:: Article

On Christos Ikonomou and the Current Greek Government Debt Crisis

By Anna Zalokostas.

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Christos Ikonomou, Something Will Happen, You’ll See, trans. Karen Emmerich (Archipelago, 2016)

“I just don’t understand,” says Ellie Drakou in Something Will Happen, You’ll See a collection of short stories by the Greek writer Christos Ikonomou, translated by Karen Emmerich. Set in the lower and lower-middle class neighborhoods around Athens and Piraeus, the collection draws together the working-class men and women hit hardest by the Greek government-debt crisis. In the opening story, Ellie’s boyfriend Sotiris has left without warning, taking with him the eight or nine hundred euros she saved, one at a time, over the course of a year. Bills are piled high on the kitchen counter, the phone line has been cut, twenty euros remain to get through the week. “If poor people do things like that to other poor people what on earth are rich people supposed to do to us.” This is what Ikonomou grapples with in his stories: the “malicious vulgar poverty” that drives a father to swallow five tacks in front of the courthouse and another man to climb into a recycling bin; the overdue bills, borrowed money and low wages make life impossible.

This winter I found myself very much in that world. I quit my job at the beginning of 2016 and, after a long tenure among the underemployed, I joined the ranks of the unemployed. I left California and moved back to a place I spent my teenage years desperate to escape (after all, there’s no rent in hell). I started reading Something Will Happen, You’ll See in my childhood home in New Jersey, but soon left again, this time for Greece, to see my grandfather who was sick. Whatever thin and permeable border existed between life and fiction was crossed and double-crossed, and it became too easy or too much requested of me to make comparisons or see meaning where there were none. I think I was trying to read the landscape the same way I was reading the book, or maybe I was at once too close and too much outside of the book. I made it through two stories and then left my copy untouched until I returned to American soil, weeks later.

 

 

Something Will Happen, You’ll See is a portrait of living in the end times: unemployment, underemployment, and precarious employment permeate every aspect of the lives of its characters. The economic crisis looms large, its effects felt everywhere, even if it is never spoken of directly — these stories are more domestic than they are of public protest, in the kitchen or café more than they are in the streets. But money is always short, bills are overdue, lay-offs seem imminent, eviction remains an ever-present threat, men start lining up at 3 a.m. so they can see the doctors before the crowd comes and the line stretches down the sidewalk. Ikonomou builds a powerfully moving portrait of economic despair around small scenes of everyday life. Men sit around drinking tsipouro; they tell stories to both pass and hold onto time.

Work and money dominate life even or especially in their absence. Poverty gnaws at the dreams of “anyone who lives to work, who is born and lives and dies for work. For a handful of bills.” So that what everyone lives for can hardly be called a future. Life becomes something measured out in fifteen chunks, but sometimes one or two or ten fifteen-day chunks pass by with no paycheck, though everyone keeps going to work. “Your whole life is in their hands. And there you are counting your life out in fifteens. That’s the most frightening thing.” Fear dominates the affective landscape, and the list of things the men and women in these stories are most frightened by is ever-growing: a fake fir tree getting blown off a balcony; the lights at the port growing in the mist; a ringing telephone; a plain white envelope in the mailbox; night; shadows; memory. Under ongoing crises even what is ordinary can be transformed into something that sends a shock of fear through the body.

Here, the future is more fantasy than it is possible horizon: a man imagines that he discovers a magic potion that allows him to become invisible and steal from the banks; a father imagines the elaborate Easter feast he will buy with money that never comes; a husband imagines what he would do for his wife if he had a boat. “But you don’t have a boat,” his wife cuts in. “You don’t even have an oar. You don’t have anything.” If dreams normally pertain to the future, the future here is a hollow fantasy, and dreams are relegated to something that exists solely in the past. “I look at my son and instead of looking ahead I turn back to the past,” says Takis in “Charcoal Mustache,” a story that takes place at the taverna where he waits tables. “And I keep dreaming of the past. I dream of how it would be if things had happened some other way. But that’s a kind of madness, isn’t it? You’re supposed to dream about the future, not the past, aren’t I right?”

 

 

In Greece, everyone still asks if I like America with the wide-eyed conviction that I live in the land of milk and honey. I try to explain that things are bad there too, though not as bad as they are here, but I keep confusing my pronouns. I lose track of which country I’m talking about. I try to explain that in America, too, it’s difficult to find a job, rent is expensive, food is expensive, I want to explain that so many of my friends are precariously employed or unemployed but I don’t know how to say those words in Greek, my vocabulary cannot keep up with my ambition and I start to trip over my words. I mess up sentences, I stutter and lose faith, I give up.

There is too much I don’t understand, and even if I had the vocabulary to form the necessary questions, I’m not sure that what I really want is an answer. I keep distrusting the impulse to compare — America and Greece, my life and the book, the Greece of the book and the Greece of my experience, the Greece of the book and the America of my experience — believing distinctions like what it means to be an unemployed college graduate in America versus an unemployed fifty-two-year-old fisherman in a small Greek village are important and necessary to maintain. But the scenes Ikonomou writes are so haunting that even now I keep confusing the world of the book with the world outside the book. I keep mixing up what I read about with what I witnessed, and I no longer know which distinctions matter most.

