“The most original hotel in the world”:

Memory, crime and tourism in Giannis Maris’ novel The Hands of Aphrodite (1963)

by Nikos Filippaios, University Ioanina

With thanks to Ciara Gorman, Queen’s University, Belfast

The subject of this presentation is the Greek crime fiction novel The Hands of Aphrodite which was written by Giannis Maris, first published in 1963 as a series in a successful newspaper of that time in Greece[1]. The novel and its sociopolitical components will be discussed through a theoretical perspective which selectively combines the scholarship on the historical memory, the literary analysis of crime fiction and also the wider spectrum of sociological and anthropological studies.

Giannis Maris (1916-1979) is considered  the father of Greek crime fiction, as he managed to give to this European and US popular fiction genre an undoubtedly modern Greek identity. In his almost fifty crime novels, GM represents – through the structure and the conventions of the crime fiction genre – the contradictions of the post-war urban development in Greece, and particularly in Athens. At his best, Maris combines economic, social and cultural critique with political and ideological analysis. Police officer Giorgos Mpekas plays the role of the crime solver in almost all of these novels. Generally, Maris was influenced by Georges Simenon, thus Giorgos Mpekas is reminiscent of Jules Maigret – however, he has his own unique features. He is presented as a typical portly family man of the 1950s and 1960s in Greece, but behind this banal appearance hides a brilliant detective, who knows how to look at the details of a case, who can psychologize the suspects and even play with their illusions, hopes and fears. Moreover, Mpekas eventually leaves his logic behind and finally becomes involved in the case he investigates, a typical feature of the noir and hard boiled subgenre.

We could say that Maris, following the paradigm of Simenon, utilizes crime fiction in order to criticize the socio-political contradictions of the 1950s and 1960s, as a politically progressive writer who, however, had to avoid censorship of the regime that followed the Greek Civil War (1946-1949). Although in this presentation, there is no time for a complete historical retrospective, it is necessary for the analysis of our subject to mention some crucial events that marked the Greek state from the 1940s up to the 1970s.

From 1941 to 1944 Greece was occupied by Nazi Germany, a period full of mainly human, political and economic loss, but also with an important wave of national guerilla resistance against the occupiers. One of the most dark and tragic events of the German Occupation  – an event that plays a central role in the novel we present today – was the dissolution of the long-standing and prosperous Greek Jewish community of Thessaloniki, whose members were sent to concentration camps[2] and, of course, their properties were stolen by the Nazis. In 1944 the Nazis abandoned the country, but soon after a very violent and dreadful Civil War took place between the Right-wing and the Left-wing forces, which is considered  the first act of the Cold War. In 1949 the Civil War ended, with the victory of the right-wing forces. The right-wing governments of the 1950s formed a political, social and cultural hegemony of conservatism, ethnocentrism and fierce anti-communism. It is important to note, especially in relation to the novel’s plot, that some of the Greek collaborators of the Nazis not only occupied key positions in the Greek state apparatus, but they also became an important part of the post-war indigenous bourgeoisie. However, from the end of the 1950s, a combination of factors, such as the increasingly steady economic development of the country, the semi-illegal action of the socialist and Left political forces, but also the strong influence of the Long 60s[3] led to a turn in Greek society as a whole towards more progressive and democratic paths. These paths were, however, closed off  with the imposition of the dictatorship (1967-1974)[4].

This is a summary of the historical background in which the plots of Maris’ novels take place. The novel under consideration, The Hands of Aphrodite, takes place in 1963 and  is mainly influenced by international events. To be more exact, The Hands of Aphrodite is influenced on the one hand by the trial and the execution of Adolf Eichmann, one of the leaders of the Nazi’s Holocaust, by the state of Israel in 1961 and on the other by the initial arrest and the final release of Max Merten, the man largely responsible for the “Greek Holocaust”. Merten visited Greece in 1957 and he was immediately arrested by the Greek authorities, in order to be tried for his crimes; however, after strong reactions from West Germany he was freed[5].

The novel’s plot is set in 1963, when fictional members of the international underworld hunt for the gold that the German Nazis stole from the Greek Jews during the German Occupation (1941-1944), and then hid it in a secret location. The protagonist of Maris’ crime novels, inspector Giogros Mpekas keeps a close eye on them, in cooperation with an officer from the Israeli intelligence service, Captain Yoel.  All the persons involved in the plot travel around Greece during spring and summer and stay in hotels in Athens, but also travel to other tourist destinations in central and southern Greece.

