Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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Four years ago, I watched with delirious but stunned villagers on the island of Paros as Greece snatched the European football championship. Church bells rang out over the scented hills. Patriotic fervour comes easily in a country that won its freedom from the Ottoman empire 180 years ago, and gained much of its current territory in 1912. Last weekend, as the Greek squad prepared to defend its unlikely title at Euro 2008, I went back to the Thessaloniki Book Fair. Once again, I marvelled that Greece's proud but touchy second city has escaped the cheap-flight hordes in spite of its exquisite cuisine and necklace of seafront cafés.

The hair-trigger nationalism of much Greek life has its downside, of course. For all its superbly laid-out Classical and Byzantine museums, Thessaloniki turns its back on the centuries of Ottoman "occupation" (whose mosques and bath-houses survive, handsome but unloved). The region plays rhetorical games with its ex-Yugoslav neighbour over rights to the name of "Macedonia", while Mark Mazower's heartbreaking history of a lost multi-cultural past – Salonica: City of Ghosts – had a less than rapturous reception around these parts. In addition, the whole of Greece has had to face the deep psychological shift from being a nation that exports poor workers to one that imports them.

At the moment, attention focuses on the fate of incomers from Afghanistan, stranded on Aegean shores. But the precarious status of the 800,000 or so Albanians who have arrived over the past two decades remains a hot issue. Here, open-minded writers have a vanguard role to play. The new president of Greece's National Book Centre is the genial and generous Petros Markaris. His work includes the Inspector Haritos crime novels, which – Ian Rankin-style – deliver an addictive, warts-and-all portrait of a society in flux, and bring the plight of migrants to humanising life. Harvill Secker publishes The Late-Night News and Zone Defence; Arcadia will issue a new Haritos mystery next year.

Like a large proportion of his fellow-citizens, Markaris has roots in the east. Born in Istanbul, still the one true city to so many Greeks, he lived there until 1964. More unusually, Markaris knows how to connect the shared Greek memory of exile to the experience of new arrivals who may meet suspicion from the grandchildren of refugees. Some UK publisher should snap up the rights to his compact memoir, Serial Offender, very soon.

Meanwhile, Albanians themselves are finding a firmer literary foothold. Even in Britain, Ismail Kadare (see review on p.23) is no longer the sole published voice of a country that, as much as in Lord Byron's time, can feel as distant as the moon. Seren recently released The Loser by Fatos Kongoli (a guest at Thessaloniki), a wise and droll survivor who sat out the purgatory of the Enver Hoxha dictatorship by teaching mathematics. Its laws, as he recalls, were immune from quasi-Maoist dogma.

Next spring, Portobello publishes A Short Border Handbook by Gazmend Kapllani, the first Albanian immigrant author to succeed in Greece, in Greek. Even today, 17 years after he came, Greeks wonder at his mastery of their tongue. Kapllani treats the absurdities of nationalism in the Balkans – and everywhere – with mischief, wit and insight: festival organisers, take note. But the last word on this subject ought really to remain with a great Greek from Alexandria: CP Cavafy, whose Selected Poems appear in a fine new Penguin Classics translation by Avi Sharon. In "Waiting for the Barbarians", Cavafy depicts his xenophobic citizens as bereft when the dreaded foreign tide fails to come in: "What are we going to do now, without barbarians? Those people, they were a kind of solution."