November 17 - Facts and Fiction

A novel set in Bulgaria and Greece in the late 1970s centres on diplomatic life and espionage at a time of growing terrorist activity

by Jonathan Carr

WHEN a work of fiction is prefaced by the statement that it is "inspired by real events", there could be a number of reasons why. A counterweight to the formal disclaimer that characters and events in the novel are fictitious? A helpful lead, perhaps, for those who know nothing about the background to the story? A marketing ploy? Or it could represent an attempt on the part of the author to attach not just authenticity but also some kind of artistic integrity to the tale that follows by saying that what happens is even more incredible than it might appear precisely because it pretty much did happen. Whatever the intent, there can be plenty of rewards in the territory shared by fact and fiction. But there are also risks. And there is one in particular. It is hard for fiction to thrive where there are too many facts.

Brenda L Marder, author of The Greek Dream, has had a 40-year relationship with Greece, more than ten of them as the wife of an American diplomat serving here. Among other things, she has lectured in modern European history, worked as a university administrator, edited a magazine in Athens and published a significant number of academic papers. Now she has drawn on her experience in this part of the world to write a novel set in the late 1970s against the political background of the emerging November 17 terrorist group. It was on 23 December 1975 that Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens, became their first victim.

The story opens with a flight to Bulgaria in a rickety old Soviet-built plane. Barbara, wife of Robert Baldwin, a political officer at the American embassy in Athens, is taking their three children on a cheap skiing holiday. Their companions are other wives and children drawn from the Athens diplomatic community. Two complications occur on the trip. First, we discover that Barbara, against her husband's wishes, has been persuaded by Dana Franklin, the new CIA station chief in Athens, to act as a courier. The despatch she is carrying is coded into a glossy magazine which somebody - she does not know who - will ask her for. The second complication is that her thirteen-year-old son Freddy skips ski class and goes off on his own in treacherous snow conditions. An accident occurs and his life is saved only thanks to the fortuitous arrival on the scene of a Bulgarian army officer, Colonel Ivan Dimitrov.

Barbara, naturally enough, feels a measure of indebtedness to him. Ivan, it turns out, is about to be posted in Athens. He also has one other surprising Greek connection which he informs Barbara about as soon as he can. "My grandfather, a communist who fought with ELAS, took my mother and escaped into Bulgaria in 1949. My grandmother had been killed earlier by government troops when they raided our village in Thrace." It does not take much prompting for him to relate more of his tragic family history. His grandfather, originally an Asia Minor refugee of 1922, never made it to Bulgaria and when his mother arrived she was pregnant from a boy she had been with in the mountains who also died in horrific circumstances, caught between the guns of the Greek nationalists and the Bulgarian vavari.

The secret service apparatuses in Sofia (Russian/Bulgarian) and Athens (American/Greek) both see opportunities for information exchange in the connection now established between Ivan and Barbara following the skiing accident. But shortly after Ivan arrives in Athens, November 17 strike again, this time killing an American defence attache. CIA theories about the role in November 17 that the Bulgarian embassy in Athens might be playing make the Barbara/Ivan connection much more important than it might otherwise have been. If Barbara were to agree to assist the CIA, she could jeopardise her husband's diplomatic career as well as expose her family to new risks. And Ivan, it transpires, has his own agenda.

Marder works hard at trying to bring the central characters alive in The Greek Dream but while both Barbara and Ivan have some problems, that is all they have. We may be told that Ivan wants to return to his homeland and that Barbara wants to do more with her life, but being told something and being shown something are two different things. If their longings are deep and genuinely felt they will keep revealing themselves, determining what Barbara and Ivan do and see, how they feel and behave. The worlds in which they exist will hinge on them and define what detail is presented. And in this case, although there may be a great deal of information, plenty of it "accurate", that does not make their worlds real.

For readers interested in what Athens and Sofia were like in those years there are some illuminating moments. Marder has researched well. When, for instance, Ivan first discovers he is to be moved to Greece we follow him from his office past various landmarks through the streets of Sofia, onto a trolley, up the stairs to his fifth-floor apartment, where he tells his wife they will go out to a coffee house because it is a good way to warm up. He cannot speak freely about his new posting in their apartment because it will be bugged. They make their way to a dingy coffee house where there are square wooden tables, a stone floor "littered with scatterings of bottle tops, toothpicks, nutshells, and spent cigarettes" and a few old men keeping warm round a stove fuelled by wood and kerosene provided by the government.

There are also touches of what might be inside knowledge about the spy business, such as the description of the "Bubble", an entirely glass enclosure approached through a vault-door in the American embassy in Athens which is said to be "bug-proof, impermeable to listening devices, absolutely secure".

And there is a lot of historical detail. Which is where fact and fiction unhappily collide because fiction is more about emotion than information. Too often in The Greek Dream the narrative is interrupted to provide what amounts to a short history lesson, externally delivered, that fails to add to our appreciation of character and leads to dramatic inertia.

* The Greek Dream by Brenda L Marder (ISBN 1425925561), published by AuthorHouse, is available through some central Athens bookstores or via

(Posting Date 25 October 2006)

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