The first five chapters from Vangelis Raptopoulos’ novel The Great Sand
Translated by Sidney J. Kornberg
Some time would pass before I’d figure out that Great Sand was not just the name of that small Aegean island where I last spent the carnival holiday with Amalia – nor was it Greece, that unending chain of sandy beaches, as I had once pictured it in my mind. It was the sand-dust from ancient marble, the shifting sands of a very long drawn-out historical continuity – somewhat akin to one’s homeland on the verge of becoming dust. No, Great Sand was, and is, ultimately everything – yet simultaneously nothing at all.
It’s love, after all, first and foremost love, that looms over this writing, in its numerous disguises, one hidden inside the other, like Russian matroyshka nesting dolls – love between me and Amalia, between her and Diamanti, between him and Dora, or between Gabriel and Rita, the judge’s wife. Love – and the flip side of the coin, death – are the shifting sands that make up our petty lives, and when you are caught up in its talons, you get stung, fortunately, and there’s no getting off lightly.
But the greater Great Sand is certainly that of trickling time, of life trickling through our fingers like sand on the beach – sand of an eternal chronometer – hourglass sand.
Nonetheless, the day Amalia and I arrived on the island, I was still completely blinded, lost in the fog of that past Saturday in March.
As I was moving on past my 37th birthday, I had already published thirteen children’s books, plus three more for teenagers; and Amalia and I were living together for about seven years. The magical numbers suggested a give and take in my life, but the magic had taken wing. Unless of course it was black magic. For it was truly one of my blackest periods: things were not going well for me and Amalia, and we had come to the island precisely to see if our wilting relationship could bloom. My surroundings had become ever more boring and dead end, and I suspected that I was having a premature mid-life crisis. Included in everything that I had invested in this trip was the anticipation of finding a subject for the great novel – for adults of course – that I would write – this nagging stab wound inside me was likely to develop into gangrene. I was so uneasy when we set out, that the ship, maybe even the island itself, could well sink into the deep.
By just our second evening on Great Sand Isle, I believed that I had at least found the subject I was looking for. In fact I reached the point where in the event that I decided to use murder as raw material for my story, I could consider myself actually lucky that we became eyewitnesses to murder that Sunday. And although I didn’t miss the mark by much (my book would indeed center on everything that transpired on the island), I ignored everything else. How was I to know that my relationship with Amalia would effectively end during these carnival days, and that in reality we hadn’t come to the island to recapture our love, but rather to dissolve it? And furthermore, how could I have imagined that the deceased’s son, Diamandi, and his girlfriend Dora – two friends we were going to meet during our stay there – would become entangled in our lives to a degree that would in the process ultimately alter them?
We concoct plans continually in our lives, struggling in vain to lay out the future before us. Or we try to discover how we came this far in our journey – judging which circumstances we chose willingly, and those that were imposed upon us. We argue, we love, we betray, or act kindly towards each other, in a tenacious attempt to forget that we are walking straight on to our death – to forget that none of us knows what the dawn has in store for us, and that we’re moving forward blindly.
2. Litsa Boukalitsa
Amalia and I have been together since the days they called her Amalitsa (Litsa, for short) – in other words, since childhood; it so happens that we’re distant cousins, fourth cousins to be precise, on my mother’s side. But that doesn’t really mean very much. What matters is that we grew up together. During the early years, we lived rather close to each other…my family in Kypseli, and hers in Gizi, while we spent summers in Schinias in adjacent summer cottages. Our parents were close friends, as were Amalia and I, quite natural when you consider that she was an only child, just like me. My father hailed from Asia Minor, her father from Egypt. Our mothers, on the other hand, owed their lineage to Paros Island, but as far as I know, they don’t have property or family remaining there,. Their families passed through Evia Island at some point and then scattered to both the north and south sides of the island. We had relatives from Karystos and Chalkida all the way to Aedipsos, but relations among the families were not very close.
