God Forgets About the Poor opens with a chapter-length monologue: a brilliantly fierce, haunted and hilarious tumble of recollection and editorial harangue, directed by a 70-something Greek–Australian woman to her adult son, an author, insistent that he write a book about her: “Start when I was born. Describe the village and how beautiful it was. On the side of a mountain but in the middle of a forest.”
This, we learn, is the woman’s home village on the Greek island of Lefkada, in the years around World War II. She sketches childhood in a house where food was prepared over a wood fire and water was carted by hand – where one ran past the graveyard lest the restless dead arise. One of five sisters, she is born into a culture which principally values sons. Her mother, when asked, would admit that she had “no children, only daughters”.
Wartime violence is a foundational memory for her – the drip of blood from bodies hanging in the town square. Her island is cleaved by World War II and its long Cold War conflict between pro-junta coastal communities and communist mountain folk. Each group’s wartime and, later, civil war actions inspire feuds that will last a lifetime.
Aged four, she spent a year alone in hospital, following an illness that left one leg deformed for life. That, we learn, was just the start of her troubles, and she regales her son sorrowfully with their accumulation over the coming pages, finishing with sharp jabs for both of her grown children. “You were a peaceful baby,” she says to him. “Never crying. Slept on time and ate. And I said to myself, ‘Oh my! This is why the Greeks love boys!’ But then you ended up gay.”
And then, to balance the ledger: “Your sister … Now she’s a big lawyer, and won a case in the High Court in Canberra. But look around at the mess. Will the High Court do the vacuuming?”
The subject of this maternal directive is, we infer, Peter Polites, and his response is the novel that readers hold in their hands – a love letter to a magnificent, thwarted, wounded yet indomitable woman, written with warmth, tenderness and clear-eyed grace.
The rest of God Forgets About the Poor consists of a series of expansions on the precis offered up by the woman given, with more than requisite irony, the baptismal name of “Honoured”. She is anything but. If Honoured has a credo, it is this: “Of all creatures who can think and feel, we women are the worst treated things alive.” In the feudal, agrarian context of her upbringing, this is indisputably true. She and her sisters are put to work from the earliest possible moment: domestic chores and, during the school holidays, the backbreaking labour of olive harvesting.
Clothes are not worn for adornment but to signify one’s role. When, later in life, her “mind climbed into the grottos of her own past and searched for memories of playfulness. It seemed there were none. Of course, there were games and dolls, but they had seemed like training.” Only her policeman father’s insistence, eccentric for the time, that his daughters have an education, allowed her a path out of indentured drudgery.
All this Polites revisits from Honoured’s perspective, swelling the available biographical record with fictional surmise. He grounds the woman who his mother would become in the mountain soil of her home, and does not stint in describing the pain of her early life. But he also allows her to be shaped by the austere beauty and small sensual pleasures of that time and place: “She remembered the smell of blood from her childhood. The mossy stones of the forest path. The cherry jam in a dark room. The myrrh and the beeswax candle flame. The sweetness of pine needles on a loomed rug.”
This is the world Honoured carries with her, to Athens in the time of the generals – when even the dogs in the park “wear their fur like uniforms” – and then to Australia. She comes as the bride of a Lefkada man, a vain and sometimes violent figure with the masculine version of her own name, and eventually settles in the Greek enclave of Belmore in Sydney’s western suburbs.
Polites revisits her life at various stages, but he also allows his sister and himself a chapter each to offer another perspective. Honoured endlessly berates her driven, ambitious daughter – too thin, married a Jewish man – but is endlessly proud of her rise.
As for her son, the author, he gets the final word – watching over Honoured while she lies, gravely ill, in Canterbury Hospital in 2022, a year after her opening monologue took place. Here the character who stands for Polites reflects on how the painful circumstance that drove Honoured’s migration (“we starved for food in Greece and starved for Greece in Australia” was her elegant summa) transmitted across the generations. It is on the basis of shared pain that he accepts the responsibility to tell her story. And it is on the basis of reciprocal love that he shapes it as he does: an effort to imagine, and to find beauty and meaning, in a life that might otherwise be overlooked.
Polites’ book is a triumphant reclamation, written in prose clean as polished stones but consciously bearing something of the occasional awkwardness and inadvertent poetry of his mother’s bilingualism. God may forget about the poor, but Polites evidently does not. He has rescued his mother’s modest story and made it into a contemporary epic of homecoming.
Ultimo Press, 288pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 19, 2023 as "God Forgets About the Poor".
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