‘Death Customs’ by Constantia Soteriou, translated by Lina Protopapa

There are many stories here, even more stories than there are voices; and there are many voices. A whole chorus of voices in the ancient Greek dramatic style. Are they ghosts? Are they old women who, together with Spasoula, waited for their sons and husbands to be released from Turkish camps or identified in mass graves, waiting together with her now that she is dying?

– Is there anyone she hasn’t forgiven, so we can bring them to her to forgive?
– She must be guilty of many sins.
– Sins, sins.

The chorus’ chanting alternates with a narrator’s reminiscences, her lonely voice just as musical and even more eerie, her incantations forming invocations, flagellations: “I forgot the chest. You forgot the chest. I forgot the chest . . .” The translator’s footnote says Soteriou’s Greek text uses almost no punctuation and makes few explicit connections between ideas, making us seem to slide in and out of time, a vividly remembered past bleeding out into a hazy, offside kind of eternity which is also the purgatorial present. Why is the narrator so furious with Spasoula and so fond of her at the same time—this Spasoula who tends the graves of other people’s loved ones? That is one story within Soteriou’s story. There are also the murders of POWs committed by both sides of the Greek-Turkish wars, conflicts in which nobody is innocent. The old women who are left attend to funerary customs according to pantheistic, Islamic, Christian, and folk traditions. The mass graves of POWs are “a higgeldy-piggeldy of bones . . . nobody knew who was who . . . a well full of Greek and Turkish bones . . .”

First published in English Granta, June 2019, and available to read here

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