The Eye of the Xenos: Insights on Greece from an outsider

Richard Pine offers frank pieces on his adopted land and its habit of planning its past

Richard Pine: The picture he draws of nepotism and corruption   suggests a deep-rooted Greek malaise.

Richard Pine: The picture he draws of nepotism and corruption suggests a deep-rooted Greek malaise.

Sat, Jul 10, 2021, 06:00


Book Title:
The Eye of the Xenos: Letters about Greece


Richard Pine with Vera Konidari

Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Guideline Price:

Richard Pine is well known to readers of this paper for his lively series of columns about life in Greece. Director of the Durrell Library of Corfu, he has also published widely on Lawrence Durrell’s writings, as well as on Irish theatre, notably the works of Wilde and Friel.

English by origin, he is a graduate of RTÉ as well as TCD and for the past 20 years a full-time resident of Corfu. He is passionately engaged with the life of the island and the wider Greek world. Nonetheless he proudly claims the identification of “xenos”, foreigner or outsider, and uses this vantage to deliver a frank commentary on his adopted country. There is probably a salty Greek expression for the English euphemism “candid friend”, which would fit him closely too.

In 2015 Pine published Greece through Irish Eyes, and his new collection again pinpoints ostensible similarities between the two countries: a history of struggles for independence from the resented domination of a larger neighbour; a traumatic memory of civil war; a frontier issue (in Greece’s case with Macedonia) that will not go away.

Both countries have been subjected to condescending and prejudiced national cliches (Pine is very good on the “Balkanist” inventions of imperialist writers such as John Buchan). More subtly, there are cultural assonances in both countries’ approach to history, story-telling and dramatic enactments – immortalised in Theo Angelopoulos’s great film The Travelling Players, where the 20th-century Greek experience is expressed through the story of an itinerant acting company, constantly attempting to achieve a finished performance.

Austerity culture

But Pine is equally attuned to the ways in which Greece and Ireland differ. Though both countries suffered the infliction of “austerity” measures after the economic crash, Greece’s condition has remained critical. “Austerity”, Pine remarks, was a way of life in Greece before the word acquired its recent connotations: “first, the austerity of the landscape, climate and geography; second, the facts of history imposing a subsistence existence on the vast majority of the people; and third, the economic conditions under which its ‘independence’ has been conducted”.

Politics after the crisis have not, mercifully, enabled an Irish party to emerge equivalent to the neo-fascist Golden Dawn in Greece. Ireland does not suffer the kind of diplomatic and territorial aggression inflicted by Erdogan’s Turkey. And Ireland has not been faced, like Greece, with the devastating impact of wave upon wave of refugees bringing unbearable pressure to bear upon the country’s fragile economy and ecosystems.

While tourism and the exploitation of a beautiful landscape (a preoccupation of Pine’s) is vital to both countries, in Ireland this is part of the economy, not – as in Greece – a devouring presence at the centre. And while criticism can be levelled at aspects of Ireland’s public services, the picture Pine draws of the nepotism and corruption to be found in – inter alia – political appointments, public broadcasting, museums and the pervasive black economy suggests a deep-rooted Greek malaise.

Step too far

Self-criticism is not just the privilege of the xenos, and Pine quotes some astringent Greek commentators who are equally caustic about their country’s continuing crisis. One of these, the novelist Vangelis Hatziyannidis, sardonically refers to the Greek tendency to “spend more time planning the past than planning the future”.

It is a phrase that stays in the mind. The last section of the book reprints (in Greek and English) Pine’s columns for the Greek journal Kathemerini, including those which led to the termination of his contract, when he denounced controversial plans to “develop” an unspoiled peninsula in Corfu and made too-frank connections to the political interests backing it. The xenos had gone a step too far.

But his argument holds good that, “though the Greek people allowed an incomplete and inadequate system to evolve . . . it is in their everyday culture that their strength lies”. For all his fierce critique of the troika’s policy towards Greece after the crash, and his dislike of the “megalithic” aspects of today’s EU, Pine’s sensibility is intrinsically European.

And by a sad irony, the catastrophe of Brexit has underlined his outsider status, since despite long residence in both Ireland and Greece, he is burdened with that new liability in Europe, a UK passport. As Boris Johnson’s England shrinks into a self-parodic and corrupt backwater, fantasising about delusional “sovereignty” and a long-gone imperial role, “planning the past” has become a syndrome more relevant to Richard Pine’s country of origin than those he has so imaginatively adopted and interpreted.