Ioanna Kaliakatsou

History dramatised: Perspectives and voices of the narrating self in World War II stories

The issue of intermingling history in literature or literature in history, the topic of this conference, has been the object of varied theoretical studies, which overall are oriented around the supposition that both are narratives that interact with society, supplying the latter with ideas, legitimising forms or alibis. (White, 1981: 13-14, Hutcheon, 1988: 60). Thus despite the fact that readers expect the truth when they read a historical narrative, so texts such as memoirs, reminiscences, autobiographical novels, which are defined by their genre, are expected to be viewed as truth telling. A definitive contribution to the validity contracts of narration is provited by the semantics of autobiographical discourse from the cultural or reference code (Barthes, 2007: 33, 129-132) in other words, direct links between the narrative’s time/space framework with the corresponding social and historical chapter, as well as psychological verisimilitude, as the entire narrative time/space of autobiographical discourse is organised in accordance with the thought, logic and emotion of a narrating self. (Lejeune, 1975:40)

The texts, drawing their relativity from historical reality, do not assert knowledge of History, but a sense of History; according to Valtinos , they deal with people in their fated attributes . When reading first-person narratives dealing with the period of the German Occupation of Greece (1941-1944) the impression arises that they develop a loose intertextual link to historiography, recording the traumatic nature of war. In fact, Hobsbawm states that World War II was a “religious war, a war that was carried out without barriers, between ideologies on both sides, and a struggle for survival for most countries” (Hobsbawm, 2006:64). A historical event within an autobiographical venture has existential significance for the narrating self (Stanzel, 1999: 156-157), it is not limited to the self’s experience of the action, but in contrast may function for self-justification, promoting ideological constructs or future collective aspirations, while frequently seeking to fill in the blanks of national history.

In the present study we shall attempt to show that perspectives  and voices of the narrating self reflect the perception of the Occupation in Greece as a dramatic experience and formulate those conditions under which the reader will perceive the text and by extension the historical event. To this end we will utilise examples from Lilika Nakos’s short story collection, I Kolasi ton paidion (A hell for children) , where the immediate – engaging – first person narration  recalls the hunger and poverty suffered by children. We also utilise two books by Greek Jews, Ioanna Marinopoulou by Yvonne Molhou and 548 days with another name (548 meres me allo onoma) by Rosina Asser , where the two women narrators recall the experience of “hidden children”, concealed  by Christians during the Occupation. All three books can qualify as ambivalent text (Shavit, 1986: 63-92), as they simultaneously target both an adult and a juvenile reading public.

Stanzel distinguished figurial from authorial narration by the relationship of the narrator with the created world of the characters (Stanzel, 1999: 52). If the narrator lives in the same world as her figures, she is a figurial narrator (Stanzel, 1999: 34). Stanzel also distinguished figurial narration, where the narrator is incorporated in the time/space of the action, while, at the same time being recognised by the reader as the narrator of the experience, the relationship with the narrating / experiencing self appears to be at full strength (Stanzel, 1999: 156-158).

For the first person narrations we are examining, the History of the Occupation is small everyday anti-heroic actions for survival by hungry children, orphans who sleep on the road, who steal to get by, who hide themselves to survive. The narrating self of the first-person narrator sometimes falls back, pushing forward the experiencing self and adopting a role of self-reflection (Stanzel, 1999: 93-94). It is quite characteristic that in the excerpt of the short story by Lilika Nakos, when the child steals milk from somebody’s donkey, in order to keep the family baby alive “The child filled the container to the top and then, continuing to look worried, glanced furtively around, to ensure not being seen.  The child hurriedly started to leave, covering the container of milk with a rag. But starting on its way, as it turned its glance it saw me! The child lost it. It appeared scared and rooted to the ground. It looked at me with those wide open eyes that sear your heart” (Nakos, 2004:62).

Curiosity, momentary unease, surprise, sorrow, are all perceived by the reader from the point of view and the conscience of a self-reflecting narrator who records her subjective impressions about events. The reader experiences every new shade and nuance of emotion and perceives the tension, as the perspectives of observer and child meet and the child’s secret is revealed. The choice of stage perspective – much more than the I-centred perspective – can depict the miniature drama between the protagonist who suffers hunger, and the narrator, who, by writing this, brings to life a moment of existential crisis, hoping to rid herself of it.