When we were youngsters, we were convinced that we would inevitably marry when we came of age, or maybe we simply preordained ourselves to each other. This was a running joke in our families, at least up until we passed our adolescence (Amalia is one and a half years younger than I am) when we became intimate. We didn’t want to give lie to their expectations. That initial stage of our relationship didn’t even last two years, but we managed in that short time to swear our undying love to each other, and when we separated, I recall that it was with the feeling that we would explore the world separately for a short time, knock around in other relationships, and ultimately return to our “foreordained destiny.” That actually happened after she completed her studies in Art History in England.
Our foreordained destiny.
As I mentioned before, we faced two major consequences. First, when we decided finally to move in together, during the period in which I had turned 30, we declared to one and all that we didn’t intend to get married. Never. There were already plenty of bonds that united us, blood bonds as well as habit, the most important of which, however, was the paranoiac feeling that we were meant for each other, that we shared the sense of our “foreordained destiny” that I spoke of previously. The sense that no matter what happened, no matter what might befall us, we would never separate. Never ever! The sense of a lifetime commitment. The latter consequence of this weird tale of our relationship turned in time into my obsession and reached the point of becoming the be-all and end–all of my involvement with Amalia.
Greece, I would say to myself, Modern Greece, that is, represents nation-religion-family. And because the first two are almost a given – or perhaps excessively abstract – what’s left is family, the elementary social unit, with nation and religion writ small. All right, then, the two of us were classic examples of the highest order. Our relationship was a by-product of the family, and that’s what our commitment was really all about. The family was simultaneously our guardian angel and great oppressor, our blessing and curse. We were representative of the species – modern Greeks in every sense of the word.
During this period, thereabouts, I started consciously using the family institution in my writing. Of the thirteen children’s books I had published up to now, nine of them made up a series whose heroine was the bright and charming six-year-old Litsa Boukalitsa. Litsa, who could have easily been Amalia’s twin sister, or even Amalia herself, would become entangled in a different adventure each time, and four of those adventures had to do with family. The titles of the stories reflected this: Litsa Boukalitsa and her Zany Family; Litsa Boukalitsa and the Squirrel Family, and the like. Need I mention that the four books in which Litsa Boukalitsa was co-protagonist with a family were my most successful efforts?
And so arriving on Great Sand Isle with Amalia on that Saturday in March, I had in mind that my repressed desire to write a novel for adults would definitely have to be one that involved a family or several families. And since Greece and family share a common identity, a Modern Greek novel shares that same identity. And you could truly say I hit the bull’s eye. The story of the murder would bring to the surface relationships – and what else but families. Thus I was covered as far as the novel’s basic plot goes. I had an island, the perfect emblematic setting of this sea-drenched country.
Was anything missing? No, I had it all. On a silver platter, to boot. And then (it must have been the last day, when we were returning to Athens) I recall thinking that Great Sand Isle wasn’t the only thing I had written about at the outset… rather it was mainly about family.
Our guardian angel and great oppressor, indeed. The institution of the family was that terrifying safety net, the cause of the crisis between us. Because, on the way to Great Sand, we felt weary, washed-out after living together for about seven years, exhausted, half-sunk in a morass of ennui and tedium from which we didn’t know how to extricate ourselves. I considered the institution of the family responsible for this situation, an institution that had not only given birth to our relationship, but one likely to alter that relationship as well. I would resist, but would my resistance serve only to deepen the crisis? Amalia told me that she was in agreement with me, that she didn’t want a child. But everyone else was pressuring us, and I had a well-grounded suspicion that Amalia had changed recently… she was merely continuing to tell me what I wanted to hear.
Would we have a child? Would we marry? Would we raise a conventional and true family? That was the question at hand. Amalia wasn’t any longer the same person. Once she reached 35, a major change had taken place within her. In the past she had been a fanatic champion of the free and easy bohemian lifestyle we had enjoyed up to now. She would take money from her father; from her uncle Dino, a lawyer who moreover had opted for an opulent wedding (Aunt Ersi was well-to-do); supplement her income with pocket money earned giving private English lessons to the offspring of well-off families. And she snapped pictures incessantly, that being her hobby and passion. She devoted the rest of her time to me, to the talented writer of children’s – and adolescents’ – books – to the writer whose dream was to write books for adults.
