Daddy dearest

FATHER DANCING: An Invented Memoir by Nick Papandreou Viking pounds 16
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Rebecca West denounced Augustine's Confessions as "too subjectively true to be objectively true". A great deal of Nick Papandreou's book is fact, charting ten years of a childhood that saw his Greek Democrat father Andreas persecuted and exiled during the 1967 revolution and dictatorship. Yet Papandreou disclaims objectivity with his subtitle, "An invented memoir". It could be that he does not want to get into trouble with his family; or perhaps it allows him to veer into fiction yet still benefit from his political name and experience.

The book is a series of thematic sketches, not a chronological account of events. We do learn that Alex belongs to a political dynasty, that his grandfather, the "Old Man of Democracy", fought the royalists when he was governor of Lesbos in the Twenties, and that his father led the Greek Democratic cause while in exile in Canada and was subsequently, through the 1980s and '90s, Prime Minister of Greece. But such historical facts appear sporadically as mere back-up information. In fact, the book works as a study of alienation, from politics ("an enemy to family") and from three countries he has lived in, America, Greece and Canada (the evil eye and Coca-Cola feature as opposing forces). Father Dancing is also a rite-of-passage about a boy struggling to come to terms with the personal repercussions of political violence, and with a harsh, absent, charismatic father.

Descriptions of Greek landscapes and customs are often lyrical. "I would share with you," he begins, "a tomato on the sandy beaches of Skopellos, open a sea-urchin with my penknife and serve you the scarlet eggs inside." Papandreou has, too, a good sense of comic timing: the unmasking of the village wise man causes us to cringe and snicker. However, his writing can at times be awkward ("a fanatic such as I've already taught you to recognise"). And Papandreou's break from the traditional chronological memoir format gets him into trouble. There are times when, instead of pointing up "big themes", his technique of focusing on domestic detail feels evasive. At one point, Alex scrabbles about the floor picking up bits of painted egg shells that have been crushed by the military. This is a moving scene, but it's almost all we get about the night of the coup. Given the impact of this night on his life, we should perhaps have had more, if his intention was that the very unreliability of his memoir should be its strength.

Patrick White concluded that autobiographies should not trundle through "introducing the celebrities one meets for five minutes" but should be "the quintessence of truthfulness". Nick Papandreou seems to have applied himself to this much harder task, and Father Dancing is a book that resonates long after it has been closed.