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Land of Light
Bulfinch Press, New York, New York (USA), 2003 (1998)
I have always been somehow intrigued by the Anglo-Saxon fascination towards anything related to Greece. Yes, you read right. I did say Anglo-Saxon, and not simply American, for it is an attitude I also encountered during the years I lived in Ireland, and that I also saw reflected in the British media I was exposed to back then. It is something that goes way beyond the simple and more familiar idealization of a well known turistic location. It is, for instance, far more comprehensive and pervasive than anything the Hawaiian touristic industry could dream of. When the English-speaking world thinks of Greece, it does not only think of a nice destination for our vacations, but also as the supreme embodiment of a wisdom that has supposedly been growing in the Mediterranean for thousands of years. They do not only dream of the sea, the white houses and the mild climate, but also of a slower, wiser lifestyle, strong family ties, good meals carefully cooked with fresh ingredients, livable towns, hours spent at the cafes talking about everything under the sun... In other words, they think of a romanticized Greece that it may indeed exist but whose darker side is consistently ignored in the name of expediency and a need to have at least one dream that seems to be somehow achievable. Mind you, I have never been to Greece, but being a Spaniard it certainly does not take much effort to see this sort of idealization under the surface of so many perfect movies, books and pictures. How else could one interpret paragraphs such as the following?
Love of country is a major chord in every Greek's character, and the pain of xenitia —living away from the native land— is the subject of many sad songs sung by Greeks of the diaspora. Like Antaeus, the giant who lost his great strength when he was not touching the earth, the Greek who lives far from his country is in pain until he can return to his roots. There is a saying: "The most painful experiences a Greek can know are to be an orphan, to be alone, to be in love, and to be away from Greece. And to be away from Greece is the worst of all".
Does anyone know the absence of this love of country anywhere? Who does not consider painful to be an orphan, to be alone or to be in love? The author is definitely taking things a little bit too far here, and something quite similar can be said of descriptions like this:
Seeing the intensity of the Greek light, which tolerates no half-tones, no secrets, setting every object ablaze with significance, is the cornerstone to understanding Greece. The ancient Greeks found it natural to discover metaphysical meanings in everyday objects and to personify abstract concepts in physical form. Apollo was the personification of light and of learning. In Hellenistic times, every stream and tree harbored the spirit of a naiad or a nymph. Today, the most unlettered Greek still senses the god behind the man, the eternal truth behind the most humble object. He looks at the earth, the sea, the sun, and sees infinity.
Let me clarify something. I can perfectly see the attraction of the Greek light, but even though I have never seen it something tells me it is not so different from the Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Moroccan or Algerian light. In other words, the author may be referring to the Mediterranean light, which I certainly miss from here in Minnesota. It is quite difficult to describe, but the quality of the Mediterranean light is very different. It seems to invade it all, even during the winter. It does bathe reality in such a different way that it has an effect upon one's spirit and overall attitude to life. Still, deriving metaphysical meanings and abstract concepts from the mere presence of such light sounds to me, once again, as quite of an exaggeration.
In conclusion, the text from Nicholas Gage comes across as too positive and exaggerated, way too close to a touristic brochure full of common places and worn-out metaphors. It is, without any doubt, this book's weak spot. It does indeed provide some overall context to understand the beautiful pictures, but it does little else. Gage wrote the accompaniment, the footnotes if you will, to a nice collection of pictures. Barry Brukoff's photographs, on the other hand, while still full of common places, provide a beautiful and impressive backdrop to the text to the point that it steps to the front and becomes the star of the book (not that the original intention of the authors was any different, judging by the significant difference in quality between the text and the pictures). Nevertheless, one also misses photograhps depicting modern Greece, urban life, something that is not rural, decrepit and stereotyped. Sure, the authors themselves warn us in the introduction that they intentionally left those images out of the book, but one wonders how come anyone can dare title any piece of work with the name of a country while purposedly leaving out a significant portion of it.
Entertainment factor: 7/10