The novel was firstly published in 1963, as a “roman feuilleton” in the Athenian newspaper Evening Post. More specifically, the novel was published as a series in a special strip comic format: images by the illustrator Michalis Gallias, an important artist at the time who made significant contributions to the development of Greek illustration, were accompanied by a sharp and fast-paced narration written by Maris. The novel was republished in its entirety in 1972, edited by Maris himself and in 2013, with introduction by Andreas Apostolidis, an established crime fiction writer and scholar.

Giannis Maris was one of the first European crime fiction writers who introduced the themes of memory and  oblivion, and even the censorship of the Holocaust in his work. Apart from the Hands Of Aphrodite, the Holocaust plays a central role in some other of Maris’ novels and short stories, mainly in the novels A Woman From The Past (1964) and Operation: Vengeance (1964). So we could say that Giannis Maris was one of the pioneers of historical crime fiction, especially the kind which deals with relatively recent and particularly traumatic historical events. As we know the historical subgenre of crime fiction, mostly the one that focuses on the 1940s and World War II, has been extremely popular in recent years; for example the Bernie Gunther series (1993-2019) by Philip Kerr and the novel Readbreast (2000) by Jo Nesbø.

However, in The Hands Of Aphrodite, the issue of the Holocaust and its both historical and person al memory is entwined with a rich reference to hotels, motels and generally with the touristic prosperity of Greece in the late 1950s and mainly in the 1960s. We could claim that this combination of the “Greek Holocaust’ and the touristic places is an element of a literary and cinematic trend named “Holocaust Impiety”. In the context of the Holocaust Impiety writers, directors, mainly representatives of popular culture, portray the Holocaust in a subversive way, which does not seem to align with the tragedy of a crime unique in the history of mankind. Contemporary examples of the Holocaust Impiety trend, which seems to oppose the famous phrase by Theodor Adorno “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”[6], are the Berlin Noir trilogy by Philip Kerr in the field of literature and Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglorious Basterds in the field of cinema[7].

The ideological discourse, moreover the ethos, which is formed in the novel The Hands of Aphrodite is based on this antithesis between the present (i.e. 1963) of a flowering wave of tourism in Greece and the recent past of the extermination of the Greek Jews of Thessaloniki and the seizure of their properties by the Nazi.

A more careful and critical reading of the novel reveals the suspicion lurking within tourism development, which especially in the early 1960s was reinforced by the state apparatus with generous funding and advertising. The concealment of the true identity of the criminals looking for the lost treasure of Greek Jews behind the typical figure of the mindless tourist develops  into a pattern in the novel’s narrative. Of course the space of the hotel plays a central role in this pattern.

In a representative excerpt of the novel, a Israeli spy visits Greece with the fake identity of a lawyer of a Nazi officer responsible for the Greek Holocaust, who was arrested by the Israeli authorities.The true purpose of his visit is to get in touch with the criminals hunting for the treasure and to catch them, but he appears as a foreign visitor ready for the entertaining and hedonistic adventure of a tourist trip in Greece:

Friedrich Dürrenmatt[8], a tourist from Lausanne, settled at the Athene Pallas Hotel. He had an ouzo at Syntagma, paid a visit to the Acropolis in the afternoon and asked his waiter if he could listen to “Children of Piraeus” at night. He slept full of Attic light and with a slightly disturbed stomach he woke up the next morning rather late.

He enjoyed from the window of his room the frame of Akropolis swimming in the golden light and then he made two phone calls, both of them rather strange…

Not only the touristic references in this passage (“ouzo”, “Children of Pireaus” – the famous song written by Manos Hadjidakis and sung by Melina Merkouri and Akropolis), but also the carefully selected words and phrases in a strong relation with light (“Attic light”, “golden light”) parody a mentality about Greek tourism, which especially during the 1960s was dominant. As historian Antonis Liakos writes: “since the end of the 1950s, tourism has been massificated (…) without necessarily being related to antiquities”[9], but – we would continue – as part of “leisure time”, a phenomenon that emerged on a global scale after the Second World War.

Russian theorist Michail Bachtin understands the modern novel as a polyglossic genre, because in most novels an antagonism takes place between the hegemonic language/discourse of the dominant social, economic and political groups and their ideology, on one hand and the emerging languages/discourses, which represent dispersed mentalities stemming from the heterogeneity of the wider social whole, on the other. We could assume (not without doubts, a subject which we cannot analyze this time) that this sociolinguistic interaction takes place even more dynamically in a popular genre, such as crime fiction[10].

Therefore, in the perspective of a Bakhtinian interpretation of the aforementioned passage, an antagonistic dialogue vividly takes place: the hegemonic political, economic and cultural discourse of a flowering and extroverted Greek tourism is criticized by an alternative discourse, concerning the superficiality of Greek tourism, which evokes a historical and personal oblivion mainly of the traumatic experiences of the 1940s, of the Occupation and the Civil War.

