Glen James Brown reviews Fear of Barbarians by Petar Andonvski – translated from Macedonian by Christina E. Kramer – an award-winning novel following two women living in Gavdos, a remote island south of Crete.
Whoever leaves never returns. This is the description of the island of Gavdos given by Kiki, one of the albino twins living on the fringes of its solitary village. Kiki is not the only recluse clinging to existence on Gavdos, an isolated rock adrift in the endless cerulean of the Mediterranean. There are others, a handful of insular and fearful souls whose barren lives are disturbed when three Russians—workers from Chernobyl recuperating from radiation sickness—arrive on the island. Their appearance stirs long dormant memories, inflaming hatreds and suspicions on both sides, and sets into motion a reckoning with the very concept of what it means to belong. Who, then, are the titular barbarians? This is the central question Petar Andonovski wrestles in his powerful, award-winning novel.
While Fear of Barbarians makes reference to late 20th Century events such as Chernobyl and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the island of Gavdos feels ancient, a sun-bleached liminal space outside the normal flow of time. The women here don’t know what lipstick is, observes one outsider. They always dress in black, they don’t even know that any other colour exists. There is no transport or infrastructure; no suggestion of electricity or modern medicine. At night, the men huddle in the only tavern, drinking and muttering against the dark. Their fear of the world at large borders on the phantasmagorical, the surrounding ocean a metaphysical boundary separating the island from the rest of existence. Those who leave (never to return) become part of the island’s mythology. The novel brims with stories the islanders tell each other about the departed—the strange fates of those who reach foreign shores, others who vanish beneath the waves—almost as reinforcement against whatever dangers lurk beyond the horizon. The skill with which Andonovski braids these tales into the narrative, adding depth and pathos to Gavdos’ previously Archetypal characters of Witch, Hermit, Mad Woman, is that of a consummate storyteller. It has its roots in oral story-telling traditions stretching back to the ancient Greeks, who traversed the same waters around Gavdos thousands of years prior.
This link back to the cradle of the Western canon is echoed in the name of one of the novel’s two protagonists, a woman named Penelope. Like the wife of Odysseus, she, too, is imprisoned in her own home and surrounded by hostiles—a callous husband and mercurial daughter. Her new neighbour is the Russian Oksana, also confined indoors due to the island’s suspicions of her and her two male compatriots. As women, Penelope and Oksana have been doubly marginalised on the rigidly patriarchal Gavdos. In alternating chapters, they each address a private you—figures from their respective pasts who once represented the possibility of love and freedom, but who then abandoned them to the fate befalling most women in traditional society: silence and subjugation. The way Penelope and Oksana address these personal ghosts is heartbreaking; their narratives read like prayers whispered in the dead of night, incantations of unbearable intimacy. It seems the only way the two women can endure the people they are with is to commune with those who no longer are. And it is through their contrasting perspectives that we witness how both sides on the island view the other as the aggressor, leading to hostilities between the natives and the immigrants which ultimately escalate and overspill into tragedy.
This is the crux of Andonovski’s short, sober novel. Is love or fear more powerful in binding us to people and place? What are the consequences when looking inwards to our pasts stymies our ability to reach out beyond ourselves and into the future? With great skill and compassion, Fear of Barbarians explores these eternal questions. The wonder here is how the book reads simultaneously as an allegory from some distant epoch, but also as an urgent contemporary novel speaking to our sadly all too troubled times.
Fear of Barbarians is available via Parthian Books.