It was Amalia’s suggestion about fifteen days ago that we take the trip to Great Sand, and I remember hesitating initially. On Saturday, the day we set out for the island, I was on the verge of jumping overboard and swimming back to shore. That’s how strong was this urge, this mood of despair that had held me in its grip. I felt trapped, like a ship’s prisoner, and I believed that this feeling would be ten times more powerful once we disembarked on Great Sand. However, I finally managed somehow to restrain myself. The truth is I found myself in desperate straits and I had agreed to the trip to gain some time, solely for the purpose of giving our relationship one more chance. Not just our relationship in truth, but to give myself, my work, and everything else, a chance.
We put up at the home of Mrs. Falia, where we had found a room the summer before last, on our first trip to the island. And on the following evening, that fateful Carnival Sunday, we were eating at a taverna behind the temple of St. Minas, where revelry was in full swing. The taverna, named “The Little Lamb” specialized in grilled steaks and chops, and I swear that the name had seemed to me to be a bit ironic when I first read it. We had settled in, there at a table, while the locals at nearby tables were dancing and living it up, just before the fight broke out that would lead to murder later that evening.
Now, after the passage of so much time, I can still loosely recall every event that intervened from the time of our arrival up through that Sunday evening. I remember Mrs. Falia showing us to our room (the same one we had stayed in two years ago), and then, that Saturday late afternoon when we made an honorable attempt to rekindle the fire in bed. During the week we spent making love on the island, buried beneath the surface of pleasure was a quiet desperation mixed with relief. It was as if we had said to each other: Thank God, in spite of all the problems, we can still do it…so I guess there’s still hope for us! I remember specifically our early Sunday morning walks – we had reached Metallia – and abruptly, the film in my mind’s projector skips ahead, and we’re suddenly joining in the fun inside the taverna, shortly before the murder.
3. The request
Removing my glasses for a good cleaning, I could barely make out the musicians in the ensuing blur. Amalia was eating quietly next to me, and the spare ribs, rubbing snugly up against the traditional Greek salad, the French fried potatoes, and the little glasses of red wine. I wiped the lenses with a table napkin and put my glasses back on.
The taverna was a typical “meats and chops” establishment, one specializing in charcoal grilled meat and chicken dishes. A large walk-in refrigerator stood off to the side, and the tables and chairs occupied the center of the establishment. In back of the refrigerator was the chopping block where they cut the meat, as well as the meat hooks where they hung the skinned lambs. Next to the refrigerator they had constructed a make-shift stage, on which the musicians would perform; and in front of the stage, a small space was provided for those diners wanting to dance.
Amalia looked absent-mindedly at the empty bottle, and I asked her if she wanted some more wine. She nodded her head slowly without answering. She was already feeling the wine’s effect. I caught the waiter’s eye and motioned to him to bring some more. He disappeared into the kitchen momentarily, and then reappeared with a half-liter carafe. He approached our table, poured the contents into the larger decanter, and then recorded the transaction on his order tablet. I filled our glasses, we clinked a toast, and Amalia mustered a smile as the glass reached her lips. We drank our wine – sweet and brain-numbing – in one gulp. I watched her as she winced, twisted her mouth, and shut her eyes.
