Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese

Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese

By Patrick Leigh Fermor

John Murray, London (2004 reprint)

Originally reviewed by Chris Deliso on August 3, 2008 here.

2008 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the original publication of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, considered one of the most important travelogues of the 20th century by many critics. Although the book is now often described as a ‘companion text’ to the author’s later account of travels in Northern Greece, Roumeli (1966), the author reveals that he originally meant it to be ‘a single chapter among many’ that would cumulatively encompass his long travels and experience throughout Greek lands.

However, the fact that the southernmost region of the Peloponnese had been so often ignored by modern writers inspired the author to pen something more substantial about this wild place, ‘the remote and barren but astonishing region of the Mani’ (p. xi).

Nevertheless, to understand the book it is important to keep the author’s original, encyclopedic and pan-Hellenic impetus in mind, as it helps explain the structure of the work and the authorial decision-making process, in which Fermor attempted to solve a problem that he described as ‘one of exclusion.’

Born in 1915, Patrick Leigh Fermor is one of the oldest living writers in the world. He is also perhaps a bit of a throwback; he revealed to the Guardian in 2007 that he had only just started using a typewriter, having previously written out all of his works in painstaking longhand.

Fermor is also possibly the last living Modernist, at least among the last for who the canon, as traditionally understood in Western academia, is still to be respected. Ironically, he discovered the greats of Latin and Greek literature through rebelling against his schooling; too hard to keep disciplined, he set off at the age of 18 for a saunter across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, writing about it much later in A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). Fermor’s many fans hope that the boy will finally reach Constantinople in a projected third and final volume.

Fermor’s life become more remarkable when, after having traveled for several years in Greece, he was chosen by the British government to organize a resistance movement in the mountains of Crete against the German occupation forces during World War II. Here he developed a deep admiration for the fiery Cretans, and achieved a splendid success when he helped capture the German general Karl Kreipe, smuggling him through 14 Nazi checkpoints in Heraklio before secretly deporting him by sea to Egypt.

Through these experiences, and his scholarly reading, Patrick Leigh Fermor fell in love with Greece, the Greeks and, as Mani and other works show, Hellenism itself. This is certainly understandable, given both his personal experience and the influential trends in British historiography of the mid-20th century on Greece, particularly regarding the Byzantine heritage. Still, it is not likely that this book could be written today, at least not without controversy, due to the prevailing historiography of modern ‘multiculturalism.’ However, though Mani at certain moments could be taken as offensive to Turks, the French, Italians and other descendants of Latin knights, Albanians and all manner of Slavs, it is also clear that there is a good-natured gentleness behind the author’s opinionated worldviews.

There are two problems with discussing a book such as Mani. The first is due to the stature of the author. The trend today is to abandon criticizing the works of the greats in their own right, almost as a sign of timid respect, and also because all critical structures have been broken down, all clear vantage points obscured for a couple of generations now. Relativism has saved us from having to wince over pronouncing harsh words, though the cult of personality seems fair game; and so the greats are left to be criticized, if not for their work than for their character flaws, political mis-allegiances, addictions and so on. And this is safe ground because it does not leave the critic exposed to charges of intellectual insolence or vanity; rather it encourages revelations of dark failings and occasionally redemption, demoting review to the vagaries of popular culture in an age of infotainment- call it the ‘VH1 model.’

Yet this is not the world Fermor recognized or inhabited. It is impossibly wonderful to imagine his horror when he relates hearing a ‘wireless set’ (a simple radio, not some computer contraption) violate the stillness of the placid air in a 1950’s Greek seaside village. Readers today can thank him for having had the foresight to record an ephemeral moment the imminent disappearance of which he was all too aware: as Fermor notes in the preface, ‘between the butt of a Coca-Cola bottle and the Iron Curtain, much that is precious and venerable, many living mementos of Greece’s past, are being hammered to powder’ (p. xi).

It is in this respect that Mani is most valuable as a travelogue, though as a work of literature it is mostly distinguished by the author’s facility with language, which is so immediate and so effusive that it often overshadows or confuses, as if by a dazzling light, what is actually being discussed. At any rate the individuals undergoing the actual documented journey through the Mani (the author and is nearly invisible wife, Joan) are less the book’s ‘characters’ than are the manifold concepts which Fermor’s lengthy (and planned) digressions flesh out, among them the feuding of the Maniots, their family lineages and castles, the lurking creatures of Greece, both mythical and real, the names and characteristics of different winds, the subtleties of religious icons, cats and dogs and so on.

Indeed, the narrative, such that there is, seems to exist merely as entry and exit points into this parallel universe of the tangential, in which Fermor’s erudition is showcased in a practically encyclopedic way. It is not as if the reader were not warned, however; in the preface, the author states that he will allow himself ‘the luxury of long digressions, and, by attempting to involve the reader in them, aspire to sharing with him a far wider area of Greek lands, both in space and time, than the brisker chronicle of a precise itinerary would have allowed’ (p. x).

However, given both the frequently mentioned stock of intrigue and adventure in Fermor’s Greek experience, and the Mani’s historic propensity for perpetuating random violence and surprises of its own, the reader may feel disappointed that most of the adventure referred to had already accumulated the distancing dust of centuries by the time the author had come upon it. Could there not have been a middle way?

Perhaps the answer lies in thinking about what came before Mani, when travel writing as we know it today was still relatively in its infancy. Thanks largely to the likes of writers like Fermor, ‘the brisker chronicle of a precise itinerary’ has long been superceded. It is worth remembering that in the 1950’s he was treading virtually unknown territory, in terms of both genre (travel writing as a more complex narrative form than it had been until then) and subject (little indeed had been written about the Mani as a region before).

