rev. of When the Tree Sings by Stratis Haviarisby
Like the ideally instructed poet, some novelists try to make the ordinary appear extraordinary; others try to make the extraordinary appear ordinary. It seems to me that Stratis Haviaras has, in this short novel, done both at once, an achievement so dazzling it defies the reader to analyze just what is going on.
The main element of the ordinary in this book is a boy's emotional, intellectual and physical growth. Even if we recognize by a clue here and there that this boy Teo -- named only once in the entire novel -- is special, gifted with a magical imagination, we are also aware that all children possess this gift in some measure. The extraordinary is the presence of an enemy force in Teo's small village and the terror it produces. These two elements fuse in an exchange so complete that readers must draw their own inferences as to which, the ordinary or the other, has been the more powerful force in the creation of this semi-autobiographical work or if, in fact, the blend is as balanced as that of an archetypal myth.
What is more shattering than loss of innocence? And if this loss occurs in the very center, the eye of a war, a child is obliged to learn there is no great gap between good and evil, there is only misery.
"We can be as brutal as the enemy," said Grandmother shaking her head.
"Then how come we don't kill fifty enemy soldiers when they kill one of us?"
"Our kill has quality," she said.
Episodic in form, the narrative of
When the Tree Sings parallels the sort of attention-span a small boy would have, whose worlds -- both imaginative and real -- are constantly interrupted by the unspeakable: his father killed in front of his eyes, his mother mysteriously gone, his house burned to the ground, a close-up view of torture and murder. The plot does not proceed in the conventional sense but rather builds outwards from a central vision, more or less like the mosaic Teo constructs, a portrait of Angelica, the girl he loves and sees as a mermaid. "I used sparkling white pebbles for the upper part of her body and marbled silvery ones for her tail, black pebbles for her eyebrows and lashes, and for hair waving in the wind." The pieces of this novel fit together in a complete human picture that contains death, beauty and the entire range of "pebbles" in between.
That Haviaras can convince us Teo can sustain "ordinary" emotions like love in the face of the grotesque events taking place around him is tribute to his artistry, part of which, I'm convinced, has to do with his handling of horror.
Horror is probably the most difficult emotion to render in fiction. Its handling can go all the way from bloody shrieking -- leaving the reader virtually untouched -- to a delicate sigh that makes the reader bleed along with the fictional victim. Hemingway, for example, managed horror supremely well in
A Farewell to Arms. What is required of the writer is control -- not only over his or her material but -- more importantly -- over him or herself. Often, this is a matter of what to leave out; the flatter the prose, the more devastating the impact. The following is a passage from Frank Conroy's
Stop Time; he describes a visit to his dying father. "With great effort he asked me if I believed in universal military training. Too young even to know what it was, I took a gamble and said yes. . . . A few weeks later he died. He was six feet tall and at the end he weighed eighty-five pounds." Conroy's language couldn't be more simple or direct, the naked emotion rushes through it at us. Here is the death of Teo's father in
When The Tree Sings. (The tree, incidentally, sings only when someone dies.) "I saw my father fall back into the water, the circles around him widening black and red. What had happened? The soldiers ejected the empty cartridges from their weapons. What is this I shouted but there was no sound coming from my mouth . . . I panicked, I stood up and began to walk backwards away from him. `Don't leave me yet,' he said, covering his eyes." As in the Conroy passage, a charged experience is rendered in a spare, distilled prose; much is left for the reader to supply, an act willingly performed.
Horror weaves through this book like a beautiful but poisonous snake in the house. (If there is one danger in this novel, it is that Haviaras transforms horror into images so "poetic" that it can be read as a form of beauty and thus, seductive.) Horror is always there, in the torture of prisoners whose screams are baffled by the motorcycle the enemy keeps and accelerates while they go about their business; and in the hunger, "the sweet and burning sensation . . . between my throat and stomach. . . ." An implicit analogue to Teo's father's death is the electrocution of a mouse, a scene that stands for the mindless brutality of the enemy. The animal has been put in an ingeniously wired cage. "The mouse balanced itself on a single wire, panting. The guard and the mechanic were laughing. The mouse looked comical all right, but gradually I had begun to understand what its funny jumps and squeals meant . . . Once in a while I could smell burning fur and skin, and twice the mouse
was knocked out and lay still . . . The mechanic dumped the mouse quickly into the trash can with disgust, before it began to roast."
The words "Greece" and "German" are never set down in this novel; but we know them for what they are. By skipping these particulars, Haviaras makes the experience universal. And by concentrating on the particular in almost every other instance, he grounds his story in a reality, which, if it does not exactly match our own, we can recognize psychically. Teo's grandmother is a familiar sibyl-like figure, answering questions and nurturing. Lekas the informer is the man everyone fears and despises. Teo's friends, Philippos and Flisvos, are the companions of everyone's insatiably curious childhood. Uncle Iasson, in love with Lekas' redhaired mistress, is desire. "All day long," he tells Teo, "She washes and perfumes her body or combs her long hair in front of the mirror, waiting for Lekas. She probably despises him too."
While horror plays a grand role in
When the Tree Sings so do the urgency of love and growth. Teo is wildly curious; it is his questions which in large part keep the narrative moving. He is always asking. "Grandma, why do your knees bleed when you kneel?" "How do you recognize a spy?" "Were there real trees and water then, Grandfather?" Neither the presence of the enemy in the town nor the awareness that for the life of the townspeople life, and so time, has in effect stopped, can stunt Teo's spiritual and imaginative growth. Never was it clearer in fiction that the child is father to the man.