It’s almost as if we’re actors in a movie. Carnival season on the island, without masks or streamers; crowds on the dance floor, participating in traditional Greek group dances in a circle. One lad with short curly hair blond hair leaps forward dragging the ring of dancers along with him. He’s wearing a black suit, dark tie and white shirt with ruffled embroidery in white stitches in front. And while sharing the handkerchief in his left hand with his second in line, his free right arm flails high and low – high towards the ceiling as the dance calls for a high jump, and low towards the floor, as the dance alternately requires him to get down on his one knee. From time to time, without letting go of the handkerchief that ties him figuratively to the rest of the dancers in the ring, he does a couple of quick turns in place under the handkerchief on the ball of one foot. And as I see the kerchief become taut between himself and the girl dancing next to him, I have this image of a small animal being held by the legs by one person, by the head by another person, and each trying to strangle the animal. The blond’s face is now bright red, and thick beads of perspiration glaze upon him. He closes his eyes while performing the intricate figures, and his lips shut tightly.
I filled our glasses again. “Happy landings!” I pronounced, as we clinked our glasses high in the air with some force, spilling some of the wine in the process. The remainder we downed again in one fell swoop. I set my glass down and looked straight into Amalia’s eyes, and found my hand reaching for hers.
When the music stopped, the crowd broke up and headed towards their tables, and the blond lad came over to the bandstand. He took two coins out of his pocket and tossed them onto the stage, and they landed between the musicians’ legs. Then he leaned over to the violinist and whistled up his request. As he started to make his way back unhurriedly, a swarthy fellow with long sideburns (they curled downward from his ears like fishhooks, and made him look English) got up from the table opposite us and ambled toward the dance floor. The two met there, right in the middle of everything, some words were exchanged between them, and a skirmish ensued. The blond started to laugh, and suddenly the darker of the two men raised his right hand and whacked the other. The musicians were rooted to the spot.
The blond tripped backwards as his eyes closed, and several diners from the nearby tables jumped into the fray shouting out their various reactions to the scuffle. They encircled the two antagonists and tried to shield the one from the other. One distinct voice however, could be overheard amid all the uproar, that of the blond, shrieking “You’re gonna pay for this, Manuso! You’re gonna pay for this!” As he regained his footing, he struggled desperately to push aside those attempting to block his way.
Up until we ourselves could get close enough to mix it up with the crowd at the center of the action, many tables had already emptied and the musicians stood on the stage with their instruments in hand, waiting to see how this ruckus would end. I asked someone who was pushing up against me if he knew what had happened. “Beats me,” he said. “They were arguing. I only saw what you saw.”
The blond was struggling to release himself from the grip of those holding him down, and he screamed, gasping hysterically, “Let me go, dammit, let me go!” Finally, he stepped back and staggered drunkenly towards the door leading out into the street. Some of the patrons shouted out to him to come back, and he responded with a threatening gesture and a repetition of his threat, “You’re gonna pay for this!” He then left, slamming the door behind him with force.
The patrons finally dispersed, muttering on their way back to their tables, while the musicians reset their chairs, picked up their instruments and began to play, totally devoid of spirit, a rhythmic syrto, in front of the empty dance floor.
Amalia switched on her camera just as we sat down, and began fiddling with the buttons. “Too bad,” she said, “that I put in slide film in the camera. I would’ve taken their picture. Now I have to finish off this roll first.
“You could’ve just taken them with the slide film,” I remarked. “What’s the big deal?”
I lit a cigarette and took a long drag. I followed the bright red ash glowing at the end of the cigarette. Then I looked up and saw Amalia. I liked her forgetfulness, her playing with the various buttons on the camera – monkeying with the shutter, the light meter, the focus adjustment – she leaned over lightly and remained motionless in that position, like an old photograph that you look at over and over again, reliving the era it represents.
4. Newspaper clipping
Man shot with a hunting rifle
UGLY CRIME SCENE ON ISLAND
An atrocious murder was committed last night, in the capital town of the Cycladic island of Great Sand, at approximately 11 p.m., outside of The Little Lamb, a grill restaurant, when George S, nicknamed “Gabriel,” age 31, single, shot at point-blank range Christopher D. a farmer, age 45, father of three, mortally wounding him.