Elements which are inextricably linked to historιcal, ethnic, social and cultural identities that formed the Greek state, but were also delimited by it – from the characteristic Mediterranean nature to the ancient Greek historical memory – are degraded into means of a superficial and commercialized tourist enjoyment. It is very important that Dipermatt doesn’t visit Acropolis, but he watches it through his hotel window.

In this context, the space of the hotel in the novel becomes a non-place according to the term  proposed by Marc Augé:

Anthropological place is formed by individual identities, through complicities of language, local references, the unformulated rules of living know-how; non-place creates the shared identity of passengers, customers or Sunday drivers. (…) A person entering the space of non-place is relieved of his usual determinants (…) he tastes for a while –like anyone who is possessed- the passive joys of identity-loss and the more active pleasure of role-playing (…) The space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude and similitude. There is no room there for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle, usually in allusive texts. What reins there is actuality, the urgency of the present moment (…) Everything proceeds as if space had been trapped by time, as if there were no history other than the last forty-eight hours of news[11].

Therefore, we could claim that in the novel the hotel spaces act as non-places of both personal and historical forgetfulness, in our case of an oblivion regarding the “Greek Holocaust”. This interpretation comes in line with the general silence or, we could more accurately say, silent censorship that quickly spread after the German Occupation and the Civil War, regarding the tragic events of the extermination of the Greek Jews of Thessaloniki. The reason for this informal censorship? The fact that the Nazis sent the Jews to the concentration camps and confiscated their property in collaboration with their Greek collaborators, some of whom after the war took key positions in the state apparatus.

However, a crucial feature of the historical crime novel is that the role of the crime solver, who is mentally immersed in past events in order to find the criminal and restore justice, meets the role of the historian, who rationally researches the past in order to restore the truth. Academic Ellen O’Gorman in her article Detective Fiction and Historical Narrative (1999) claims that especially in hard-boiled and noir crime fiction, the detective seeks a reconstruction and interpretation of the past, harmonized with his own code of ethics (which often contradicts the hegemonic ideological line), but ultimately – in the pessimistic context of the noir subgenre –is forced to align with the interpretation and reconstitution of the dominant ideology[12].

Giorgos Mpekas, the police officer in Maris’ novel, undertakes this double role of the detective and the historian, because he drifts into a painful journey in the past of the Occupation, as he chases Nazi criminal officers and their Greek collaborators, a journey that he can endure thanks both to his rationalism and humanity, his almost natural feeling of justice. This double – police and historical – activity of Mpekas leads to a transformation of the hotel space itself: when Mpekas and the Israeli spy, with whom he collaborates, stay in hotels all over Greece, their rooms are turned into spaces where plans are organized in order to bring the criminals to justice. Under these circumstances, the hotel space is not a non-place anymore, as it is dominated by the feeling of security and of the superhuman attempt to restore justice for one of the most despicable crimes in human history, the Holocaust. In the following excerpt, these correlations are presented with an ironic humor, familiar to the noir genre, both in literature and cinema:

And if he does not show up (he means one of the hunters of the Jewish treasure), we will find him, said police officer Mpekas the next day to the Israeli agent.

The two of them – Mpekas and he – were sitting in the room of the small hotel where the Athenian officer had broken down.

– From here, from our room? Yoel teased him

– Yes, answered officer Mpekas quietly. Through our room. (232-233)

Towards the end of the novel, all the people involved in the case, outlaws and defenders of the law alike, gather in a luxurious hotel in the city of Nafplio, which is situated in southern Greece and which was the first capital of the Greek state, even before Athens. Maris’ historical, sociopolitical and cultural commentary is characteristic:

Bourtzi is probably the most original hotel in the world. A small, but strong sea castle that enclosed the port of Nafplio during the Venetian times.

Later, when the Venetians left and Greece became free, Bourtzi hosted the headmen who were executing those sentenced to death in the prisons of Palamidi. These terrible – and unhappy – people (old convicts who chose the profession of the executioner to save their heads) became almost insane in the loneliness of the castle, since they could not go out to the world that hated them.

Once all this was over. And the convicts of Palamidi who were sentenced to death and the guillotines and the executioners. Bourtzi remained a picturesque Venetian monument with awesome stories and fame. Then a clever businessman thought of transforming it into a hotel and Eleanor Roosevelt honored it – and established it – with a brief visit.

