A fat man wearing a splendidly tailored wool suit and bright white tennis shoes arrives by ferry on the beautiful, remote Greek island of Thiminos. Tourist season is over; winter wind and rain will soon begin to make life miserable for the natives. In Anne Zouroudi's novel, The Messenger of Athens, Hermes Diaktoros is the stranger, the fat man of mysterious origins, whose unorthodox behavior roils the waters of this closed, patriarchal, and sometimes primitive society.The novel begins with the recovery of a woman's body from the foot of a cliff. Since Irini Asimakopoulos was reputed to be an unfaithful wife and shunned as such, everyone considers her death to be a suicide. There is no police investigation and burial is swift. Suddenly, Hermes Diaktoros arrives, referring obliquely to "authority in Athens" as the basis for his further inquiry into Irini's death. Panayiotis Zafiridis, the new--and corrupt--police chief, only wants him out of the way, gone.
On the one hand, life on Thiminos has the tick-tock quality of the familiar, generation after generation living the same way: fisherman, shopkeeper, housewife, carpenter, and priest, little touched by the modern world. Their means are modest; most are superstitious. Some are good people, some are not. Some among them dream of other things, other lives, far-away lands. Some guard with ferocity their own verities. Looming over all their lives, atop a high hill, is the cemetery where generations have been interred, bodies buried for precisely seven years after which they are placed in an ossuary, "stacked tibia on fibula with their fathers, and mothers, and sisters, and wives: as close in death as in life."Zouroudi alternates the present--the fat man's investigation into Irini's death--with the events that lead up to it. (Lest you think that I am being politically incorrect, Zouroudi refers to Hermes as "the fat man" throughout the novel. It serves her purpose in some sense, as she deliberately veils his origins.) Irini is sympathetically portrayed as a woman whose marriage to Andreas, an older fisherman, is marked by respect and affection, but is then torn apart by her passion for Theo Hatzistratis, a young carpenter.Irini is close to her Uncle Nikos, who arranged her marriage. He is reputed to be a seer, although it may be just that he has lived a long time and has seen a great deal of life. Irini describes to him a dream she had which he perceives clearly to be of Aphrodite, the goddess of Love. In the dream, Aphrodite leaves a package at Irini's feet, and Nikos tells her that she must never open such a package. The gift of Love brings heartbreak. When she mocks his belief in the ancient gods, he points to the mountains and the sea and tells her that "the view is still what it was when Jason built the Argo and the Minotaur was eating virgins in the labyrinth. Two thousand years and nothing's changed; and don't think they're gone! If you . . . really look--he pointed to the center of his forehead--using this eye, then you start to see. They're here. They're watching. And interfering." Nikos believes the gods are jealous and vindictive: "they play with us still."The fat man covers the rugged terrain on foot and on the village's rickety old bus. His fine clothes, confident manner, and persistent questions about Irini's death give rise to suspicion and fear among the island's inhabitants. The truth that Hermes discovers is horrific, although he never makes it public. He goes about not so much dispensing justice as rearranging things. Those who are remorseful and contrite, he helps to better lives. Those who sneer at the damage their wickedness has wrought are variously punished or dispatched.Anne Zouroudi is a fine writer, and she makes it clear to us that the rugged beauty of the fictional Thiminos is paid for by lives of insularity and boredom, the island's silence merely "the swelling sound of emptiness." The mysterious and portly Hermes Diaktoros is a compelling character whose company I will seek again.