According to the police report, the perpetrator, said to have been in high spirits at the taverna, had an altercation with Manuso K., a building custodian, age 42, about inconsequential matters, and the two came to blows. Following the scuffle and apparently because of the beating he had endured, the perpetrator left the taverna threatening Manuso K., and returned about an hour later armed with a hunting rifle that he had legally owned for three years. Outside the eatery, the perpetrator chanced upon Christopher D, who was just leaving the taverna, and shot him without the slightest provocation in the chest at point-blank range, killing him. The perpetrator, attempting to flee, managed to avoid being arrested, while hiding out in the neighboring mountains. Eyewitnesses reported seeing “Gabriel” earlier in the evening consume a large quantity of alcoholic drinks, and confirming that he was under the influence at the time of the murder.
In conjunction with the investigation, the police conducted an extensive search of the area in an attempt to find the perpetrator.
5. The dead man
The slide projector makes a crackling noise as the images on the screen alternate like a rifle firing in automatic mode. As each slide moves past the lens, the projector dumps its empty luminescent wad upon the opposite wall. I can hear the clatter as I’m sitting at my desk in my den. I stop momentarily and hit the computer key, and the sounds emanate clearly from the living room. I can’t concentrate. Walking over to the window, I see a section of the road below full of parked cars, people gathered on the sidewalk, a general hustle and bustle. From my high perch on the fourth floor, the cars and the people look rather funny. It’s when they’re up close that they’re scary.
I leave my den and walk into the living room. Amalia is sitting on the couch looking at the opposite wall. The room is dark as she has the blinds pulled down. She’s operating the projector with a remote control. A scrawny windmill, practically a ruin, shimmers on the screen. Only wood and rope appear to stick out of the structure. I forget the murmur of the city as I become lost in the images on the screen. Clack! Now a limy church dome, with a cross on top. Clack! One of the church entrance’s tall double doors is closed and can be clearly distinguished; the other is half open, shimmers in the dark, and the interior of the church can be made out.
“Want to see it?” Amalia asks, turning toward me, and I nod affirmatively.
Amalia has returned. Only a few days have gone by, but it feels like centuries. She said she’s split up with Diamantis. And since it’s now mid-November, we’re talking about three and a half months since she left. As for that Saturday afternoon in March, lost in the fog of the past when we set foot on the island together, on Great Sand Isle, when Amalia snapped the slides she was showing me now – it’s been almost eight months since then, if counting the months is in fact of any real importance.
The question begs for an answer: is this the novel that I was planning to write? The Great Sand, as I was planning to call it. Maybe yes, maybe no. I started to write it so as to prevent my going crazy, so as not to cry or scream. In order to endure my living together with Amalia, and the loneliness I feel when we’re together, the hollow, steady, dizzying, stony, surreal, abominable, monstrous feeling of abnormality that had replaced our former relationship. And my book is surely just an excuse, a pretext. Perhaps it’s just because it’s a first writing of this kind, a first draft that I’ll work on over and over again – later, who knows. I decided in any event to copy into my computer files my notes that I had kept for eight months in my black notebook. Come what may!
I hadn’t really yet decided on a title. The Great Sand or The great sand ? If I capitalized the title, it would mean the island literally. If I used lower case letters, there would be a deeper meaning. But perhaps other meanings would be overlooked by using capital letters? And if so, which? All those that I briefly mentioned previously. And over and above everything else – family, the great oppressor and obsession that sucks you in and swallows you whole, digests you, and turns you into you a microscopic grain of sand. This obsession that prevails in Greece (don’t forget the omnipotent triptych of nation-religion-family).
Yes, since August up to today, these three and a half months of my separation with Amalia, the period in which she had a relationship with the dead man’s son, Diamantis, I was striving to be patient, to find ways to pass the hours, to endure my loneliness and jealousy. And not least, to overcome the most unbearable of all the demons tormenting me – myself. Nevertheless, I knew that Amalia would come back sooner or later. Not that something remotely similar to this had ever occurred before, but for a billion reasons it would take a lifetime to explain, I was certain she’d return. Because our relationship endures along blood lines, because of our lifetime commitment, of our “foreordained destiny.”
