Microcosms: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese

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Man is a universe in little
Democritus

Visualise a map of Greece, a forearm and paw stubbed into the Mediterranean from the rump of Eastern Europe. The paw ends in three claws stretching towards Crete. The Mani – subject of my current obsession, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958) – is the middle one and the narrowest of the three, just 15 km wide and 50 km long.

Die boek is gebaseer op Leigh Fermor se omswerwinge in Griekeland na die Tweede Wêreldoorlog met sy reisgenoot en later vrou, Joan. My pa, vyf jaar jonger as Leigh Fermor, moes omtrent dieselfde tyd daar gewees het.

Leigh Fermor’s journey starts near Kardamyli (where, much later, he built a home in an olive grove and lived for part of every year), and quickly jumps 30 km south as the crow flies to Areopolis. Most of the book is set in the villages south of there, the Deep Mani: Mezapo, Kitta, Yeroliména, Marmari, Porto Cayo, Vatheia. Then he turns back north, ending the book in Gytheio.

As ’n jong man wou my pa die oorlog sien, maar nie in diens van die Empire nie. (Hy en sy pelle het geweier om te staan wanneer God Save the King  voor ’n fliek gespeel is.) Hy’t dus by die Rooi Kruis aangesluit, en is gestuur om ontheemdes van die 1946–47 Griekse burgeroorlog te gaan help. Waarheen hy uitgeplaas is, het ek nooit gevra nie; vir ons kinders was “Griekeland” so ver en vreemd dat dit spesifiek genoeg was.

Leigh Fermor loved the Greeks, and they clearly loved him in return. He relates conversations with a pleasure that was surely mutual. He must have been a luminous young man; he’s wonderful company on the page. The book is like overhearing a scholarly nomad holding court, following ideas where they lead. At first sight accidental, the tangents are beautifully crafted, curving in ever-widening loops through history and across geography, across each paragraph, page, chapter, and the book itself.

Patrick Leigh Fermor | Foto

Leigh Fermor se Mani is die knooppunt van ’n weefsel stories terug na die Bronstydperk en uit oor die hele Europa, maar die plek self is niks groter as die Kaapse Skiereiland nie. Altwee is dor en steil – die eenderse klimaat is seker waarom my pa so lief was vir Griekeland. Die Kaap se geskiedenis is egter maar ’n skrale lagie in vergelyking met die Mani s’n; die verhale, vergrype en vetes het nog nie hier so diep ingesypel as daar nie.

Time is fluid for Leigh Fermor. Present and past coexist, his experiences threaded into a historical and geographical tapestry: “A fair-haired girl climbed the path towards us carrying a lamb slung over her shoulders and round her nape, fore and hind feet held in either hand in the manner of many archaic statues. ... Vasilio, the lamb slung across her shoulders, befriended us with the solicitude of Nausicaa” – the princess who welcomed a storm-battered Odysseus to Phaeacia, the last stop on his long journey home. In one breath he ranges from one side of Europe to the other, while spending a chapter on a short boat trip.

Ek onthou met hoeveel genot hoe my pa sy Grieks op die eienaars van die kruidenierswinkels geoefen het, en hoe hy my Griekse woorde probeer leer het. Al wat ek onthou is kalimêra en kalispêra – goeie more en goeie naand. En dalk thalassa, “Die See!” – die familiekompetisie om eerste die see te sien wanneer ons oorgery het Strand toe.

Chapter 17, for example, begins: “Aphrodite, Cythera, was painted smartly across the poop of the fast and racy looking caique we boarded next morning.” Leigh Fermor describes details, like silver paint on the cleats, a tin-framed picture of St Catherine nailed to the mast “painted in the blue and white Greek colours in a bold barber's pole spiral”; and “a sleek and well-fed tortoiseshell cat stretched sleepily at the pother of embarkation”. Once under way, he dilates on cats, including the uniqueness of Eastern European ones, an aside on the Greek custom of naming dogs after one’s enemies in order to berate them, the cats of Athens and Constantinople, and two kittens in a garden on the distant island of Hydra where (in one of the many Now’s of the book) he is writing this chapter.