At times sorrow, pain and despair cannot be verbalised by the narrator, in contrast with emotions that gain a spatial dimension. The dramatic situation experienced by this individual during the Occupation is expressed indirectly, by organising a perspective where the narrating self is in line with the location. In this sense, location constitutes a narrative structure that includes the discourse on history within in the background, leaving on the surface the discourse on the memory of a painful experience. A characteristic example of such internal perspective (Stanzel 1999:184, Perri, 1994: 2-3) is encountered by Molhou’s book, where the young Jewish girl with the fake identity card – unfamiliar with household chores - is forced to work as a maid in a house, in order not to reveal who she really is. “The furniture in the house was very heavy, carved in wood with dark velvet material coverings. The velvet curtains were just as dark and heavy, so that, when I lifted my eyes to see where they hung from, my eyes couldn’t see where they ended. The ceiling must surely have been four metres high. All this set the stage for a heavy atmosphere and creating an even greater burden on my already weary soul” (Molhou-Kapouano, 2006:134).

The space, suffocating and imposing, constitutes a field of both sorrow and salvation for the subject. Thus space (all this) with its expressiveness, mirrors the biosomatic experience of the hunted, vividly imparting to the reader the intensity of the condition of being exempt.

Bakhtin’s views on dialectics, the coexistence and conflict of different voices within a discourse (Bakhtin, 2001: 337-338) are particularly useful in order to notate the conscience conflict of the narrating self. Historical existence appears smothered in its own despair, too weak to escape the festering decay that surrounds it, in other words aware of its own drama. The reader reads the content of the thoughts, as the narrating self recounts them: “My God, I thought, so much space, so much sun outside and look where people hole up in to live” (Nakos, 2004: 64) says the narrator, descending into a damp basement home. The reader can also become a communicant of the narrating self's thoughts as these are in the process of being formed: “And I was thinking now, as I walked up and down the wards, why, God, is this land of ours so hard on the children on those who work? ‘Terre inhumaine’, that’s what I said in my mind. Inhuman land” (Nakos, 2004: 169). The voice of the narrating self unfolds its innermost thoughts before the young reader’s eyes, in order to reveal the existential blank that fills him with anxiety, despair and anguish. This expression of personal anguish, the bitter acceptance, that the world has become violent and melancholic, shape the narrator’s implied perspective faced with the event of war and highlight his conscious ideological stance to this historical event. Wayne Booth claims that so long as what the character thinks and feels can be taken directly as a reliable clue about the circumstances he faces, the reader can experience those circumstances with him even more strongly because of his moral isolation. (Booth, 1961: 274)

We encounter a different instance in the following excerpt: “We too knew that men were dying by the dozen. But as soon as the beds emptied, more would arrive. They took a couple of days or so, and then they too would die. And all would be suffering from the same thing. Exhaustion, dysentery, from the rubbish they ate, hardships. There was no real sickness. Famine, they say. Famine! They talk about it in church and pray that it should never befall the world. Weren’t we hungry also? Weren’t the nurses fainting from hunger too?” (Nakos, 2004: 32). The discordant self-narration (Cohn, 2001:196-205) communicates what everybody knew at that time and conveys the impersonal voice of the people that expresses an example of misery (Famine).  The narrating self differentiates itself from the self within the action, attempting to analyse the consciousness of the past, the internal drama of the subject: death experienced on a daily basis and the narrator’s attempt to distance herself emotionally from it. The reader follows the narrating self as it analyses, attempts to bring order to her turbulent internal life from the period of time covered, of which the reader would never otherwise be conscious.

The voice of the narrating self does not appear in texts only to testify to its thoughts in respect of this personal and national adventure, but also to see its own self, as it has never been seen before. Through the self-referential techniques, the narrative self not only takes responsibility – through the narration – for recording a historical event, but becomes in and of itself History, because it can preserve the perception of the war and the changes this event brought on for man. We read from Asser’s book: “Exiting the Negrepontes’ front door, Mr. Petihanas recognised… ‘Hey you Pardo kid’, he shouted. It had been quite some time since I’d heard my name (Pardo) and I ran until I got to 113 Tsimiski Street, because I was so frightened. Fear had nested deep within my soul” (Pardo - Asser, 1999: 70). In this excerpt the narrative self distances itself from the experiential self. With the phrase “It had been quite some time since I’d heard my name” she refers to herself, observed with astonishment, as if from a distance. The result is that it emphasises to the reader the image of a subject who recycles within herself the pinpricks of recent experiences. As memories hold existential significance for the narrating self, there follows a confessional increment . (“Fear had nested deep within my soul”) with the simplicity of its voice talks about the Jewish child of that time, victim to the irrational conduct of adults. Thus self-referencing dramatises the changes that the Occupation wrought on the individual, changes that were engraved on her soul, as a trust of knowledge that cannot be recorded in official documents, while, at the same time, the young reader, feels for her suffering.

