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Crete on the Half-shell

by Byron Ayanoglu

Stage Irishmen – that’s what they’re called – those ones you see in theatre and on screen. They lard their lilting speeches with begoshes and begorras and cross themselves while traversing the peat bog because they’ve cheated the young priest (God love ’im) in a land deal, then have a jolly punch-up in the pub’s snug after seven too many black-and-tans.

We know the type. And the current residents of the modern Republic of Ireland are sick of him – this increasingly folkloric figure seldom actually rears his drunken head in their rapidly industrializing, professionalizing, urbanizing country.

Ever since Nikos Kazantzakis’s masterful tragicomedy, Zorba the Greek, writers min-ing the Hellenistic vein have had their characters partake of Zorba’s happy ying (his zest for life, his sensuality, his bigness of spirit), while often refusing to include any of his desperately unhappy yang (his sense of being trapped by a narrow society, his feelings that his body is betraying him, his staunch refusal to die in the arms of his church).

A themepark version of Zorba bestrides Attica (and North America’s Greektowns) so fully that his partial imitators are legion on the page, screen, and in life. This character sells, at home and abroad, just like the stage Irishman did for a long while.

And so we come to one of the main characters in Byron Ayanoglu’s memoir of his move from Montreal to the island of his forebears, Crete. This demigod, Theo, a peripatetic chef, barges in and out of Ayanoglu’s text, driving madly up the down ramp, shouting to convince others to loan him foodstuffs, creating meals fit for the gods (in a two-burner kitchen!), drinking massive quantities of raki, telling tall tales of bedding beauties in exotic locales, and spouting pap philosophy while rounding this or that mountain road’s hair-pin turns.

This gentle, pleasant travelogue works best when Ayanoglu’s overwhelming friend is off-stage. In these respites, Ayanoglu tells amusing, though predictable, stories of his encounters with the locals. These culturally revealing meetings resemble those contained in Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. But Ayanoglu has the upper hand on the bumbling Anglo – he speaks the natives’ language fluently and still has his hereditary instincts (albeit blunted by time abroad) to rely on.

With a judicious eye and understated humour, Ayanoglu tells how he futilely tries to best (or even equal) a local business shark who becomes his partner in starting up a restaurant. In addition to spinning amusing tales of local life (superstitions abound, the Orthodox church remains regnant), Ayanoglu’s sense of the landscape is nonpareil. He adeptly communicates the island’s weather-dictated moods, its dramatic topography, its amazing flora.

Ayanoglu’s economical summary of the olive’s central role in Cretan culture and the trees’ muted contribution to the landscape are masterful. And the food – this is not a book to be read on an empty stomach. The odour, taste, texture, and distilled joy of a masterful meal (and the unmitigated sorrow of a lousy one) are here presented viscerally, without chef-school jargon.

But the book’s flaws outweigh its merits. The island’s rich history, which often plays such a central role in travelogues, is used merely to wallpaper scenes. More critically, Ayanoglu fails to achieve the task he sets himself at the outset of the book – to parse and identify the heart of Greekness, both within himself and around him on the island. This admittedly is a high, Kazantzakian task – what Joyce wrote of as forging “in the smithy of my soul the un-created conscience of my race.”

Ayanoglu falls short of achieving his ambitious goal because he refuses to delve deeply into his own or his race’s dark side; he is, for the most part, content with the Greekness embodied by his larger-than-life friend. Ayanoglu’s “religious conversion” to the church of his ancestors lasts several days after a near-death experience and then disappears from the book with-out a trace. If returning to God trans-formed his soul in any fundamental way, Ayanoglu has neglected to share this with us. Soon, he has become again, without explanation, a cheerful, New-World-bred atheist.

But holding Ayanoglu to the standard of the greats is perhaps unfair. He can be quite engaging when using his Seinfeldian wit to gently expose what he sees as the foibles of his people. He amusingly analyzes the role of the mother in Greek society, playing with the stereotypes of the cooking, cleaning, laundry-doing Greek matriarch. And his galloping gourmet Theo is, if predictable, at least charmingly ebullient and resourceful. This book is for lovers of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, not serious students of Hellenistic culture or Kazantzakis aficionados.