The discussion moves on to seals, lobsters, wolves, bears, a rare and endangered ibex, turtles, sharks, and dolphins. Asides weave the present moment into recollection, geography, and history: “A turtle I have seen only once, from the deck of a ship, floating languidly and then sculling steeply down into the blue-green depths between Bari and Corfu almost exactly at that point in the dotted line down the middle of the Adriatic where the filioque drops out of the Creed.” Back on the Aphrodite, with the travellers “lolling satrap-like among the corn-sacks,” we glimpse the captain at the tiller, which launches a disquisition on the maritime terms of Greece, especially the naming of winds, with a footnote that “The Spritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola can be exactly paraphrased as Pneumatic Drill.” And at last, after eighteen pages and a voyage that covered only a dozen kilometres, “a valley full of scarcely believable green trees appeared”, and we arrive at Kotronas.

Leigh Fermor was versot op lyste: gewoonlik plekke en soms gemeenskappe, soos die twee bladsy-lange lys van streeksmense in die eerste hoofstuk. My pa het goed opgegaar – rakke en rye ou konfytbottels gevul met wasters, spykers, skroewe, boute, moere, sluitringe, tussenplaatjies, kotter penne, vleuelmoere, pakplate, en deurslotte; en stapels vensterrame en balke herwin van gesloopte geboue. “Mens weet nooit wanneer jy dit sal nodig hê nie.” My ma was die een wat lysies gemaak het, self-klagstate van ongedane take.

Perhaps the effortless shifts between times and places has to do with the Greek light Leigh Fermor loves so much: “A huge magnifying glass burns up the veils of distance, making objects leagues away leap forward clearly as though they were within arm's length. ... Things in the distance co-exist on equal terms with those hard by; they have a proprietary and complementary share in the patterns that immediately surround one.”

One more voyage, by steamer this time, from Kotronas to Gytheion, and the book ends with their waiter at a taverna – who “glowed with the prospect of giving information” – pointing out that the little island just offshore is where the Trojan Paris and Helen first dropped anchor after the abduction from Sparta. I can’t wait to go back to the beginning and start again.

Sover ek weet is my pa nooit terug Griekeland toe nie. Hy’t daarna skaars voet buite die dorp gesit. Hy het teësinnig gereis; die Boland was genoeg wêreld vir hom. Dalk was een avontuur – hy’t ook ’n Amerikaanse vrou in Griekeland ontmoet en getrou, ’n paar jaar lank in Amerika gewoon, geskei, en is toe terug huis toe – voldoende.

Links

My map of places in Leigh Fermor’s Mani: https://goo.gl/maps/5Axp6PjsFGm
Map of Greece: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Greece_(ancient)_Peloponnesus.svg
Democritus quote – source: https://www.azquotes.com/author/3861-Democritus?p=3
“Thalatta! Thalatta!” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thalatta!_Thalatta!
Books: https://patrickleighfermor.org
Biography: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Leigh_Fermor
Obituary: https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2011/jun/10/patrick-leigh-fermor-obituary

Coda

A recitation:

The fringes of the Greek world are dotted with enormous Venetian bastilles, each one a vast brooding complex of slanting curtain walls, miles of moat, donjons, fleches, demilunes, glacis, bastions, barbicans, redoubts, counterscarps, sally-ports and drawbridges, all of well-nigh impregnable thickness. Slabs bearing the Lion and Latin inscriptions adorn them, commemorating some governor or general or gonfalonier called Zorzi, Mocenigo, Morosini or Bragadino. Many – at Corfu, Levkas, Coroni, Methoni, Nauplia, and Herakleion (which withstood the great Candia siege), at Nicosia and the titanic affair at Famagusta – are astounding, awe-inspiring and immensely depressing.

In Gytheion, at the end of the journey:

Lying in a bed again, vaguely shrouded like a corpse on the brink of resurrection, seemed an incomparable, almost a guilty luxury. The penumbra was pierced by a thin blade of afternoon light falling from the junction of the two shutters. It was all the brighter by contrast with the tomb-like shadows. I lay smoking in a sybaritic trance watching the clouds of cigarette smoke slowly cauliflowering across the room to turn, when they struck this dazzling stratum of air, into a paper-thin cross section of madly whirling grey and pale blue marble. The soft murmur of the town was suddenly drowned by the furious jay-like voices of two women below my window, arguing across a narrow lane about something that I couldn't catch. It didn't matter. The point was the inventive richness of the language, the splendour of the vocabulary, the unstaunchable flow of imagination and invective.

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