We had such an interesting and dynamic discussion about The Scapegoat by Sofia Nikolaido the first book in translation that we had read in bookclub. At the outset though we agreed that it was a difficult read and one that you had to really concentrate on to follow all the intricacies of the multiple narrations and split time frames of the narrative. Again, it was one of those novels best appreciated when read quickly so as not to disrupt the flow of the story.
The Scapegoat is set in two time frames – modern day Thessaloniki and in 1948 – told by past and present alternate first person narrators. Minas, a final year high school student, is completely disillusioned with school and the education system and has announced his refusal to attend university. His mother Teta, a determined and pushy woman, and classically educated grandmother Evthalia, have always had a legal career in mind for Minas. After an appeal by Minas’ mother to rekindle his interest, his teacher Souk sets him the task to investigate the 1948 murder of American journalist Jack Talas (based on the real murder of George Polk) and subsequent imprisonment of the scapegoat Magnolis Gris (based on Grigoris Staktopoulos) and come up with a plausible theory of culpability.
We began by talking about the issue of scapegoating and the sacrifice that certain individuals and families have made throughout history. We determined that poor Gris was never going to have a chance as he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Post war Greece was politically and economically a mess (we noted the parallels with today’s situation). Most of us, even those who were students of history, knew very little about the machinations of Greek politics, especially in this era, beyond the struggle for power between the left and the right. We discussed the background to the text and the investigative journalism that Jack Talas undertook. We all had our theories about what happened but came to the realisation that Minas comes to, that the point of the book was that many people were culpable.
Sir, why do you insist on laying blame? If we accuse one person, we let everyone else off the hook, and there were lots of people who played a part. Sure, none of them actually lifted the gun. But the situation was created by friends and enemies both. Right or wrong, the result is the same: an innocent man went to jail. Case closed.
Clearly many groups wanted Jack Talas out of the picture but, because of his citizenship as an American, his murder could not just be covered up and ignored. Fearing that the post-war recovering Greece would lose U.S aid justice had to be seen to be done to pacify the American government. Even years later when as a young journalist Tasos, Mina’s father, attempted to reopen the Gris case he was warned away from it by higher authorities at the paper. Gris, noticeably the only character whose narrative voice is absent, happened to be the last person who had seen Talas alive in a public place, had had communist dealings in the past, and was from an impoverished family who did not have the means to create a fuss; all in all he was the perfect scapegoat. Eyewitness accounts, the physical evidence of the body (the contents of Talas’ last meal remains in his stomach) and a lack of concrete evidence to place Gris at the scene of crime, counted for naught. It was very difficult to read the accounts of the torture of Gris and the treatment of his mother and family by the police. As Minas’s father notes,
When elephants dance the ants always pay the price.
We suggested some reasons for why Nikolaidou kept Gris silent and felt that his silence actually made him a more powerful figure. We learn about his past and present through the filter of others’ perceptions and he remains an enigmatic and tragic figure. We had a great deal of sympathy for his mother and her strength of character, through a life of hardship, was also admirable. This led into a discussion about families and the bonds that tie mothers and sons. It was also interesting to juxtapose the roles of the other women in both the contemporary sections of the book and the historical.
The fates of the female characters in the books made for some lively discussion; they certainly made different choices regarding career and family. Gris’ tragedy was also that of his sisters as his imprisonment had deep repercussions for the women of his family. We loved the older character of Evthalia and her opinion of gender roles. We also found that Evathalia’s unrequited love for Dinopoulos and his subsequent reasoning for choosing his wife were fascinating. The role of the matriarch in Greek life made for some interesting reading and we commented how difficult it was for some of these young brides to be under the control of their mother-in-laws. We felt that Minas and Evelina’s relationship provided a satisfying parallel to the unfulfilled love between their grandparents; although we were surprised at the sudden inclusion of the sex scenes in the last few pages.
We were a little disappointed that we did not get to see the actual trial but determined that the details were not actually the point of the novel – it is precisely because of the lack of detail that Gris is convicted. The main purpose of the mystery is to provide the lesson for Minas as this is also a commentary on what is happening in Greece today.
Minas had come to realize that justice is an abstract concept…riddled with qualifications, asterisks, interpretations, clashes of opinion. History books offered no catharsis, as tragedies did; there were no happy endings ….
We found Minas to be a very complex character. His rebellion against going to university is a symbol of the disillusionment of the youth in Greece. He does not see the point of the Greek education system – the Panhellenic examination system that demands hours of cramming of content with little reflection or analysis required. He refers to the high level of unemployment for Greek students and he questions the value of a costly university degree in an uncertain economy.
We loved the chapter headings and their blatant criticism of the education system.
Think before you learn
Schools enlighten only when they burn
The only diploma worth earning is your documentation of insanity
A paranoid is someone who knows a little of what’s going on
Get your hands off our brains
We were surprised to see the Australian education model held up to be a positive example of independent learning:
In other countries, students are introduced to basic research methodology during the last two years of high school. They go to libraries, look at primary sources, learn how to cite scholarly works. They cultivate their own views. If we lived in Australia, you wouldn’t be staring at me right now as if I were an alien.
A few of us were quite hopeful that some of our students emerge with the skills that are mentioned in the above quote, but some were not so sure. It was commented also that relatively good economic times make people politically apathetic. The mention of student sit-ins at the high school, which are prevalent in Greece, is a totally foreign concept to Australian education. We wondered what would have to happen in our schools to cause student rebellion.
In summary, this is a book about disillusionment, despair, the repeating cycle of graft and corruption and the sacrifice of individuals for the sake of the system. The risk of this type of narrative is that for the reader it can be quite frustrating with multiple narrators; it was felt that you are just engaging with one character and enjoying the voice when abruptly it stops and another narrator picks up the story. Although some of our members do really like that kind of narrative. Generally this was considered to have been quite a different read from anything else that we have read in bookclub. Given the difficulty of the narrative structure, the complexity of ideas and philosophies that are mentioned and the sexual content, we felt that it was a book suitable for senior students or Extension English students.