The Kindness of Strangers

The worst and best I’ve seen of Greece are fused in a single event. A long chatty lunch with friends at our favorite seaside taverna is interrupted by the sight of a man running. He is young, dark-skinned, West African in appearance, his arms loaded down with sundresses to sell to lounging beachgoers. A hotel security guard, Greek, also young, is chasing him. He kicks the sundress-selling man to the rough pebbly ground and looms over him brandishing a Taser. Its crackle, startlingly loud, is itself an act of violence. No longer lounging, Greeks leap up from beach towels and from their chairs at the taverna, shouting at the security guard, waving him away, and rush to the injured man to help gather his scattered wares.

I witnessed this three years ago but it has returned to my mind all summer as I’ve followed the news of the refugees arriving daily to the Greek islands. What can you do? Extend the deeply-ingrained Greek hospitality, of course, but while your country is struggling to feed and employ its own? Joanna Kikissis, reporting from Lesvos on the humanitarian crisis for NPR, observed that both the Greeks and the tourists on the island overwhelmingly “want to help, and they don’t want to look away.” Nicolas Niarchos’ excellent story for The New Yorker highlights the generosity of locals and tourists in the Lesvos town of Molyvos (where I was happy to see a favorite taverna, The Captain’s Table, has become the center for volunteer action for Help For Refugees In Molyvos; all the more reason to support it the next time you’re there).

Syrian refugees arriving from Turkey in an inflatable raft. Photo by Andrew McConnell for The New Yorker.
Syrian refugees arriving from Turkey in an inflatable raft. Photo by Andrew McConnell for The New Yorker.

Journalism captures the heat and despair of the moment. Literature has the luxury of distance and reflection to slow down and extend and move inside the moment. Both know the power of the individual story to translate political and economic complexities into a tale the heart can hear.

Alexander Maksik’s 2013 novel A Marker to Measure Drift is such a work of literature. I first encountered it over a year ago but have returned to it and recommended it many  times this summer.

maksik-mtmd-novelpage_PBIt is the tale of a 24 year old Liberian woman named Jacqueline who fled that war-soaked land and has landed on the island of Santorini. As is true of many refugees around the world, Jacqueline was an educated professional from a prominent family in Liberia. But after the murder of her family and escape along the central Mediterranean route to Spain, she has arrived on Santorini with nothing but a change of clothes and memories she wants to keep at bay.

She is now alone in the world and must make her way. The daily struggle for mere survival takes up much of her time, of course, but Maksik gives Jacqueline a great dignity throughout as she moves from sleeping in a cave to creating a home in an abandoned building, and in some ways, if you decontextualized it, the novel could be categorized with adventure tales of characters who carve out domestic spaces for themselves in the woods or deserted islands.

Santorini. July 2010. Photo by Doug Phillips.
Santorini. July 2010. Photo by Doug Phillips.

It is a very interior novel. Maksik isn’t presenting reportage on global migration or critical commentary of the Taylor regime in Liberia. This isn’t travel writing about Santorini, either. The focus stays intimately in Jacqueline’s thoughts. We hardly even see her; beyond a fleeting glance in a bathroom mirror we are never given a description of Jacqueline as she is seen by others. Instead we travel with and within her as she moves both forward around the island and backward in memories that haunt her and in conversations with her dead mother, who is a constant companion.

“It is difficult,” she thinks, “to distinguish between memory and storytelling, between storytelling and experience, between this present life and the other.”

Jacqueline is from a privileged background (“the lucky classes,” as she puts it) and has the education and poise and wherewithal to choose, as travelers have long enjoyed, how to present herself. A Liberian on holiday, spending a leisurely summer strolling the beaches before heading off to graduate school at Columbia University: yes, that will be her persona. That will put people she encounters at ease. They won’t have to worry about her or fear her. But she also knows that she must always be conscious of her presence; she’ll never blend in with either the Greeks or the waves of white tourists. People will always notice her, whether with suspicion or sympathetic curiosity. They will always want to know her story.

In almost every instance she is treated with exquisite kindness by the Greeks and others on the island, especially by Katarina, an immigrant herself, hailing from Macedonia, and a waitress at a taverna in the picture-postcard town of Oia.

Oia, July 2010. Photo by Doug Phillips.
Oia, July 2010. Photo by Doug Phillips.

Katarina wants to know Jacqueline’s story—and by this time, nearing the end of the novel, we do too—and Maksik shifts from a third person omniscient narration to let Jacqueline tell it via dialogue, one long evening over ouzo in Oia. It is painful and Maksik doesn’t flinch from presenting it; but at the same time he doesn’t sensationalize the killings. It is horrifying; it is also readable. And, for this reader, it made me want to return to the first pages and begin reading again, now with the knowledge of what Jacqueline had been through and what haunted her mind.

For throughout the novel, what affects Jacqueline most deeply is the kindness of others: “It was so often relief that made her cry. Not pain or disappointment or horror or terror, but instead it was relief from those things. Relief and, sometimes still, love.”

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