‘She came upon the old man, sitting at the foot of a mulberry tree, playing his instrument. All around him … boys and girls just like her, skipped and hopped and jumped to the beat of the music, dancing as they tried to reach the ripe, swollen mulberries hanging over their heads. Sometimes they managed to reach them and their thick juices would drip onto their faces and stain their cheeks.’ (page 14)
I am pleased to review this book, despite the fact that I felt uniquely unqualified to do so, being neither Greek nor an expert in the field of children’s literature. But when I opened it and discovered that its author is Dean Kalimniou, the Melbourne-based poet – a field which is my own – I was hooked, and this is why.
This generously dimensioned, sumptuously designed, parallel-text book in English and modern Greek tells the fable of a young girl, Soumela, who escapes war by retreating into the forest where, guided by the lilting notes of the kemenche, the Pontian lyra, she navigates her way to the monastery high up in the mountains. The journey she goes on to make is magical, and at times dangerous, but in her moments of heightened fear, surrounded by bullets and fires, swords and hunger, she finds herself protected by the music, until she finally steps out to a new shore, and safety. As even the short quote above shows, the writing is lyrical and deeply symbolic, plunging us into a world seen and felt through Soumela’s eyes and heart: the game the children devise for themselves with mulberries is poignantly suggestive of their suffering while deliberately refraining from being in any way explicit. Tellingly, the book is dedicated not only to the author’s daughter but also to ‘all mulberry stained children all over the world’.
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Like every good poem, this book can be read at multiple levels. Very young children, to whom this book is primarily directed, can have the book read to them by family members, and will respond as much to the illustrations as to the words. The artwork by Stephanos Eleftheriadisis sensitive as well as delightful. Variety is key, with the placement of images on each double page spread different from the one before it, and a tonal mirroring of events described. Compare, for instance, the bright bold colours used when Soumela is safe and happy with her mother with the fading greys and minimal colour when she is alone in the dark and menacing forest or the surreal tones which are the backdrop to her arrival at her new home. Much of the effect of such sophistication is subliminal, but no less powerful for that. The author’s own daughter’s illustration at the end, in a style all her own, complements the preceding illustrations. In Soumela’s safe arrival, and overcoming of obstacles, the young child will have confirmed the triumph of good over evil.
Older readers will, however, also respond to the layered nature of the narrative, and its symbolic qualities. Soumela’s fleeing the unnamed war at the beginning will be understood as a veiled reference to the Pontic genocide, the systematic killing of the Greek population of Anatolia carried out during and after World War I – which will also resonate with other victims of genocide forced to flee their countries and find homes elsewhere. The dangers which Soumela encounters on her passage to freedom are depicted in terms which most of us can relate at some level, and her dependence on the music from the three-stringed kemenche for protection and guidance can be interpreted as representing a universal human impulse to invest in values (which themselves are open to interpretation) that transcend pure materialism.
The embodiment of moral truths in the form of story-telling is an art as old as civilisation itself, and central to the development and preservation of all cultures. In presenting the community with an artefact which enables parents to carefully educate even their youngest children in their history, including its more confronting aspects,the publication of Soumela and the Magic Kemenche is an astute and timely move.
Published by St Andrew’s Orthodox Press with the active backing of Archbishop Makarios of Australia, it contains clear and concise notes on the Soumela Monastery (after which the heroine is named), Saint Eugenios, and their special place in the culture of the Greeks of Pontus. It is a book for the home, the classroom and the library – in short, a brilliantly layered and sensitive fable and an invaluable cultural resource.
Denise O’Hagan is an award-winning editor and poet, based in Sydney. She has a background in commercial book publishing in the UK and Australia. In 2015, she set up her own imprint, Black Quill Press, through which she assists independent authors. Her writing is published widely and has received numerous awards, most recently the Dalkey Poetry Prize 2020. https://denise-ohagan.com
Soumela and the Magic Kemenche is available at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Bookshop at Axion Esti Monastery, 7 Hartington St, Northcote, or online, at: https://www.greekorthodoxbookshop.com.au/standrewsorthodoxpress