent. Pavlo questions a baker, saying ‘What, you’ll make me eat it against my will?’ This then takes a strange turn as the baker talks about paedophilia. It’s at moments like this that I wonder what the point is in detailing these accounts. At times the novel reads like a checklist of upsetting and uncomfortable topics. In Plasatis’ attempt at capturing authenticity, the pace sometimes feels so fast that it is difficult to decipher a central thread of purpose. A deeper exploration of the inner workings of the characters would give these difficult moments more meaning – without it, there is a danger that these scenes come across as gratuitous, and I’m left wondering whether I’m missing something.
Perhaps what is so horrifying about these accounts is their honesty. I often found them revealing – as a woman, I’m not always privy to the kind of interactions between men which Plasatis depicts. And the accounts of casualised abuse of women reflect how endemic misogyny is under patriarchy. Pavlo is no exception to this, asking for a hand-job whilst calling an unnamed girl a whore and a slut despite her explicitly stating, ‘I didn’t like that’. While often brutal to read, the details of this everyday abuse will be relatable to many.
Despite its struggles with the complexity of dealing with such disturbing accounts, the main strength that runs through this book is Plasatis’ unique style and humour, from the passing of time drinking wine to surreal scenes of taking a woman’s handbag at knifepoint to put it in a microwave. It’s easily digestible and the unexpectedness and surreality makes it intriguing. Angie’s presence is also important in offering a contrast to the men who dominate its pages. Despite her history of abuse, she remains defiantly confident – we are told, ‘She knew herself how beautiful she was, and her knowledge elevated her beauty.’ Plasatis’ use of symbolism is often rich and affecting, as when he writes about Angie’s brown eyes and men with brown eyes: ‘Men with brown eyes are reassuring out at sea: it’s the colour of soil, it’s where you want to go back to when things get messy.’ It is in these moments of poignant characterisation and symbolism that the book is strongest.
As I read and reflected on Made by Sea and Wood, in Darkness, I kept coming back to Plasatis’ intention of capturing accurate observations, and how that will affect how the novel is read and interpreted. I am wary of what kind of impact these stories could have on the views of immigrants, and Muslims, who are so often discriminated against in the English-speaking West. However, the final chapter depicting a voyage, brings a sense of calm after all the chaos. Yet another nicknamed character, Up-Yours, talks about identity and being at sea, explaining, ‘When I’m here… I’m not Egyptian, I’m not Muslim, I am myself and nothing more.’ In a poignant moment, the novel’s ending centres on Angie, with the sea harbour offering a sense of peace.
Made by Sea and Wood, In Darkness, by Alexandros Plasatis, is published by Spuyten Duyvil Publishing.
Featured image credit: Spuyten Duyvil Publishing
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