A Newly Translated Novel Captures the Tragedy of Greek Communism

Written in 1972, during Greece’s military junta, leftist Marios Chakkas’s recently translated novel The Commune is a mournful testament from a world where the stakes of politics were communism or fascism, democracy or dictatorship.

Almost 50,000 communist partisans were imprisoned after British troops entered Athens in 1944. (AFP via Getty Images)

Greece’s communists began the mid-twentieth century on the battlefield, moved from there to the prisons and then, if they were lucky, exile. The less fortunate found themselves in front of firing squads.

During World War II, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) led the resistance against the Nazis, and at the end of the war, it controlled most of the country. Yet when the British-backed government in exile returned, it launched an anti-communist purge, imprisoning almost fifty thousand partisans and empowering right-wing death squads to act as police.

By 1946, when the communists revolted against this White Terror, the Cold War had begun. They thus found themselves facing not just the king’s government, but also the United Kingdom and the United States, in the West’s first test of the Truman Doctrine. After the communists’ defeat in 1949, the government passed Emergency Law 509, outlawing the KKE. Then, on April 21, 1967 — after two long decades of anti-communist collaboration between the CIA and the Greek state — a group of far-right military officers staged the coup that installed the Regime of the Colonels, which would exile the last fragments of the Greek left to remote islands in the Aegean.

The left-wing Greek novelist and poet Marios Chakkas — whose final novel, The Commune, came out in English translation this year with Inpatient Press — saw it all. Born in 1931, he grew up alongside refugees in the working-class Athenian suburb of Kesarianí, where the Nazis executed two hundred members of the communist resistance in 1944. Chakkas’s political convictions prevented him from finding regular work in the reactionary climate that followed the civil war, and his poverty forced him to drop out of university. By 1954, he was in prison, sentenced to four years under the emergency law. Thirteen years later, the day after the junta took power, Chakkas would face jail once again.

During his incarceration, Chakkas read and wrote frantically under the influence of Romantic and absurdist writers such as Mikhail Lermontov, Percy Shelley, Eugène Ionesco, and Luigi Pirandello. Outside of prison, he became an important local figure in the United Democratic Left (EDA), a stand-in for the banned KKE that moved toward democratic socialism after the death of Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev’s thaw.

As an EDA municipal counselor and the cofounder of its Progressive Youth Union (FEN), Chakkas often clashed with the party’s old guard. He saw their emphasis on party discipline as antithetical to one of the FEN’s main political activities — planning exuberant arts festivals in the same working-class Athenian neighborhoods where Chakkas found inspiration for his writing and activism.

The Commune takes place amid the ruins of this political and artistic world. Written in 1972 — under the shadow of prison, the junta, and the terminal cancer that would claim his life later that year — it is the first of Chakkas’s works to be translated into English, despite his status as a cult writer of the Greek left. The Commune is a difficult text, admirable as a novel yet in some ways richer as a historical document. What it captures is an experience common to many twentieth- and twenty-first-century left-wing movements: the struggle to see new opportunities for transformation when the ghosts of past defeats feel inescapable.

Left-Wing Melancholia

In each of The Commune’s four sections, Chakkas returns to one of his life’s central traumas. The first is set in a spectral version of Kesarianí, with a feeble narrator who wanders through the ramshackle “commune” his broken and persecuted former comrades have built in a park. The second follows this narrator to his sickbed, as a fist-sized tumor grows inside his chest and a mysterious woman attempts to treat him by pumping him full of helium. The third, partially in the form of an absurdist play, drops him into a sterile prison intake room, where three bureaucrats interrogate him about his childhood complicity in the death of his younger brother. And the fourth confronts, in the novel’s most direct, lacerating prose, the original horror of Chakkas’s life: the mass execution whose aftermath he witnessed as a thirteen-year-old.

Binding these disjointed scenes together is Chakkas’s dreamlike yet forceful voice, brought to us in a graceful translation by Chloe Tsolakoglou. The narrator is overwhelmed with desire — for a girl he once met with “warm feet,” for the friends with whom he talked literature and dreamed of revolution, for one final chance to free Greece from right-wing paramilitary rule. Yet his prose lurches from extreme highs to extreme lows, and every object of the narrator’s desire seems to crumble into dust right before he can grasp it. Chakkas is at his most lucid in these low moments, when he reminds us that the narrator’s world is a shattered recreation of the past. After recalling his town’s resistance against the Nazis and momentarily vowing to “fight and then fall” against the junta, he writes:

It was futile. Those days were the last thunder of a storm that has long since passed. It’s raining elsewhere now. Some thought that the storm cloud would come back. . . . Only a memory remains, a continual elegy for those who were killed, for the youth that was lived with no fruitful outcome. How did the nostalgia of reminiscence win me over? Why am I submitting myself to the cycle of repetition?

There’s a word for this cycle — “melancholia,” defined by Sigmund Freud as a pathological variant of mourning in which the sufferer continues to identify with the lost object of his love even when he comes to hate it, severing himself from both the outside world and the ability to love again. In a 1931 review of Erich Kästner’s poems, Walter Benjamin diagnosed certain segments of the Left with this condition.

