Adventure: Fact and Fiction. Dimitrios Vikelas’s novel “Loukis Laras”.
As we all know, the history of the sea adventure novel starts with Homer’s epic poem “Odyssey”. Ever since the “master mariner” Odysseus took the long way round home from the Trojan War, sailors’ yarns of mythical islands and dangerous creatures lurking in the deep have been an essential part of our oral and written story-telling culture. It was on the many voyagers’ reports from the long age of European colonial expansion (16th to 19th centuries) that Daniel Defoe’s seminal Robinson Crusoe (1719) and many of its follow-up adventure novels were based.
What still fascinates the post-modern reader about Odysseus is that, unlike the often one-dimensional war heroes of the Iliad, he is described as a “cunning” (μῆτις) human being who proves resourceful (πολύτροπος) in the face of the vicissitudes of his home journey.
It seems that the Greeks, if we believe in their ethnic continuity, kept being fond of “much-enduring” (πολύτλᾱς) rather than purely triumphant heroes. The first Greek “adventure novel” published after the establishment of the modern Greek state at least also tells the story of a tossed-about protagonist: a young boy’s seaborne flight from the violence and turmoil of the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832).
Whether Dimitrios Vikelas’s Loukis Laras (1879) counts as an adventure novel at all is disputable. For, as Michael Llewelyn Smith has stressed, this story, which first appeared in serial installments in the Athenian literary magazine Estia, actually introduced the unheard-of conception of the “non-hero” to modern Greek literature.
The rich oral and written tradition with which the nineteenth-century Greeks remembered their fight for independence was replete with themes of Romantic hero-worship. A series of larger-than-life independence fighters – such as Theodoros Koloktronis (1770-1843) or Konstantinos Kanaris (1793-1877) – assembled in the Greek heroic pantheon. Loukis Laras, however, the autobiographical narrator of Vikelas’s novel, is a passive witness to events in which he does not participate and his main agency is directed towards escape.
Essentially, the novel recounts the long and hazardous flight of a family from the island of Chios. Like many Chiote merchants, Loukis Laras and his father are looking after their business in the Black Sea area, when they hear the news of an insurrection staged by their compatriots against the Ottoman Empire. On their return home, they only narrowly escape the Chios massacre of 1822 – the murder of thousands of Greeks by the Ottoman forces meant to stop the spread of revolution.
What follows is a dangerous Odyssey from one island of the Aegean Sea to the other (Psara, Mykonos, Syra, Spetsai, Tinos) as the conflict spreads and more and more refugees flood the region.
Of diminutive stature and lacking education, Loukis Laras is not fit to join the insurgent forces. His perspective is that of a victim dependent on the help of other brave men, particularly the captains of the so-called “nautical islands” who risk their own lives to rescue the refugees and fight for their cause. In describing these men with proud admiration, Loukis Laras nevertheless contributes to the glorification of Greece’s naval heroes. Many scholars have stressed the patriotic spirit which pervades the book and which turned it into popular reading material for nineteenth-century school children.
What is special about Loukis Laras, though, is that the book adds a new way of presenting the War of Independence: as an “unsettled and shifting period of violence and social disruption” marked by the “uprooting and migration of groups and individuals within a porous and fluid world” (Michael Llewellyn Smith). As Loukis Laras stresses in Chapter 6, “the history of Greek regeneration does not consist alone of the mighty deeds of our champions by sea and by land, but also of the persecutions, the massacres, the outrages on weak and defenseless creatures.”
With its new focus on “non-heroes”, on forced migration and refugee Odysseys across the sea, the novel resonates strikingly with our own present world. Take for example the night scene when, after hours of waiting, Loukis Laras and the many other refugees hiding near the beach of Chios, climb on-board small boats designed to bring them on-board a larger Psariot vessel under the gunfire of Ottoman soldiers (chapter 5):
“…the eyes of all were turned towards the sea. The boat was coming. […] We could hear the oars dip into the sea […] And standing there on the beach, we listened in silence, intent upon catching those comforting sounds as they became more and more distinct. […]
My adventures in life have been many and various, but I have never been shipwrecked. The sea, so far at least, has treated me kindly. Yet whenever I read descriptions of such disasters, I am reminded of the terrible hours of our flight from Chios. The shipwrecked mariner, who from a foundering ship looks upon the distant shore, can surely not experience greater anguish than that we suffered, with the difference – that we felt sinking during that agony on the beach, and our rock of salvation was the good ship on board which we were carried in small batches, while the Turks fired at us from the hill.”
A theme familiar from adventure novels brimming with suspense – the danger of shipwreck – is twisted to accommodate the refugee experience. This mastery of the pen turns our attention to the author of the story. Who was Loukis Laras?
Purportedly, Loukis Laras is an autobiographical documentary written by an old Greek merchant living in the London diaspora, probably Loukis Tzifos. Its true author, though, is Dimitrios Vikelas (1835-1908), a name which might be familiar to some readers.
Vikelas is now most famous as the first president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). When Loukis Laras was first published in 1879, though, he was a prominent member of the Greek merchant diaspora in Western Europe and an acclaimed homme de lettres. Throughout his life, Vikelas was a traveler and translator between two worlds: that of his small, developing homeland Greece and that of the major cultural hubs of the Western hemisphere: London and Paris. Through his networks and patronage activities, through his books, journalism and translations, he aimed to acquaint these two worlds with each other, particularly trying to advertise Greece as a modernizing country worthy of modern European civilization.
It was arguably only the pen of such a transnational expatriate – evocative of today’s transnational academic elites whose experience of a border-less labour market make them receptive to the fate of other migrants – that could write such a patriotic, yet also humane and deeply understanding refugee tale.
Vikelas’s extensive network meant that Loukis Laras was quickly translated into many languages by other academic border-crossers – for example John Gennadius in England, the Marquis de Queux de Saint Hilaire in France or Jean Pio in Denmark. Like the adventure novel in general, the book therefore became a migratory success in yet another sense. It is a pity that this modern Odyssey has not reached the literary cannon as its ancient predecessor did.
For a digitized version of the English translation of Loukis Laras see: https://archive.org/details/loukislarasremi01genngoog
For Loukis Laras‘s role in Greek nineteenth-century children’s fiction see: Ted Zervas, Formal and informal education during the rise of Greek nationalism (2016). Other publications by Ted Zervas, an expert on Greek children’s literature, can be found here: http://northpark.academia.edu/TedZervas
For a biographical portrait of Dimitrios Vikelas see: Michael Llwellyn Smith, The exemplary life of Demetrius Vikelas, in The Historical Review, vol. 3 (2006)