 

 

“Debt neutralizes time,” writes Maurizio Lazzarato in The Making of the Indebted Man, a short pamphlet published in translation by Semiotext(e) in 2012, two years after Ikonomou’s book appeared in Greece. Lazzarato writes about the ways that debt as an economic relationship is inseparable from debt as a social relationship. Through public debt, whole societies have become indebted: everyone is guilty and responsible in the eyes of capital, everyone required to honor a debt that has become their own. The creditor-debtor relationship produces a specific morality and, in turn, internalizes feelings of shame and fear. Debt becomes a means of reducing unpredictable behavior and alternative outcomes. Because it appropriates not just labor time, but future time as well, the debt economy exercises control over the future in way that stifles possibilities for action and limits opportunities for change. “The principal explanation for the strange sensation of living in a society without time, without possibility, without a foreseeable rupture, is debt.”

Debt, as both a social and an economic relationship, is everywhere in Ikonomou’s Something Will Happen, You’ll See. It’s not just that the men and women in these stories need to borrow more money than they can pay back — one woman calculates that she and her husband need two years’ worth of wages plus Christmas and Easter bonuses just to catch up — but that they live in a society structured around a system of debt. The ability to dream has been cut off by austerity measures that predetermine the future long before it’s arrived on the horizon. Dreaming of another life quickly lapses into dreaming of a past life, of the way things were, and it becomes impossible or increasingly difficult to imagine how things might be, or might have been. It’s as if time has collapsed: the future has been hollowed out of possibility, the present inevitably short-circuits in a constant recourse to the past.

“Debt ignores boundaries and nationalities,” Lazzarato writes. It knows only creditors and debtors; it collapses the distinction between the employed and the unemployed, the precarious and non-precarious, retirees and welfare recipients. Everyone is a debtor. In Ikonomou’s collection, too, there is little difference between those who work and those who are out of work: everyone carries around a deep-seated shame, an overbearing feeling of fear, a ruinous exhaustion, an inability to make sense of the unknown machinations that have created the existing world. Everyone is very tired: from working overtime, from the protests and demonstrations, from shouting and cursing and fighting. Like the voice-over narrator says in Chris Marker’s 2084, a short film that, like Ikonomou’s book, asks us to consider what is at stake in imagination: “When all one’s energy is required to stay afloat, there is hardly anything left to invent the future.”

 

 

The unglamorous reality of the Greek crisis is exhaustion. The experience is one of being out of time, which seems to have abandoned its cause: storefronts remain vacant, government buildings, covered in graffiti, appear awkwardly in abandoned lots, the public hospitals are full of patients but have hardly any staff or equipment. While visiting my grandfather in the hospital, my aunt needed a plastic bag to collect the trash that had accumulated in my his shared room, so she walked into the hallway, opening unmarked doors and rummaging through cabinets. I was only half-expecting someone to intervene but the hospital is, like everywhere else, a zone of self-reliance. A homeless man walked around trying to sell pens and lottery tickets to whoever stood in the second-floor waiting room; I tried to wash my hands but there was no soap in any of the bathrooms.

At the café with my cousin, one man joined our conversation from across the room to tell me that he regretted not leaving for America in 1997, when he had the chance. Another man, sitting at the next table, argued that America is a terrible place to live, that he could not get used to the way of life there, even after seven years, and moved back.

“I tried to see everything to smell and hear everything,” says the narrator of “For Poor People,” sitting at the port the afternoon he loses his job. “Not to pass the time but so it wouldn’t pass because time isn’t medicine, it doesn’t heal all wounds, on the contrary, time is the worst doctor.”

 

 

Reading Something Will Happen, You’ll See feels much like being at the café in the late afternoon, where people come to sit for hours, just to be around each other, more to smoke cigarettes than they do to drink, where conversation drifts into the anecdotal and running into neighbors is expected. Ikonomou’s writing is simple, without affectation, and the stories in this collection read like an oral history of the Greek crisis. Narrative unfolds through a series of flashbacks or recollections: Ikonomou does not tell his stories linearly, but jumps across time, stitching together memories.

This is the space in which Ikonomou thrives: Something Will Happen, You’ll See holds the pause that comes before the question, or even before our ability to articulate the question. I keep returning to the space of the taverna or ouzeria, the culture of the European coffeehouse, as a model for how we might engage with questions or speak to one another. Something feels particularly promising or possible in this space, where time is not utilitarian but open, a thing to hold onto rather than use. People come for no reason at all, or they come just to sit next to each other. They tell stories with little beginning or middle and hardly much of an end. Talking is more about hearing a voice attached to a body than delivering information or meaning, an explanation or answer. Perhaps what we need to regain the future is not even an answer: not everything needs to be explained or interpreted, and sometimes it is more useful to refuse the understanding which makes a life under capitalism part of the normal order of things.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anna Zalokostas‘s writing has appeared in Full Stop and Music & Literature.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 28th, 2016.