Recording Life Like Willa Cather:
A Review of Arcadia, My Arcadia
By William Graddy, Ph.D.
Arcadia, My Arcadia
Arcadia, My Arcadia by Nicholas D. Kokonis
Author: Nicholas D. Kokonis
Publisher: St. Basil's Publishers, PO Box 1155, Deerfield,
Description: Soft-cover, 466pp.
Price: US$25, plus US$4 for US delivery from publisher/distributor.
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Reviews and Comments: For testimonies and comments, see also Critics' Comments compiled by HCS; brief review by HCS (Arcadia, My Arcadia a Must-Read)
Well credentialed readers and professional writers alike have found Arcadia, My Arcadia appealing for a variety of reasons, many of them quickly recognizable. Nicholas Kokonis's evocative but precise descriptive powers, the gracefulness of his language, the depth and authenticity of his knowledge of ancient and modern Greece, his warm but sober embrace of its people, legends, religions, and character-all this is abundantly apparent within the first hour of reading. The deepest rewards of the book, though, take shape only in reflection, as one begins to trace the larger contours that emerge in a text that has been sculpted with a skilled hand.
The thematic center of Kokonis's novel occurs, appropriately enough, at almost the exact mid-point of the story itself. Angelo Vlahos, the central character whose coming-of-age Kokonis sensitively traces, has just begun the fifth of his six-year high school curriculum, and seizes on an otherwise perfunctory assignment as a chance to win a commendation from Grigoris Dzidzikis, the insufferably pompous teacher of Angelo' class in Contemporary Greek: "Write a paragraph or two . . . commenting on the adage, "Et in Arcadia Ego" (Book One, Chapter 17). Completely unknown to the haughty Dzidzikis, Angelo' life and education have converged on exactly the point made in this historic phrase. For this admirable young man, his parents, two sisters, and a handful of others memorably sketched are true Arcadians, peasants who have, like their forebears since the dawn of time, scratched and sucked a living from the soil of a region breathtaking in beauty, but harshly infertile and subject to scorching droughts. A diligent student, Angelo knows that artists since antiquity had seized on this very contrast to create from the literal Arcadia a mythical realm of Edenic perfection, but one touched nonetheless by death, especially the fatal injustices wrought by the corruption of an outside world, urban, wealthy, and deceitful. With a pathos deeply felt but appropriately stiff with painfully acquired learning, Angelo goes to the heart of this contrast, pointing out that the phrase, usually translated as a boast that "Even I have lived in Arcadia," is more accurately rendered as a statement of Death itself, "Even in Arcadia I . . . am present."
This realization, of course, is the lifeblood of all coming-of-age stories, and the merging of this universality with the sharply etched life of one adolescent boy is among Kokonis's most significant achievements. With remarkably unobtrusive, but ever-alert eyes and ears, Kokonis notes the ironies that turn what should have been a prime learning moment into searing personal humiliation. Dzidzikis, who in a lecture has just lauded writers like Kostis Palamas and Yiannis Psyharis for being "true to their own convictions," for breaking "away from dogmas" to establish "demotic as the official language of contemporary prose," fails Angelo outright for defying authority, and drags him before the school principal, who along with Dzidzikis derides him for having had the cheek to write his essay in "demotic instead of the proper katharevousa," thus vulgarizing "our noble Greek heritage" and furthering "Communist propaganda."
The outrage Angelo feels at such treatment is symptomatic of Arcadia's entire plot. With few exceptions, whatever actions this young man and his family take to live with some vestiges of dignity stir invective and outrage. These injustices flow through every channel of society: foreign and domestic, local and national, sacred and secular. Angelo' mother is not far wrong when she teaches her son early on that the world is made up of two classes, the "eaters" and everyone else, and indeed, Kokonis's evocation of the relentless, belly-twisting hunger Angelo feels throughout most of these six or so years of his young life is memorable. Given the pervasiveness of such injustice and prejudice, the novel could easily degenerate into sentimentality and stereotypes, but it most certainly does not. Nowhere is this better seen than in Kokonis's treatment of education itself, a dominant motif in Arcadia. While schooling from secondary level on is clearly used as a tool for preserving the traditional hegemonies of privilege and wealth, Kokonis shows it repeatedly to be a two-edged sword, equipping his hero with the skills and knowledge that lead him, ever so haltingly, toward the passenger plane in the last scene, where this one born Angelos (at one point he changes his name, dropping the "s" to make himself sound more American), this messenger whose heart has always had wings, is finally be able to fly.
