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Fiction reviews


Jim Sakkas - Ilias

27 July 1988


by Jim Sakkas

Allen and Unwin

Published in The Age

Ilias is the story of a Greek migrant to Australia in the 1920s. It has a pleasing evenness, and more importantly avoids all the usual problems of first novels. (For example it does not aim too high, is not encumbered with sophomoric philosophy, and does not contain a thinly disguised account of the author's life to date.) In 1987 Sakkas won the Australian/Vogel Literary Award for this novel. It is well-deserved.

Ilias's eponymous hero arrives in Port Melbourne, and gets his first employment unloading coal. Unaware at first that he has taken the job of one of the unionists gathered at the gate, Ilias strolls through the town's streets with his friends - and is set upon, and a friend savagely beaten.

At this point the story reverts to Greece, and the reasons for his emigration are exposed. (His young wife had died of pneumonia, and there were disputes in the family.) His letter arrives there, from Australia, which his relatives only know to be "somewhere near Germany". From all this we get a nice little portrait of those who stayed behind.

The story cuts back to Greece more than once - but this potential peril is handled with assurance. In fact there is barely a plot-element out of place throughout. This, and the relentless, economical language, result in an ever-building - and eventually captivating - story.

Ilias leaves the Port, and works for a Chinese fruit and veg merchant for three years. Then he opens his own greengrocery, which flourishes. He marries his Australian assistant, Annie, and they have children. During the Depression an Australian opens another greengrocery nearby, and Ilias loses most of his customers. He sells up and goes to Gippsland. Here, in 1945, he encounters many Germans who have suffered the same isolation and oppression during the War that he and his friends have experienced in subtler ways.

None of this is breathtaking stuff. But Sakkas's modest style has a cumulative effect (impossible to convey in summary) which makes the whole far more than the sum of its parts. For one thing, he captures just what a mob of xenophobic, alcohol-addled yahoos we Australians can be when confronted with things we don't understand. This story is apparently based on fact - indeed much of the racism and intolerance ring uncomfortably true. One sees where the attitudes so brilliantly conveyed in Evil Angels have their roots.

Ilias spends the whole of his twenties and thirties trying to fit in with Australian ways. Then, in mid-life, his Greekness reasserts itself with a vengeance. Tired of acquiescing in Australian values (and failing to understand Australian humour), he cracks. A sudden rampage sees crockery smashed, as his appalled wife and children watch.

The next few years see this once-promising, generous-spirited young man fighting off disintegration. The alienation Sakkas conveys here is so everyday, so believable, that it makes your heart go out to this alien in our midst. This is a most instructive book for those (like myself) needing a primer on what a multiracial society can entail for minorities. And a brilliant debut for this promising writer.

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