I was predisposed not to enjoy the book. In particular, the title, coupled with a pixelated Turkish-flag-bedraped coastline looming over a fragmented Greek-flag-covered shore tended to suggest to me that this latest work by Greek American journalist, writer and Neos Kosmos contributor Alexander Billinis was but one of a series within the yawn-worthy genre of ‘Τούρκος εγώ και εσύ Ρωμιός … εγώ λαός και εσύ λαός …’; books that seem to be popular nowadays, in which it is tacitly argued that the peoples of the Mediterranean belong to the same cultural heritage and it is only prejudice and politics that keeps them from indulging in a perpetual love-fest. “Yes, there are mosaics and there are melting pots,” I yawned as I reached for the book, “but what we need are more fondues.” And yet, when Billinis writes, one would do well to pay attention.
The first page immediately disabused me of my ridiculous prejudices. As a journalist, this being his first foray into fiction, Billinis’ prose is firm and muscular. It is refreshingly unadorned by literary tropes or clichés and sufficiently light (without in any way being superficial) to permit the reader to immerse themselves completely in what is a breathtaking story. It is trite to mention that I was so absorbed by his text that I read the book in one sitting. It is noteworthy, however, to admit that in the following days, I re-read it another three times, seeking to wring every last drop from the essential oils contained therein.
A chance meeting between a Greek tourist and his Turkish doppelgänger in Smyrna sets off a tumultuous chain of events that climaxes in both of them discovering that they are not only related, but also compelled to reassess much of the lore, mythology and social constructs that comprise both their national and personal identities. Along the way, we are introduced to poignant, but relatively unspoken and unstudied elements of a shared Greek-Turkish history, the most important being: the plight of Greek Muslims fleeing from their Christian compatriots’ revolutionary wrath and their subsequent re-settlement in Asia Minor; the survival and integration of crypto-Christians within Ataturk’s Turkey, and the traumatic and often schizophrenic negotiation of elements of one’s personal identity and history with the changing narrative of the nation state, whether this be secularism, Islam or glorification of the Ottoman Empire, in the case of Turkish society, or in the case of the Greeks, any number of the diachronic elements from times ancient, through to Byzantium and beyond, that comprise both our sense of superiority and victimhood.
All these elements come together to confront the main protagonists of the novel in a concatenation of circumstances whose heart-arresting climax would appear unlikely and implausible in any other part of the world save the Balkans. The author agrees that “truth is [usually] stranger than fiction”, and in his case this is definitely so, for his narrative is loosely inspired by discoveries, one, in his own family history, of the existence of a Muslim ancestor who converted to Christianity after the Greek War of Independence and another, while on a trip to Smyrna, of a Turkish man speaking in a form of Greek which he referred to as “Kritika”.
Alexander Billinis is perhaps uniquely positioned to examine the narratives of history and identity that remain on the margins of officially sanctioned ideology and their effects upon the daily lives of individuals. As a Greek American of partial Arvanite descent, a journalist, an investment banker, a lawyer and a traveller, he has a unique and dexterous grasp of the marginal and its subtext.
Furthermore, he has conducted extensive explorations and research within the Balkans and Turkey, producing incisive, gem-like texts about the way civilisations and cultural elements lap away at each other, and often, subsume each other. The book’s front cover is thus symbolic of this process and has as its inspiration the whitewashing of the frescoes of Saint Sophia. As such, the book is a crucible in which all of his careful observations, gleaned over years of travel, are reduced, faithfully revealing in microcosm, not only a personal drama but a region in flux and in crisis, beneath the ‘plaster’ of the blue and white of the Greek flag, or the Turkish red and white, just as an archeologist would liberate the Saint Sophia mosaics from their veil of gypsum.
Perhaps reflecting Billinis’ own inclusive and cosmopolitan outlook (he is entranced by what he perceives to be the cultural inclusiveness of Byzantium, give or take a heresy or two), his Greek and Turkish counterparts appear, despite the heavy price they have to pay (in loss of loved ones), willing to accept the peeling away of the scab of ignorance that has clouded their sense of self and reach out to one another. In the meantime however, and this is where Hidden Mosaics becomes ever more so valuable, Billinis, with the finesse of an impressionist, paints a sensitive representation of all of the forces within Greek and Turkish society that are threatened by such a revelation, whether these be the Ataturk secularists of the Turkish protagonist’s family, his Islam-focused boss and work rivals or, in the case of the Greek main character, Golden Dawn adherent with a particular monolithic view of Greece and their own identity, often forged amidst fires of great pain and personal tragedy. Juxtaposed cleverly against these are marginal figures created by modern society, gays, members of ethnic minorities and trans-religious couples, all of whom make cameo appearances as if belonging to an ancient Greek chorus, in order to add yet another tessera to the complex mosaic that Billinis so expertly reveals to us.
Hidden Mosaics is not a happy-ever-after novel. Billinis takes his leave of his main characters as they ‘return to the ground’, in order to address their own serious existential problems, including that of whether it is worth abandoning the region and seeking a better life elsewhere by means of emigration. Even here, Billinis’ deconstructive approach to identity and history is subtly made manifest. While his Turkish protagonist is quick to admire western and in particular American history and culture, he is reminded by a Greek academic that his object of admiration committed genocide against its native population (much like Turkey). A close reading of the text will reveal many such parallels, circularities and incongruities that will delight the reader and provide ample pause for reflection.
An Aegean region without the whitewash of ideology, mythology and nationalism would be a brave and possibly unrecognisable new world indeed. It is the mark of a true storyteller that Alexander Billinis has been able to deftly weave his preoccupations within the warp and the weft of a broader social tapestry that is in the process of unravelling, without his narrative appearing implausible, preachy or doctrinaire. For this, and for the thrill of plunging into a tale that comes together so brilliantly, Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale makes for compulsory summer reading.
*Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne-based solicitor and freelance journalist.