Award-winning Greek novelist Alexis Stamatis introduces the reader into the earthly paradise of Greece, with its spectacular sunsets and crisp blue ocean views. However, this beautiful façade hides a world of deception, lust, greed, death, and ultimately redemption. Alkis and his family have been tortured by their patriarch Ilias. Alkis’ elder siblings vain attempts to confront their father have only made Ilias stronger while devastating their own lives. Alkis meanwhile enables his father’s evil actions by confusing complacency and inaction with love and devotion. It takes a mysterious fire which takes his mother’s life to finally see his father for the cruel, selfish brute he has always been. The ensuing investigation of his mother’s death forces Alkis to confront not only his father but also his own weaknesses. The fire is a catalyst which turns a man who felt powerless against his domineering father into a strong, confident man, willing to fight for the rest of his family, and his own happiness. The theme of spontaneous human combustion is skillfully woven into a story which is in essence about a man breaking off the shackles forged by his father and being born again like a phoenix from the ashes.
Alexis Stamatis is a National Endowment for the Arts International Literature Award winner and celebrated Greek author who has been compared to Cormac McCarthy.
Praise for Alexis Stamatis’ books:
“Alexis Stamatis always starts his books smoothly, seductively so, but one chapter in you find yourself rushing the pages, intrigued, amazed, surprised. Born with the story-DNA in his genes, his fast-paced novels, unlike so many others, maintain a high literary sensibility. Stamatis is a must.” --- Nick Papandreou, Author of A Crowded Heart (St. Martin’s Press; Picador)
Daily newspaper I Avgi July 7, 2005
ALEXIS STAMATIS, Mother Ash, novel, (First published by Kastaniotis Editions, Athens 2005, p. 361)
Review by Christos Papageorgiou
Despite his young age, author Alexis Stamatis has made the rounds, sometimes well and sometimes not so well, until arriving finally at the novel Mother Ash, which places him securely in the ranks of our finest contemporary writers. Indeed, all of the material Stamatis treats comes under the sway of his talented pen, while he refuses, even at the most tragic of moments, to depart from his own distinct scenery, structured by rules and codes. We say it often, but with Mother Ash and a movie camera, a gifted director with a cast of talented actors could create an amazing film, which would—like the book—contain all the essentials: suspense, tension, action, unexplained phenomena, passion, nature’s revenge, unlawful or amoral deeds, everything that life and art alike are full of. In Mother Ash, Stamatis plays with a number of different prose styles: he doesn’t just want to tell a story that verges on the fantastic, he also wants to abolish the conventional frameworks of fiction and create his own, to work not as a craftsman—who might create something significant while never being fully aware of his own role—but as a poet. Stamatis doesn’t adopt anything abstract: he attempts and succeeds in fictionalizing many individual and personal responses, in writing a script for the reader’s mental and spiritual experience.
The novel Mother Ash has one very important advantage that makes it feel familiar, despite its difficult and even tragic moments: it is completely accessible to the reader. Even when we are faced with the phenomenon of “spontaneous combustion” (which remains unexplained in the novel), or the conjecture that the girl has been raped by a father (not her own, of course) who isn’t worthy of that title, a conjecture that subsequently becomes a reality—even then, the gentle narrative gaze makes the novel both interesting and compelling. Though the burning of the family home doesn’t escape our attention, after all that we have learned, and in the confusion following the reactivation of Santorini’s volcano. The sum total of all these events, working in complete “harmony” (a word ill suited to describe the events of Mother Ash)—a tragic family quarrel, with the mother absent, the older son waiting in the wings to absorb the father’s fortune, the daughter, a lesbian photographer, and the younger son, a doctor, contrasting starkly to the vulgar, violent, immoral father—create a kind of symbiosis that is dark and almost unsustainable, and will lead to comparable results, reserved for us by the author and the book’s conclusion.
Another point which is alluded to at the beginning of the novel, is the difficulty of placing this book within some known, accepted genre of prose. Mother Ash is a novel about the human interior, but also a social novel, a detective story, a story of human relations, with theatrical touches, fantastic and yet realistic, cinematic, sometimes surreal, modern—it is, in other words, a work that at times runs on railroad tracks and at others heads to the open sea, sometimes treads firmly on dry land, sometimes flies through the air, tying together all of its arrivals and departures together with the rope of its characters’ psychological tremors, which are due not to malevolence or hypocrisy but to the writer’s sense of morality. Stamatis not only loves his characters, but he also shows—without restraint, upsetting symbolic systems and academic forms—the way toward a more contained, simple, unexaggerated experience that no character, either in or out of the vice of family affairs, is able to adopt. On the contrary: they lead whoever comes into contact with them to perform acts of incalculable gravity, such as that of the Russian archaeologist, who acts at the height of nervous strain.
Mother Ash is certainly the best novel we have read this year. It is a perfect novel from the point of view of language, structure and architecture, in which, through the veil of perfection, one can discern sincerity from falsehood, morality from immorality, freedom from bondage, without exhaling a scent of solitude. On the contrary: moving and maneuvering within life, it does not acknowledge conditions, nor does it directly indicate ways, roles and methods, only protractedly.