“Left-wing melancholy,” he argued, is a conservative pose through which middle-class writers turn revolutionary ideas into lifeless playthings for their middle-class readers, permitting them to “absentmindedly caress” alternatives to capitalism without doing anything to revive them. “What is left,” for Benjamin, “is the empty spaces where, in dusty heart-shaped velvet trays, the feelings — nature and love, enthusiasm and humanity — once rested.”

The Commune’s world can sometimes feel empty and desiccated. In the prison section, the narrator pliantly confesses and accepts the electric chair on a platform that floats in a vast, featureless void. The improvised commune has some joy to it, but it feels unreal in comparison to the hillside where it sits, scarred by “obituaries,” the “wounds” of quarrying, and “castrated pine trees.” Even the FEN, which Chakkas kept alive throughout decades of harassment from the police and conservative EDA members alike, appears in the text as “F.E.N., M.E.N, and D.E.N.,” just three meaningless characters he can bitterly rearrange. “I was forced to pay for dreaming,” Chakkas explains. “I was so blindsided that I swore never to hope again.”

Yet to interpret Chakkas’s work as conservative would be to miss the social dimension of Benjamin’s critique. The left-wing melancholics Benjamin attacked were successful New Objectivity poets, and in their popularity lay their ability to commodify the Left’s tragedies. Chakkas, by contrast, was barely published in his lifetime, seldom materially secure, and constantly active on the revolutionary margins of Greek politics. A better way to understand his novel might be through the lens provided by the historian Enzo Traverso, who has reinterpreted the concept of left-wing melancholia for our present times.

Melencholia, Traverso argues, is a way for defeated revolutionaries to refuse integration into a futureless, capitalist present. If, for Freud, the work of mourning is complete when the subject has separated itself from the lost object, then, for Traverso, “a successful mourning could also mean identification with the enemy: lost socialism replaced by accepted capitalism.”

Traverso’s subject was the condition of the Left after the fall of Eastern European communism, but his point applies even more strongly to Greece in the early 1970s. For Chakkas and other Greek leftists, a successful mourning would not just mean accommodating neoliberalism — it would mean accepting a military system that had suspended civil liberties, rehabilitated Nazi collaborators, and imprisoned or exiled most of the opposition.

And indeed, the moments of political pessimism, the barren, dried-out spaces, are never final in The Commune. Always the narrator slips back into the past, where Chakkas’s surrealist turns and insatiable longing make us feel as if the fragments of the EDA and socialist Kesarianí are open to a still-unimagined reassembly. The book’s poignancy comes from the fact that Chakkas — his movement smashed, his death a certainty — knows he will not be there to reassemble them.

Remembrance and Hope

The Commune does not advance a definable political program, and it is neither a pessimistic nor an optimistic work. It is an attempt to grasp a formless hope from within an all-too-concrete hopelessness. There is one place, however, where Chakkas sees the past as a political force that is already capable of inspiring resistance and escaping his melancholic cycles of desire, frustration, and despair: in the novel’s final section, which returns to Chakkas’s political birthplace, the Kesarianí shooting range.

Here, in 1944, the Germans shot two hundred communists in groups of ten, while those at the concentration camp awaiting the firing squad sang resistance songs. “They say that the blood running from the car was covered by the arm of some patriot holding carnations,” Chakkas writes. “Years later, legends will emerge that the asphalt sprouted flowers, the same ones that might have been placed on those dark spots.”

This is the sort of dream that gives Chakkas fragile solace when his narrator sees the commune in the park or imagines floating into the sky from his deathbed. Yet at the shooting range in Kesarianí, Chakkas rejects this neat, romantic fantasy, and not just out of despair. “All these are fictions and transgressions. The truth is that the blood was left to dry all over the place, until [it] became one with the dust and left no trace,” he writes.

No trace, that is, to most. The scene shifts to a Kesarianí government meeting, where Chakkas, then a municipal counselor, is ejected for mocking his colleagues’ proposals to commemorate the dead. A memorial already exists, he writes, in “certain secret symbols,” in yellowed scraps of paper that swirl around in the wind, getting tangled up in pedestrians’ legs and whispering, to those who can hear:

I was executed. I decomposed in a mass grave, they poured asbestos, they buried others on top of me, I became nutritious soil, I became only a memory that slowly faded alongside my mother’s life, but that piece of paper I tossed onto the street needs to be picked up sometime so that it doesn’t wander around like a stray. Justice.

Next to whatever monument the council builds, developers will inevitably divide up the land to construct workers’ housing and a shabby school, Chakkas writes. He never makes the point explicit, but we might infer that in these apartment blocks will grow up kids like Chakkas and the resistance fighters, “tough kids whose council member was hunger” and who carry forward the struggle against dictatorship, even though all political ideals may seem remote to them. These, perhaps, are the kinds of people that can make out what the trash is whispering as it blows through streets the government doesn’t bother to clean.

Yet exactly because of this upbringing, Chakkas cannot escape one political ideal, which he speaks of with the melancholic’s signature mixture of attraction and repulsion. “When you grow up in Kesarianí during the German Occupation and you’ve got a tremendous hatred for paramilitarism,” he writes, “the possibility of leaving socialism is slim.” Although the junta fell in 1974, two years after Chakkas’s death, what replaced it was not socialism, but center-right neoliberalism under the New Democracy party, which is again in power in Greece today. The Commune is a strange, elusive book, but it is invaluable as a voice from a generation of Greek leftists that was once on the verge of extinction, still dreaming of a different future.