Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. New York Review Books 1958
When my wife handed me this book from a bargain table at a nearby bookstore, I admit I hadn’t heard of Fermor (1915-2011), but now have learned that he was a highly regarded travel writer with a special fondness for Greece. He fought with the Greek resistance in WWII and led the operation that captured the German General Kreipe, one of the more daring “special ops” of the war, and which helped to turn the tide against the Germans in Crete. He had quite a life—he was once described by a BBC journalist as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Graham Greene”–and there is now a society which promotes his life and work. So he is of interest to Greek scholars, as well as those who just like ripping yarn.
“On the map,” he says, “the southern part of the Peloponnese looks like a misshapen tooth fresh torn from its gum and with three peninsulas jutting southward in jagged and carious roots.” (Much of whether you will enjoy this book depends on how you feel about that sentence.) The middle peninsula is Mani, which comes across as a harsh, relatively barren land that has remained untouched by the outside world for centuries. (Note that the book was written in 1958, but I would doubt much has changed.) It’s impossible to encapsulate the book here, but I’ll note a few of my favorite passages—passages that alternate with some long and rather tedious digressions, which I’ll allow that some people may find fascinating.
On p. 25-6 he describes waking up from a daytime nap in the hills to find himself and his party, which included his wife Joan and a local guide, being scrutinized by “two barefoot, raggedly dressed and ikon-faced little girls of ten and twelve, both of them extremely beautiful.” They share some moments of mostly unarticulated mutual curiosity, until it was time for the party to leave.
“Go towards the Good,” one of them said, and the other, “May you have the Good Hour.”
The immobile figures of these two little Byzantines dwindled as we zigzagged downhill. Even at a distance we could sense the wide effulgent gaze which those four eyes aimed from their ledge half-way to the sky. They waved when we were just about to dip out of sight. There are very few people in these surroundings, Yorgo observed. “They are wild and shy and not accustomed to talk.” He pointed straight up into the air. The canyon was closing round us. “They see nothing by God.”
Chapter 5, “Lamentation,” describes the Mani practice of composing spontaneous funeral orations, or miroloy, a job which fell mostly to the women, and which perhaps as a result seems not to have been much studied. But the way Fermor describes this practice, “tempts one to think that here again is a direct descendant of Ancient Greece, a custom stretching back, perhaps, till before the Siege of Troy.” This seems therefore to be fertile ground for study, as with Lord and the Yugoslavs, and perhaps it has been. If not, this chapter is a good start.
On p. 140: “A spell of peace lives in the ruins of ancient Greek temples. As the traveller leans back among the fallen capitals and allows the hours to pass, it empties the mind of troubling thought and anxieties and slowly refills it, like a vessel that has been drained and scoured, with a quiet ecstasy. Nearly all that has happened fades to a limbo of shadows and insignificance and is painlessly replaced by an intimation of radiance, simplicity and calm which unties all knots and solves all riddles and seems to murmur a benevolent and unimperious suggestion that the whole of life, if it were allowed to unfold without hindrance or compulsion or search for alien solutions, might be limitlessly happy.”
Throughout the book, one gets a strong sense of the practice of xenia, the welcoming of strangers and their news of the outside world, remains here as strong as it did in Homer’s time. That, as he says, “hospitality in Greece carries an almost religious importance.” (p. 234) It brings to mind the ancient practice of theoxeny, where the gods themselves would wander the countryside to see if they would be honored. One gets the sense that there is almost a competition for the stranger among villagers, with the status they would bring to the host’s family.
On p. 243, speaking of seeing an old church which among the images of saints featured the “pagan sages of the Greek world,” …“but bereft of haloes. Their presence, due to passages in their writings interpreted as prophecy or ratification of the incarnation of Christ, seems to announce the age-old truth that the Greek Orthodox Church glorifies not only the Christian miracle as revealed to the Evangelists but the continuity and indestructibility of Hellenism and the part played in Christianity by the thought and discipline of the pagan Greek philosophers.”
The world Fermor describes in some ways seems as remote as that of Homer, but he often makes it as vivid. It shines a bright and loving light on this particular “tooth” that seems to exist outside of time.