And truly I’m writing here now so I won’t cry or scream out. I’m writing so I can let go, to get it all out of my system. I know it’s not the best way, or maybe even not the proper way for that matter, but it’s the only way I know how. And my pretext, my rationalization – call it what you will – is The Great Sand, my novel, for adults this time around. If I ever write it, that is. I repeat that the material that follows comes from a notebook in which I kept notes about eight months ago. And it’s self-understood that I’m already working on these notes casually, copying them into my computer files.
Regarding the part that mentions the present, as to how I feel about Amalia at this very moment, and what’s going to happen to us, if I were to give it a title, I would select the title of that novel by Philip Dick, which sounded something like I don’t have a mouth, and I want to scream. That’s how I feel right now, that’s why I’m writing. Quod erat demonstrandum.
The automatic rifle reloads. Clack! Clack! Images of buildings slide by on the wall in rapid succession. Suddenly they stop and the luminescent wad hurls itself onto the wall and freezes. It’s the slide of a scene taken at night giving off the effect of a blue-filtered hazy moonlight. I settle in on the couch and watch.
Island courtyard paving stones. In the centre of the picture is a man lying on the ground in a black suit and white shirt. He’s wearing a patterned tie, rather old-fashioned. His black hair is cropped short, and is sporting a short moustache, trimmed at the edges. His sideburns are also trimmed close, just a bit above the middle of the ears. His eyes are half open and are looking up towards the sky which is not visible. His mouth is wide open, like he has difficulty breathing. His entire face has a somewhat stupid expression, one of despair, as if he wants to say something that he feels he should, but can’t.
His hands are outstretched on the ground with his palms turned upwards. His legs are almost straight almost, as if he were lying down, neatly and handsomely. Only his right leg is slightly bent and his trousers have bunched up at the knee, and tip up a bit, such that his black sock clearly shows under the trouser leg. The one shoe sags to right side on top of the paving stones, while the other shoe’s heel touches the ground and points straight up.
In the corners and off to the edges of the image, a few shoes can be seen – men’s and women’s – of those persons that had assembled there when the picture was taken.
A dark red stream begins from the left side and crosses diagonally to the paving stones. It begins in a narrow flow, and widens as it flows down to the lower right corner of the slide. Here and there it forms various offshoots, while further down the trails break away from the original stem to head in their own direction. In between the offshoots, there are spots on the paving stones where they haven’t gotten wet, like little islets that the stream circumnavigates.
The source of the stream is at the man’s chest, at a small pit in his jacket, right there where he was shot. And yet, although the blood has stained the paving stones and created a channel, it doesn’t appear at all on the black jacket. Like it emanated from the back or from elsewhere. Only if you get close to the wall, and look closely, can you make out the pits on the left side of the chest, at the place where he took the shots. But not blood. It looks like the blood gushed out and drenched the black jacket, trickled off to the side and rolled on to the paving stones. Moreover, his shirt, his trousers and tie are unsoiled and unwrinkled.
From a distance, just the look, the vacant stare of a blind man, troubles you. He’s looking somewhere upwards, to a non-existent sky, and as the slide is projected horizontally onto the wall, the dead man looks like he’s standing upright and almost alive.
And then there’s that soft blue haze, that hazy moonlight that shines everywhere and gives off a different mood. Clack! The double-barreled shotgun, the automatic rifle reloads. The luminescent wad, like a bunch of bird shot, is once again leveled at the screen.
Somewhere I’ve read that the devil is in the details. I agree wholeheartedly. That applies exactly to Amalia’s slides from Great Sand Isle. As for the deceased, I too am dead at this moment, metaphorically. How can I stand it, especially now that she’s returned? Now that, in one sense, she’s much more difficult than she was when she left. I have no mouth, and I want to scream. What shall I do? What can I do? How can I fight back? How can I face this?
Write. Shut up and write!