Portrait of a Greek Imagination: An Ethnographic Biography of Andreas Nenedakis

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Portrait of a Greek Imagination: An Ethnographic Biography of Andreas Nenedakis. MICHAEL HERZFELD. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997; 333 pp.

The dialogue between literature and ethnography is developed in innovative ways in this scholarly and imaginative text. The anthropologist has known the other author throughout his own fieldwork in Crete and is given a unique opportunity to link the work of an indigenous intellectual and novelist with the concerns of anthropology. There is a familiar critique by specialists in literature that readers must not make easy connections, if any, between biography, autobiography, and the imaginative final literary text; such mixed genres are firmly labelled nonfiction. Yet even the most pedestrian ethnographer accepts that something happens of another order in the transformation of lived experience through the novelist's creative act. However, anthropologists should be free to unravel the culturally and historically specific in a creative literary process and production. This is fair exchange with textual critics who have pointed to the literary strategies embedded in apparently objective scientific monographs. Herzfeld does not simplistically reduce literary texts to biographical events, as if the latter were sufficient and causal explanations for their reappearance in fiction. We are shown how certain lived experiences, whether banal or melodramatic, are selected by Nenedakis and written in compelling guises. Their reappearance can strengthen their historical and cultural authenticity. Herzfeld subtly links individual event and autobiographical experience with the wider context. That context may be family, village, mountain sheep herders, Crete, Greece, or beyond.

The analysis swings between appreciating the individual as a relatively autonomous agent and one who acts within and against structure. By following the individual's unique narrative and specific experience, Herzfeld exposes the constraints in standard monographs which have traditionally emphasised norms and patterns within which it was presumed all individuals conformed. Instead, through the biographical details of both Nenedakis and his parents, Herzfeld convinces the reader how individuals can simultaneously rebel and create within long established cultural and historical contexts. Some individuals are traced in Nendakis' autobiographical conversations with Herzfeld, then rediscovered in various forms in his fiction or historicised account. The rigid divisions between "fact" and "fiction"; science and literature; ethnography and novel are stretched to the breaking point

The range of Nenedakis' work is impressive; none of it translated into English. It is to be hoped that translations will now follow. The anthropologist is in a privileged position to engage with an indigenous novelist and intellectual. Cretan born, the novelist has also lived in many places. Herzfeld convincingly offers the ethnographic biography; "a hybrid and uncertain genre," as a way to researching transnational intellectual communities. Nenedakis fought in El Alamein, was imprisoned and condemned to death as a communist. Later faced with the colonels' coup, he chose exile in Sweden and then poverty in Paris. He has lived subsequent years in Athens, while maintaining links with his original home. All these experiences are drawn upon in novels or semi-fictionalised texts. He wrote the first account of life under the Greek colonels. He also edited and reinterpreted the work of a Rethemniot poet, Bounialis, affirming indigenous authenticity through local linguistic nuances. …