As already suggested, Nicholas Kokonis has literary skills worthy of a more experienced writer of fiction. He is particularly adept at showing the often baffling but ultimately rich juxtapositions in Angelo's mind, and even in his peasant family's day-to-day experience, that result as ancient ideals and fears inscribed in Greek myth, in Greek Orthodox Christianity, in folk superstition, and the sheer shrewdness birthed in generations of subsistence living jostle against each other. Kokonis's ability to record life--to find the remarkable in the ordinary and the spontaneous while maintaining a firm sense of structure--is impressive, and to this reviewer reminiscent of Willa Cather. Like Cather too, Kokonis is canny in discovering and shaping symbols that seem to emerge naturally from skillfully presented realistic details.
Take Arcadia's Brown River, for example. Flowing-oozing, more accurately-not far outside the tiny village of Angelo's birthplace and home, this stream has over generations become a cesspool, poisoned by the human and animal waste generated by the peasants' own simple but severely bounded lives. On windless, hot nights its stench is unbearable, and on each of the seven- kilometer trips Angelo makes between his home and Polis, where he lives in a barn during his high school years, he has to walk close to its banks. One troubled night he dreams that he falls into its filthy water, and however desperately he tries to claw his way out, keeps falling back down its slimy banks. Simply to observe what is in fact the case, that this dream narrative epitomizes the pattern of Angelo's entire life, the increasingly costly and irrational obstacles set before him every time he takes a single step toward independence for himself and his family, is to reduce to a bare equivalence what in Kokonis's richly interconnected text is a subtle and nuanced realization.
Unlike many novelists who concentrate on the inner landscape of consciousness, Nicholas Kokonis, a professional psychologist himself, shows an astute sense of politics and the range of other social networks that shape much that we think of as the self and its aspirations. And unlike many who do share this awareness, Kokonis realizes that human beings are never simply the products of society and its forces. Thus Arcadia, My Arcadia brings, especially to American readers, a wonderfully rich sense of family and community. To those for whom religion is essentially privatistic, it offers immersion in a community still regulated both by the ancient rhythms of seasonal myths and of liturgical Christian worship.
American readers, too, particularly since 9/11, will benefit from Kokonis's well-informed, remarkably non-ideological depiction of the ways the Eisenhower administration's global policies of the early 1950s profoundly affect, indeed almost ruin, Angelo's heroic bid for the very benefits democracy offers. By programmatically tying economic support to the loudness and stridency of given nations' opposition to Communism, American policy inadvertently empowered hundreds of local demagogues eager to pocket aid meant for humanitarian relief, to use anti-communist shibboleths to punish those they disliked, and to extort mercilessly from those who required their endlessly fabricated certifications and permissions. No direct depiction of McCarthyism's excesses in the United States is more telling than are the scenes in Arcadia in which Angelo himself, or one of his most inspiring teachers, is threatened or smeared by alleged sympathy or association with Communism. Since the immediate to long range effectiveness of American policies in the post-Cold War era, dominated by rapidly mutating forms of terrorism and changing conceptions of nation-states themselves, will depend to no small measure on our ability to see the impact of those policies at ground level and in cultures quite distinct from our own, novels like this one can be invaluable in educating our moral and civic imaginations.
Some readers will fault Arcadia, My Arcadia for its slow pace and the quietness of its action. This reviewer would be the first to agree that Nicholas Kokonis's gifts lie more in language, characterization, description, and richness of theme than in narrative per se. Having said this, though, I would emphasize that the novel has continued to percolate in my mind since my first acquaintance with it. It easily enters part of an ongoing dialogue with classic initiation works such as Catcher in the Rye; and, given Angelo's early, deliberate commitment to the cultivation of arête, or moral excellence, his dogged sense of self-discipline, and his dedication to the written word as a primary agent of freedom and usefulness, it serves as a stimulating companion text to books like Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography and Richard Wright's powerful self-portrait, Black Boy. Ultimately, Kokonis's worth as a writer lies in the way he sees. Poet and translator Richard Wilbur, in a brief lyric simply called "Objects," praises the Dutch painter Pieter de Hooch for his "devout intransitive eye." That phrase comes close to defining the quality of Kokonis's vision. "Intransitive" does not mean either disinterested or passive. It is a moral, but not primarily judgmental, way of seeing. It eschews pity but does empathize, and doing so, it humanizes both good and all but the most frightening forms of evil. Ultimately, it may not be the vision without which we perish, but its lack guarantees our own, and countless others', impoverishment.
William Graddy, Ph.D.
Professor of English
Deerfield, IL 60015
Nicholas D. Kokonis was born and raised in Arcadia (Greece) and knows his main character's life down to the missing hobnails on his only pair of shoes. A practicing psychologist and college professor, Dr. Kokonis divides his time between his native Arcadia and the United States.To read more about him, see his brief biography at the end of the About Us section of HCS or in the Authors section at the end of the Site Index (Archives).