The first-person narrator in stories that refer to World War II is a person bridging the symbolic distance between historical reality and literature, a borderline form. It intrudes upon the narrative of History as diversity and variation, in order to record the mental state of human isolation. The voices and perspectives adopted, highlight a person living in a world that is in the process of disintegrating, that proceeds at the accessible measure of all that is earth-bound and human, and is guided by fate and necessity. This is an individual aware of her own tragedy. In a world destroyed, marked by war, brutality, and victimisation of the individual, the silent assumptions of peace, humanism, mutual aid, can cover the individual’s existential vacuum.  As in first-person narrations the young reader identifies with the narrator, the variety of perspectives (scene to agent, aligning with topic) and voices (self-quotation and self referencing strategy) create an intensity of an emotional nature that the reader cannot evade. In this manner first person narratives provide an alternate narrative of History. The result is a perception of the German Occupation, as a dramatic event, and the restructuring of the forms of history at our disposal, which are based on dominant ideological formulations as the German Occupation as a heroic period of Struggle and Resistance.

Ioanna Kaliakatsou, Greece

31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen 2008

Works Cited

  1. Abatzopoulou Fragiski (1998) “The testimonies of the Greek-Jews for the genocide”, The Jews of Greece during the Occupation (I Evrei tis Elladas stin Katohi) Benveniste Rika (ed.),  Thessaloniki: Vanias, 77-91
  2. Assmann Aleida (2006) “History, Memory and the genre of testimony”, Poetics Today Vol. 27, No 2, Summer, 261-273.
  3. Bakhtin M.M. (2001) The Dialogic Imagination – Four Essays, Holquist M (ed.), Emerson C. and Holquist M.(trans.), Austin: University of Texas Press
  4. Barthes Roland (2007) S/Z, Kouledianou Μ. (translator), Athens: nisos.
  5. Booth C. Wayne (1961) The Rhetoric of Fiction, Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.
  6. Cohn Dorrit (2001) Transparent Minds. Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction, Behlikoudi D (trans.), Athens: Papazisi.
  7. Genette G. (1997) Palimpsests – Literature in the Second Degree, Channa Newman & Claude Doubinsky (trans.), Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.
  8. Hobsbawm Ε. J (2006) Age of Extremes – The Short Twentieth Century (1914-1991), Kapetanyiannis V. (trans.), Themelio, Athens.
  9. Intzidis E., Papadopoulos A., Sioutis Ar. Tiktopoulou E., (2007) The Amazing Pencils, Athens :ΟΕΔΒ
  10. Kastrinaki Αgela (2005) Literature in the disturbed decade 1940-1950 Athens: Polis
  11. Katsiki-Givalou A., Papadatos G., Patsiou V., Politis D., Pylarinos Th. (2007) At the school of the World, Anthology of Literary Texts, Athens: ΟΕΔΒ
  12. Lejeune Philippe (1975) Le Pacte autobiographique, Paris : Seuil.
  13. Nakos Lilika, (2004) A hell for children  Athens, Hestia.
  14. Molchou-Kapounou Yvonne (2006) Ioanna Marinopoulou, Athens: Gavriilidis.
  15. White Hayden (1981) “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality”, in On Narrative, W.J.T. Mitchell, (ed)., Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press (1-24)
  16. Hutcheon Linda (1988) “The pastime of past time: Fiction, history, historiographic metafiction” Perloff Marjorie (ed.) Postmodern genres, Oklahoma: Norman University of Oklahoma Press, 54-74.
  17. Pardo Asser Rosina (1999) 548 days with another name – Thessalonica 1943,  Athens: Gavriilidis.
  18. Perri Massimo (1994) Essays of Narratology, Iraklio: Panepistimiakes Ekdosis Kritis.
  19. Schwenke Wyile Andrea (1999) “Expanding the View of First – Person Narration”, Children’s Literature in Education, Vol. 30, No 3, 185-202.
  20. Shavit Zohar (1986) Poetics of Children’s Literature, Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 63-92.
  21. Spengler-Axiopoulou Barbara (1998), «Solidarity and assistance to the Jews of Greece during the Occupation 1941-1944» The Jews of Greece during the Occupation Benveniste Rika (ed.), Thessaloniki: Vanias, 13-28.
  22. Stanzel Franz (1999) A Theory of Narrative, Chrisomalli-Henrich (trans.), Thessaloniki: University Studio Press.
  23. Valtinos Thanasis (1995) «Beyond Reality. The Historical Fact as an Element of Myth», Historical Reality and Neohellenic Prose (1945-1995), Athens: Eteria Spoudon Neohelinikou Politismou ke Genikis Pedias, 329-347.


