no35 - Spring 2007

BROKEN GREEK: A Language to Belong
Adrianne Kalfopoulou
Plain View Press £12 paperback

a review by Theodora Tsimpouki, University of Athens

The list of books of the last 20 years on modern Greece and cultural dislocation has been long and multivalent. However, no previous account of the Greek experience has prepared readers for this poignant memoir of constant negotiation of one's effort to belong. Repatriated in the land of her paternal ancestors, Adrianne Kalfopoulou strives to become a part of her world of ancestry, but is constantly frustrated by the day- to-day tasks, by the untranslatability of the Greek cultural codes. Let me point out what, according to the author, this book is not: 'it's not about "Greekness" as a supplement to an outsider's lack of cultural mythology as is the case with books by foreigners who put a Goddess or a God's name in the title after a brief sojourn in the country.' Instead, this narrative is, in Kalfopoulou/s words, 'about my failure to belong as much as it is about moments of affirmation.
It follows that Broken Greek is not a linear narrative but consists of several stories that attempt to encompass the multiplicity of lives the author found herself performing or living in Greece, first as a granddaughter then as someone who came back to live in Athens in young adulthood and encountered numerous difficulties in her effort to adjust her American world view to the Greek reality. There is already a sense of loss and painful memories in that older world of the author's grandparents with which the memoir appropriately begins, a world of nurturing love and meaningful gestures. Frustration and anger build up when the narrative switches to a modern present, and Kalfopoulou is unprepared for what happens when she is barred from earning a place as an American studies professor in the Greek academy - but the frustration she encounters is also true of her more ordinary negotiations as a citizen in Greek society. Her initiations into the insular world of Greek academia and the larger social context of the culture are due to a contemporary Greek soci- ety's incapacity to accept her as 'one of theirs/ identifying her instead as outsider and Other. The memoir is full of instances that exemplify the Greeks' cultural characteristic to provide
services, assistance, even jobs, only after having initiated the interested subject as 'one of us'. Language here plays a very important role since it is the most obvious feature that marks a person's otherness. In the case of Kalfopoulou, her-less- than-fluent Greek has condemned her to experience the consequences of her assumed otherness. Her 'broken' voice, an idea borrowed from the African-American cultural critic bell hooks, both incapacitates her as well as contributes to her assertions of personal freedom and individuality.
Apart from being a personal narrative, a memoir of cultural differences, Broken Greek is also a remapping of contemporary Greece and a reconfiguration of Greek subject- hood amidst the complexities of modernization and techno- logical advancement in a global era. A country like Greece, with its equivocal relation to East and West, its fearful balance between its glorious antiquity and more banal recent history, its negotiations between private and public spaces, its European course to avert political and economic isolation becomes the 'topos' of inspiration par excellence for this acute and empathetic cultural observer. Her hybrid identity, her multi-cultural upbringing, her poetic sensibility, but mostly the power and urgency, the earnest enthusiasm with which she approaches her subject matter (which happens to be the graph of her own life in Greece), is breathtaking for the reader, even though it pains him/her to be exposed to such amounts of human fallibility and egotism in a topos of such rich history and potential.

© 2006 Adrianne Kalfopoulou, Author. All Rights Reserved