Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
Arrested Song, the latest novel by award-winning Montreal author Irena Karafilly, is at once intimate and public, personal and political.
Against the backdrop of post-World War II Greece, Karafilly writes of a young woman embracing modernity against the enduring rigidity of entrenched tradition. Independence and compassion—not to mention physical passion—fight to create recognition in this inspiring story of one person's struggle to make a place for herself in a changing society.
The narrative opens in 1941. Molyvos, a small town on the island of Lesbos, in the Aegean Sea, is under occupation by the Nazi army, the Wehrmacht. Because she knows German, Calliope Adham, a young schoolteacher whose husband was killed fighting the Italians, is pressed into service as a translator for the occupiers.
Calliope soon starts living a double life. While working for the Germans, she starts delivering arms and supplies to the underground resistance on the island. This is further complicated by the fact that she has become romantically involved with her boss, the German officer in charge of Molyvos, Lieutenant Lorenz Umbreit.
When the war ends, Umbreit returns to Germany and marries, Calliope remains in Molyvos, her life at home punctuated by other lovers and relationships while she struggles to create a life for herself. Nevertheless the two stay in contact sporadically through letters.
While Calliope’s father, a schoolmaster, had raised her to be informed and independent, despite Greece’s post-war efforts to modernize, the society she grew up in has not changed. It still denies women higher education and persists in confining them into the traditional roles of wife, mother, and housekeeper. And Calliope is anything but traditional. Unable to go back to teaching, thanks to the new government’s policies, Calliope becomes an advocate for battered women and women’s education, clashing time and time again with the enduring rigidity of Greece’s male-dominated institutions.
In the background are the political events that roiled Greece in the decades after the war—civil war, dictatorship, a military junta, and abolition of the monarchy, finally achieving a parliamentary democracy in the 1970s. Though far removed from mainland Greece, Calliope and the residents of Molyvos are greatly affected by these upheavals, both personally and as a society.
On one level, Arrested Song is about Calliope’s personal growth as a young, modern woman—her need for passion, her frequent bouts of self-doubt, her commitment to friends and family. On another level, the novel is about Greek society and what it means to be Greek. Through Calliope, Karafilly holds a mirror up to a country beset with its own contrasts and contradictions.
Karafilly’s characters are vividly bring out not just the variability and customs of island life but also the complexity and flexibility of human interpersonal relationships—as friends, lovers, acquaintances, even as strangers.
Calliope shares her name with the Greek muse Calliope, the eldest of the nine muses, who was the goddess of epic poetry and music, song, and dance. As the title suggests, creating the melody that is your life is not easy, but Arrested Song truly shows how passion in life and for life can do wonders.
Arrested Song is published by Legend Press.