It is truth that many historians at the past had been discarded memory as an unreliable source. In our days memory came to be acknowledged by the historiography as an important factor in the reconstruction of past events. “History and memory, then, are no longer considered to be rivals and more and more are accepted as complementary modes of reconstructing and relating to the past.

As Valtinos characteristically states, History “records human actions, the course of the human species on earth, in a manner that is necessarily logistical.This give-and-take does not by definition exclude other perspectives, nor is it without inspiration.It can often be thrilling to read. However, it can never be poetical, because it is beyond its capacity to deal with people themselves, that is, with their fated attributes”. (Valtinos, 1995:333-334)   

Stanzel utilised the term “perspective” as a synonym to G. Genette’s term focalisation and utilised the term focalisation with a different meaning. (Stanzel, 1999: 187-188)

These short stories were written during the Occupation, throughout the winter and spring of 1942 and were sent illicitly to Switzerland, where they were published in French and English in newspapers, in order to support Red Cross fundraising. They were first published in book form in Greek in Alexandria in 1944 and remain in print to this day. (Kastrinaki, 2005: 56)

According to Schwenke-Wyile “In immediate-engaging first person narration the narrating agent and the focalizer are the same “person”.

Rosina Asser Pardo wrote her reminiscences based on a diary she kept during that time using the name Roula Karakotsou. In the book the two narrators giving the same account – the narrator of the diary and the one undertaking the act of narrating – function in parallel, with the result that there is no limitation of the reader’s field of perception. As these reminiscences have existential significance for the narrative self, the mature narrating self functions as a complement and sets out adult knowledge and experience. Rosina Asser’s book can be considered as a hypertext to The Diary of Anne Frank (Concerning the term hypertextuality see:The intertextual relationship developed with The Diary of Anne Frank is not located solely on the level of suggestion made by the author. As she states: “publishing this text I wrote at age ten, I do not intend to be compared to Anne Frank. Nor do I seek any literary recognition. My purpose is for my children and others of my generation to learn that the years 1940-1945, years of war and persecution, marked me in mind and soul” (Pardo Asser, 1999: 9-10) The hypertext is semiotically connected to the older text to the degree that it carries the same feel of the collective memory shared by Jews during those years: A life organised around the silence of a hiding place and constant threat.

Over the past decade there has been a new perception that includes as the Holocaust survivors not only those who survived the death camps, but those who survived by escaping to countries that remained free and those who remained hidden in towns and villages. (Spengler-Axiopoulou, 1998: 13-14).

It is worth noting that both Nakos’s short story and excerpts from Asser’s book are in the material covered by school textbooks and are proposed as commemoration day reads for pupils in the third grade of Primary School. A fact that confirms that the institutions (literary criticism, the educators of the Pedagogical Institute who set the curriculum) have appraised these texts concerning their adequacy and their accuracy concerning their extra-textual historical reality and thus affecting the manner in which they are perceived (Katsiki-Givalou A., Papadatos G., Patsiou V., Politis D., Pylarinos Th., 2007: 104-109. See also Intzidis E., Papadopoulos A., Sioutis Ar.Tiktopoulou E., 2007: 79)

According to Fragiski Abatzopoulou “the histories by survivors take on the nature of a testimony only due to the co-testimony of others, and by co-testimony we do not mean solely the visual verification, by the merciful stance when faced by suffering. Without the element of mercy on the part of the recipient of the narrative, the pain would remain silent and unexpressed. Pain will only gain a voice, if the audience […] has constructed its own story concerning pain, based on its own experiences”. (Abatzopoulou, 1998: 83)

The term “confessional increment” expresses the view of first-person narrative, which creates additional co-statements and has a specific characteristic significance that goes beyond simply the informational value of the event it conveys. (Stanzel, 1999: 163-164).