Foreign tourists came to feel the shiver of the old days, behind the thick castle gates and its frilled battlements. Film companies have come to make films. Its towers were full of tables and rooms, which were once inhabited by executioners, were decorated with modern furniture, while on their floors that once echoed the heavy armor of the Venetians, tsa-tsa and mambo were danced. From the stairs eaten by the sea, tourists in bikinis dived into the water (193-194)

The readers follow the gradual oblivion of Bourzi as a place conquered by death, violence, madness and fear, as it is transformed firstly into a monument surrendered to the rushed glance of the tourist and finally into a hotel, a non-place dominated by historical oblivion  –perhaps better called pseudo-historical memory – as part of a developed leisure industry, in which superficial personal autonomous expression is linked with mass consumption.

Therefore, as scholars Annette Pritchard and Nigel Morgan note, (post)modern hotels are “complex, culturally contested and ideologically laden liminal spaces”, where “dominant discourses of space and wider hegemonic socio-cultural relations are resisted, contested or affirmed”[13]. In The Hands of Aphrodite the dominant discourse and the hegemonic socio-cultural ideology of an exovert and euphoric tourist industry is contested by a critical view.

This critical view probably concerns the general shift of Greek society and economy towards the western models of production and consumption – in short, towards a globalized late capitalism. This shift seems inevitable but it does not lack disadvantages, which also concern the silencing and censorship of traumatic memories of the German Occupation and the Civil War, with political, social, economic and ultimately ideological incentives. However, this critique developed in the novel avoids any tendency towards conservatism, xenophobia and national introversion, as Giannis Maris observes, keeps track and occasionally comments with mastery, skepticism and sarcasm, with a cynical and at the same time stoic look, on the great changes that the post-war Greek state is experiencing.

[1] Maris G. 2013. The Hands of Aphrodite (Ta Heria Tis Afroditis). Introduction by Andreas Apostolidis. Athens: Agra. The pages containing the excerpts of the novel which are mentioned in the presentation are stated in parentheses, right after these excerpts. Before each excerpt there is the picture which corresponds to the text in the first edition of the novel, in a style combining the strip comic and the roman feuilleton.

This is the text of my presentation at the “International Symposium: Literary Hotels” (9-10 September 2021, Hub Athens), organized by the HOTEMS project (“Hotels and the Modern Subject: 1890-1940”). My presentation was part of the panel “Crime à la Moderne: Memory, Perception, and Mobility in Hotel Crime Narratives” (Friday, September 10).The text is accompanied by a basic bibliography in the form of footnotes and also by pictures, which were included in the pptx. file shown in the presentation.

[2] Saltiel, L. n.y.. The  Holocaust  of  the  Thessaloniki  Jews  and  the  role  of  the  bystanders  (1942-1943) [online] Fondation De La Mémoire De La Shoah.

[3] Marwick, A., 2005. The Cultural Revolution of the Long Sixties: Voices of Reaction, Protest, and Permeation. The International History Review, 27(4), pp.780-806.

[4] For a more detailed and in-depth historical presentation of this specific era, see Clogg, R. 1992. A Concise History of Greece. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, p. 145-168

[5] Hassid, S., 2021. The Trial of Max Merten in the Changing Mirrors of Time and Place. [online] Greece.haifa.ac.il. Available at: https://www.scribd.com/document/57032904/Samuel-Hassid-the-Trial-of-Max-Merten-in-the-Changing-Mirrors-of-Time-and-Place [Accessed 9 December 2021].

[6] Adorno, T., 1983. Prisms. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, p.34.

[7] For the representations of the Holocaust Impiety in crime fiction see: Berberich, C., 2019. Detecting the Past: Detective Novels, the Nazi Past, and Holocaust Impiety. Genealogy, 3(4), pp.70. and Auer, S., 2015. The Holocaust as fiction. [online] Eurozine.com. Available at: <https://www.eurozine.com/the-holocaust-as-fiction/&gt; [Accessed 8 December 2021].

[8] After my presentation, a member of the audience remarked that Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990) was a Swiss writer who was famous in the 1960s. I answered that probably Giannis Maris could have known this writer, however he probably used this name as a typical Swiss one. Τhis subject needs more detailed research.

[9] Liakos A., 2020. The Greek 20th Century. Athens: Polis, pp. 368

[10] Bakhtin, M., 1981. Discourse in the novel. In: M. Bakhtin, ed., The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, 1st ed. Austin: University Of Texas Press, pp. 259-422.

[11] Augé, M., 1995. Non-places: Introduction Τo Αn Anthropology Of Supermodernity. London: Verso, pp.101-104.

[12] O’Gorman, E., 1999. Detective Fiction and Historical Narrative. Greece and Rome, 46(1), pp.19-26.

[13] Pritchard, A. and Morgan, N., 2006. Hotel Babylon? Exploring hotels as liminal sites of transition and transgression. Tourism Management, 27(5), pp.762

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