The novel Snowflakes by the Greek prose writer and screenwriter Kallia Papadaki (1978), one of the winners of the European Literature Prize for 2017, begins with a short quote from the German writer W.G. Sebald (1944-2001): “…time has alredy passed… our life is only a faded reflection of an irreversible process…” These words, together with the title, pave the way for the work: Sebald’s novels mainly talk about personal and collective memory, but also about the loss of this memory, the collapse of civilizations and traditions, the traumas and feelings of otherness and alienation. The title of the novel, on the other hand (dendrites, translated into Macedonian as snowflakes), has a multi-layered meaning. On the one hand, dendrites really are snowflakes, icicles, perfect crystals like the ones patterning the window panes on cold winter days (when temperatures drop below -10°C). But dendrites are also the short extensions of neurons that collect nerve impulses from the cells around them and carry them to the nerve cell, receiving and transmitting messages, contributing to the normal functioning of our brains. Or: the more dendrites, the more memories, the greater the ability to solve problems. The author herself often speaks about the title, when she says that this word means “family trees and the trace they leave on the next generations, and of course the ephemerality of human beauty, which can be seen in those specially shaped snowflakes that dance through the air”(Rossoglou). Thus, with all the risks involved in summarizing and simplifying, it could be said that Snowflakes is a book about the “tension between memory and forgetfulness” (Anagnostou, 17), a book about what remains (or disappears) after we leave our home, after we leave this world, a book about the life of the common man versus the great history, but also a book about sorrow as an essential element, the essence of human beings.
Narrative structure, geographical and historical location
After the introduction, under the title, the novel is built of twenty chapters. Each begins, alternately, with verses by two American poets: Nicholas Anthony Virgilio (1928-1989), who most often wrote haiku, and Walt Witman (1819-1892). Although many stories about many characters, in one way or another, are told in the novel, two of them are the main ones, they are the backbone of the book: that of Andonis Kambanis and his son, Vassilis (Basil) Kambanis. Both the father and son stories, and all the other stories of those around them, take place in the town of Camden, off the east coast of the United States, in New Jersey, opposite Philadelphia; the two cities are separated by the Delaware River and connected by the Benjamin Franklin and Walt Whitman Bridges. This is the city on whose hand-drawn map at the beginning of the book the lives of Kallia’s protagonists are embroidered, as if following a tapestry pattern. Camden is the city where Nicholas Anthony Virglio lived, the city where Walt Whitman died. Camden is the city where the first manic mass murderer was filmed in 1949. This is a city where 40% of the population still lives below the poverty line. This is the city that in 2012 had the highest crime rate in the United States.
Even in that difficult year for Camden, 2012, at the presentation of the Revija malih književnosti in Croatia, the Greek literary theorist, essayist and novelist Hristos Hrisopoulos said that the literary world of Kallia is “introvert urban dystopia” and that she “places special emphasis on details, insignificant events, and momentary moods, and the gloomy atmosphere that pervades the characters and spaces seems strangely true… Papadaki constructs her own literary world which seems to the reader to be both close and alien at the same time” (Gregov). What is immediately noticeable (and remains unchanged throughout the narrative) is that Kallia Papadaki is a skilled, patient, precise narrator – she begins the stories of the father and the son slowly, somehow talking more about others, those around them, than about these two. Easily skipping from one story to the other, from one time period to another (because the stories take place over a period of sixty years), she connects the two somewhere in the fifth chapter and together, followes them to the end in parallel. Indeed, as Hrisopoulos says, she embroiders finely and in detail the two literary parallel and historically successive periods in Camden’s development. First is the one in the early 1920s when (the father) Andonis Kambanis came to the city as an immigrant, a Greek with an Italian passport as a result of the Italian-Turkish peace treaty signed in Vichy in 1912 with which his native Dodecanese, islands in the southeast part of the Aegean Sea was ceded to Italy. Kambanis comes to a world where everyone is a newcomer, to the world of shipyards, of prohibition, to a world that is rapidly being built to house the “great American dream,” and “the American dream was, and is, above all, a universal language that sweetens the gods and puts the demons to sleep, bestowing all their known and unknown bastards” (Snowflakes, 17).
The other period, the one that represents the present in the novel, is 1980. This is the year in which Reagan became President of the United States after the election race with Jimmy Carter, when the Greek Telly Savalas is world famous as Kojak, when American diplomats are taken hostage in Tehran, when John Lennon is killed, the year when Tito dies, when I was eleven, and Kallia Papadaki was two years old. Just as the great collapse of the American stock market more than fifty years ago affected the well-being of Camden and his citizens, the new economic crisis is once again deeply affecting and changing its face, because “the until-then prosperous city moved to the growing suburbs, the Jews left first, followed by the Italians together with the Greeks” (Snowflakes, 20). This is the year in which the forty-four-year-old Vassilis Kambanis (aka Basil), the son of Andonis, a Greek by origin and an American by birth, experiences the collapse of his small business and the end of his marriage. “At his insistence and from his own mouth, Vassilis became Basil, because he was not and did not feel Greek… Basil Kambanis did not negotiate for the inalienable right to self-determination, he was a master, boss and defender of his name because from a young age he concluded that he did not like the name Vassilis.” (Ibid, 173). Growing up in a difficult marriage, without motherly love, Basil fails to cope in this new world, because he “did not know anything else, nor did he travel much, he was afraid of change, as should one imagined oneself from the beginning” (Ibid, 83).
The Immigrants and the American Dream
Rounding off her narrative endeavor of sixty years, from the withered tree root of the Greek islands to the leafless branches of Camden, what Kallia is doing in this novel is a complete deconstruction of the American dream. And the American dream is the preconception that the individual can resist, that he can make changes, that he can fight, that he falls, but he always gets up again, getting stronger in the process. This is the concept that “individuals have the power to absolutely control their own destiny and that they can launch themselves into success” (Anagnostou, 13). The people in this book are the ones who can not and do not know how to realize this dream, they are antiheroes, they are the ones who will not enter the great history, will not be part of any triumph, of any great victory like “that Christmas night in 1776 when George Washington, with his two thousand four hundred men, crossed the Delaware River and won the Continental Army’s first major battle, the Battle of Trenton” (Snowflakes, 118). In the characters in Snowflakes, “scars are imprinted early on in life and in some cases can trouble them for life. Adults enter into marriages with great hope in their hearts, but end up with insecurity and dissatisfaction in their souls” (Anagnostou, 6). They live in a state of constant not-belonging and not-fitting, unable to meet the large trends, the large movements and use them to their own advantage. The global and national historical upheavals around them slowly erode their little lives, because “evil always came little by little, in small doses, almost insignificant, never hitting with the madness of a storm, but insidiously enveloping you, almost silently, so that you can get used to it…” (Snowflakes, 169-170). These people are swimming against the course of the great history, against the torrent of the world around them, until it finally takes them with it. As the author herself says: “I write about people who try to make a difference, but fail. I write about how inevitable loss and pain are and how we struggle to continue living, to leave a trace behind, our special trace that we, too, have been here and tried to make some sense of this world and this life.” (Rossoglou).