REVIEW by Willard Manus
publication of his twenty-first book, THE SHEPHERDS OF SHADOWS, Harry
Mark Petrakis crowns his long literary career with an illustrious achievement.
A fictional treatment of the early years (1823-25) of the Greek war of
independence, his latest novel succeeds on many levels, beginning with
the historical. Petrakis not only brings to life in masterful, Tolstoyan
fashion the battles Greece fought against Turkey in the Peloponnese, but
does the same for the men who led those clashes: Ibrahim Pasha, Markos
Botsaris, Theodoros Kolokotronis, Yannis Makriyannis and Lord Byron, to
name but a few. Each and every one of them lives vividly on the page,
with nary a whiff of pedantry in the air. The same holds true for the
lesser-known people in the book: the hardy sea captain Leonidas Kontos;
the compassionate village priest, Father Markos; the schoolteacher turned
scribe, Xanthos; the beautiful widow Matina Vrouvas with whom Xanthos
falls passionately--and dangerously--in love.
Petrakis paints a large canvas--a tapestry, really--with THE SHEPHERDS
OF SHADOWS, but his brushstrokes are minute and telling. His descriptions
of the battle scenes on the island of Psara and, later, at Tripolitza,
are executed with breathtaking skill and power. Petrakis holds nothing
back, not even when dealing with the atrocities committed by the Greeks
during the course of the war.
There was brutality on both sides, the author reminds us. "Whether
Greeks or Turks were victorious, the victors often massacred the defeated,"
he comments. "When there were no battles to be fought, robbery and
murder flourished. Dead bodies became so numerous that they were left
unburied to rot in the streets of towns and villages or to be eaten by
bands of wild dogs that roamed the countryside. These decaying corpses
produced virulent outbreaks of the plague."
Marring the Greek cause were further human failings and conflicts. Various
groups and leaders claimed to represent the government of the revolution:
the generals Kolokotronis and Mavromichalis; the Greek Phanariot, Mavrokordatos;
a self-styled savior from eastern Greece, Theodore Negris. Then there
were dozens of lesser-known but equally headstrong warlords, klephts and
guerillas whose lust for power and riches was such that they fought each
other more passionately than they did the Turks.
These bitter rivalries and hatreds were not new to Greece, Petrakis reminds
us. They "led to the terrible twenty-seven year Peloponnesian War
between the city-states of Athens and Sparta. While it ended with Sparta
the apparent winner, it exhausted both states and destroyed the military
and political supremacy of the Hellenes. Their influence and power passed
to the Dorian kings of Macedonia, Philip II and his son Alexander, until
that ambitious young king foundered in the vast recesses of the eastern
lands he sought to conquer. The historian Herodotus summed up the tragic
history of Greece: 'It was the custom of the gods to bring low all things
of surpassing greatness.'"
How Greece managed to surmount these internal weaknesses and conflicts
and ultimately triumph over her Muslim masters is what THE SHEPHERDS OF
SHADOWS is all about. As Petrakis shows, the victory was won by the ordinary
people of Greece, whose resolve to "live as free men and women never
wavered. The mighty epics of Homer and the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles,
and Euripides, from the land battles at Marathon and Thermopylae, the
great sea battle at Salamis--all depicted and honored the victory of men
over tyrants, the supremacy of freedom over slavery."
(Southern Illinois Press, 800-621-2736, siu.edu/-siupress).