WHEN THE TREE SINGS by Stratis Haviaras is not, strictly speaking, a novel. More, it is a mosiac pieced together and carried along by the underlying current of a poet's vision. For Stratis Haviaras, now curator of the poetry collection at Lamont Library, is a Greek poet, and this tale of German-occupied Greece is his first book.
Haviaras brings to his prose the lucidity and exactness of a poet's disciplined eye. A poet pares away extraneous matter, down to the bone, distilling order out of confusion.
And Haviaras has need of this discipline. He writes of his coming of age between his ninth and thirteenth year in German-occupied Greece. The consistent thread piecing together this collection of incidents is not only the visionary quality of the prose, but the pagan innocence of the boy's view of events. There is a horror, an almost surrealistic quality to some of the incidents. Everything attains an almost symbolic importance. The enemy, for instance, turns the monastery into a prison.
We are spared none of the brutality. The boy sees everything, including his father's death, watches two soldiers torture mice by frying them on a live wire, "though their faces are as innocent as children," and sees the bloody, inert body of a man whom the enemy has tortured. Contrary to Greek myths, animals do not imitate men, rather the men are brought down to a constant animal awareness of their bodies. They are starving. The land cannot feed us all, thinks the boy.
The prose, however, pares even these occurences down to an underlying lyricism. Death and starvation become poetical. There is a tension between the events described and the manner in which they are told. In one particularly moving passage, Haviaras describes eating a sparrow, and reaches an almost mystical communion with it. He writes, "And then it was my mouth embracing the sparrow. I was warmer, my throat was warmer, as if I had taken in his voice, and had been singing with it for hours."
Yet the horror, the surreal banality of these events is subordinated to a larger ethic: survival through storytelling. In Greece, the land of Homer, men classically reach immortality not by living a Christian life and going to Heaven, but through kleos, the everlasting glory conferred on men through poetry, heroic actions, and the telling of tales. They become, in effect, the defeaters of The theme is enlarged upon until finally, the boy, almost grown, decides, all "stories are good. Even if a story is about death, it's a good story. But death itself is not, there is no death that's a noble death."
In a time when death is a constant presence, this clinging to the telling of tales is necessary for his psychological survival.
Contrasting with the destructiveness of the enemy is the continuing pattern of the boy's life in the village: love, game-playing, and laughter go on. The boy, for instance, makes elaborate seashell mosaics on the beach (though, ultimately, he knows, they will be washed away), and falls in love with his neighbor Angelica, though she too, dies. Submerged beneath the gnawing pangs of hunger in his body are the cries of his head and heart.
The two credos that ultimately enable the boy to survive are storytelling and the bonds of the community. The community is a living force; each individual finds his identity within the larger context of it. The boy's grandmother burns down her house to fool the enemy into thinking that a fugitive is hiding there, and not in one of the houses next door, thus giving him time to escape. His Aunt Liberty avenges her husband and brother to prevent her 16 year old son from doing so, and so dies in his place. His uncle too, is willing to share food, that most precious of commodities, with a dying girl, so weak that poppies bruise her skin.
THE IRONY in some of the stories is cold, devastating. The boy's house is bombed, yet the door and front wall remain, so that he can walk through the front door into a field. And an informer cruelly "executes" the boy and his friend with blanks in the gun. The friend is so mortified that he dies the next day, insisting that he has been shot.
There is a kaleidoscopic quality to these images. Myth and legend are intertwined. Fiction becomes truth. Good and evil are presented on equal terms; there is no shift in the narrative voice. In the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt so well described, lies its horror. The pre-moral eyes of a growing child and the discipline of the poet lend the narrative the detachment needed to convey this banality. The narrator does not judge, but show, weaving the events into a fabric of legend and death.
THE STYLE IS well adapted to depicting what is, after all, the almost unbelievable pain inflicted on a community, and a boy, under German occupation. By writing of the war from an individual's point-of-view, Haviaras makes its terror more tangible. Devastation is incomprehensible on a large scale; to have emotional impact, it must be brought down to the level of one person. And because he writes of a place where the identity of the individual is bound up in that of the community, by writing of the individual's anguish he also conveys the anguish of the community. By bringing a poet's perception to a child's unemcumbered view of the world, he leaves the reader to judge.