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Rhea Galanaki. Eleni, or Nobody.

Rhea Galanaki. Eleni, or Nobody. David Connolly, tr. Evanston, Illinois. Northwestern University Press. 2003. 186 pages. $25.95. ISBN 0-8101-1885-8

RHEA GALANAKI's first novel, The Life of Ismail Ferik Pasha (1990), has become a modern Greek classic. Helene, e, Ho kanenas (1998), her fourth, is similar in fictionally expanding historical material but different in concentrating on the problems of women and also in employing narrative techniques common circa 1900--50 in Western Europe. These include a shifting point of view--parts and 3 being in the third person whereas part 2 is in the first--as well as a "time shift" signaled in part a by italic type whenever the heroine's autobiographical narrative reverts to a sort of diary entry presumably composed at a different period in her life.

The protagonist of Eleni, or Nobody, the historical Eleni Altamura-Boukoura, was "the first woman in the new Greek state who had studied and later practiced as a painter." At school in Italy, she dresses part-time as a man so that she might "obtain a diploma and also ... might study a nude model." She renames herself Kanenas (Nobody) at this time in order not to lose "all the privileges provided her by Nobody," although she later realizes that if Nobody "were to win, then I would lose my soul forever." As Eleni, she gives birth to two illegitimate children fathered by an Italian painter who then forces her into a humiliating conversion to Catholicism in order to marry him, after which he abandons her. What all this means, she concludes, is that she loses the privileges of Nobody "through loving in the way of an ordinary Eleni." No wonder, then, that later, back on her native island of Spetses, she "didn't wish to exclude Nobody from [her] life." But she is now a broken woman: a recluse who burns her paintings and is reputedly a witch haunting her ancestral home. She has been leading what she calls woman's "life after life" (ti meta ti zoi zoi); yet she no longer values even her artistic career as much as "the voices and visits of loved ones," which alas she fails to receive.

This sad story of the upper classes of Greece circa 18300-1900, although perhaps not always interesting in its details, is always beautifully written in Greek and always responsibly, accurately, and sensitively translated by that palikari of Greek translation, David Connolly. My only regret is that a footnote system was not added in order to explain "the bullet that ended the life of the governor" (the assassination of Capodistria) or Spetses's Great Lady or Calliroe Parren, or the removal of bones to charnel houses--unobtrusively, even in the text, the way that tous Evdhomikonta is rendered not as "Septuagint" but as "the Greek translation of the Old Testament."

Peter Bien

Dartmouth College
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Author:Bien, Peter
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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