The second excess (the desired inclusion of a ‘far wider area of Greek lands’) is more vexing but also has its own context. Throughout much of the 20th century, British historiography of the Greek, Byzantine and Ottoman worlds tended, like other Western European historiography, to both emphasize the perceived continuity of Greek history throughout the ages and to accentuate the negative and corrosive influences of both the West (the Crusades, the Catholic Church, the Venetians) and the Turks on interrupting this continuity. (In this emphasis on continuity and assured values, Greece was just one of several exemplars, albeit an important one, abused to animate the philosophy that spawned two world wars). In one of the more innocuous cases, the abovementioned historiography, the cumulative result was the creation of a Greek race that had never really existed, and whose achievements were as exaggerated as was their suffering.

This is mentioned to provide a historical context for the book at hand. Mid-twentieth-century historiography unsurprisingly generated considerable pathos and sympathy for the Greek victims (victims, verily, of both East and West!) but also tended to downplay the contributions of other nations to Greek-associated successes, and to omit examples of Greek cruelty and avarice against their less privileged neighbors, especially during Ottoman times, both extremes of which still remain anathema to the official dogma of Hellenism.

Nevertheless, when Fermor was writing of the Southern Peloponnese, the situation looked somewhat different. When Mani was published, it had been less than a decade since the end of the Greek Civil War and defeat of Communism (the ironic upshot of this was that Greece would become the most Communistic of non-Communist countries, but that is another subject). And if any foreigner had the right to speak about the glories of Hellenism and its objective worth, it would be Fermor, who literally risked his life to free the Greeks from Nazi Germany.

One wonder whether he would still find Hellenism worth fighting for, now in 2008, when ‘much that is precious and venerable’ about Greek culture and its living relation with the past has indeed vanished, as the author once feared. While Hellenism itself remains robust, it has become a lazy man’s religion, expressed by unthinking xenophobia, and a foreign policy that involves Greece bullying smaller countries to redirect frustrations, not being able to do the same to larger ones.

Yet beyond the daily heavings of televised politicians and their media parrots, the communist drivel of striking students, the dictatorial proclamations of taxi drivers and cursing of pagan-wielding bishops, few today, Greek or non-Greek, would understand or have cognizance of half the allusions, words and concepts Fermor methodically explicates. It is not simply Greece that has been lost, even more so the cultural reference points and accepted norms that long fostered an engagement with it in the Modernist sense.

This long and apparently unrelated digression was necessitated by the author’s decision to confront all of the Greek world incidentally in one book ostensibly about a small and compact region of that world. From the title at least, Mani can be construed as somewhat false advertising. But aside from these topics, on a purely literary note, there is the issue of language. Readers will either be appreciative, confused, bedazzled or even sickened (as when you eat too many sweets) by Fermor’s remarkable gift with linguistic expression. This refers to his ability to sustain and interrupt cadences, to wed the unlikeliest of adjectives with nouns, and to create vast, elaborate images – after all, how many writers describe a conversation in Greek as akin to witnessing geometrical objects ‘flying from the speaker’s mouth like flung furniture and household goods, from the upper window of a house on fire’ (pp. 299-300)?

Sometimes the word associations or mental (a)symmetries are so complex as to distract completely from the subject matter. There are moments, however, when the juxtaposition of ekphrasis with a certain historic imagination merge to create a breathtakingly interwoven image. Thus, when describing various wild animals of Greece, a section which involves a lovingly written discourse on dolphins, the author states:

‘a turtle I have seen only once, from the deck of a ship, floating languidly and then sculling steeply down into the blue-green depths between Bari and Corfu where the filioque drops out of the Creed. I have once or twice seen the top half of their shells sliced from their base and, turned upside down, transformed into a cradle. One had a fisherman’s daughter asleep in it and very comfortable and decorative it looked (pp. 269-270).’

Perhaps the most important bits of Fermor’s accounts are not his linguistic demonstrations, however, but rather the captured images of singular moments, the expressions, in capsule form, of what was fleeting and about to disappear, the expressions of spirit that make the work worth doing. Possibly the most magical is the early account (p. 16) of his hiking party’s stumbling upon ‘two little Byzantines,’ sisters looking after their family’s goats, up in the almost uninhabited mountain reaches of the Maniot crags, ‘two barefoot, raggedly dressed and ikon-faced little girls of ten and twelve, both of them extremely beautiful.’

And there are the moments of humor, such as the enormous and dozing Greek boatsman roused to life by a cicada buzzing on his face, or the vignette about a Sphakian patriarch banished to an islet to cure his drunkenness, only to be joined by a wandering barrel of wine from someone else’s shipwreck (p. 284).

Nevertheless, reading these descriptions and the book’s major digressions alike only has full kaleidoscopic effect for those lacking the contextual knowledge assumed by the author (as well, it might be added, as to where the uncharted ideological hazards lie). Mani thus makes a fine introduction to ancient Greece and Byzantium, Hellenism and 20th-century Greece- and reads even better the less one knows about these subjects.

This is far from a criticism of the work and its merits, just an acknowledgment that time has passed. And for recording the time that he witnessed in the most inaccessible and wildest region of Greece, all should be grateful to the inimitable Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Readers of this book will also like:

Patrick Leigh Fermor, Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece

Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube

Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

Denis Rubien, Mani: AAt the End of Europe

Lonely Planet Greece Country Guide (2020)