Kallia Papadaki, Dendrites
Παπαδάκη Κάλλια [Papadaki Kallia], Δενδρίτες [Dendrites]. Αθήνα: Πόλις [Athens: Polis]. 2015. Pp. 15–234. Softcover [in Greek]. € 14.00.
History always finds us unprepared … it catches us with our pants down, with all kinds of plans and wishes that have been abruptly cancelled. 1
What is the place of happenstance in human affairs? In her narration of a day in the life of an immigrant, Kallia Papadaki, in her award-winning novel Dendrites, captures the power of chance to shape, even to save, a life. Dejected and desperate, Antonis Kambanis, born on the island of Nisyros, wanders aimlessly the city of Camden, New Jersey. It is late September 1922, three full years into his new life as an immigrant. He finds himself homeless, as he has just been evicted by his Polish landlord. His meager wages at the shipyard where he works as a welder, despite his frugality, make him an unreliable tenant. Lacking ties with the area’s wider Greek community, Kambanis is an utter stranger in the city. Drifting, he finds refuge for the night at the entryway of a grocery store. Weary, he is overtaken by sleep, courting death as the snow gradually blankets his body.
But luck, at least this time, is on his side. He escapes freezing when a group of African American men notice him, mistake him for dead, and, erroneously identify him as Italian—Kambanis carried an Italian passport, as the island of his birth was under Italian rule at the time of his emigration. The group consequently carries the body to the nearby home of Tony Mecca, an Italian undertaker. Revived, Antonis is taken in by the family, who sees him, a newcomer, as a valuable asset in the bootlegging side business. Antonis becomes Nondas and serves the Meccas as if they were his own family. When, after years of service, due to unforeseen circumstances, his loyalty is unfairly questioned, he is summarily expelled from their circle. A set of chance intercultural and interracial encounters—one of several of this kind in the novel—shape his life’s trajectory. Contingency matters supremely.
The series of incidents on this particular September day encapsulate a much larger theme in Dendrites, namely the reign of precarity among ordinary people. Economic vulnerability is a constant in the life of the characters. The pressure for economic survival holds workers and small shopkeepers in a constant state of hyper-awareness. As an industrial worker, and more so as an immigrant welder who receives lower pay than his English-speaking coworkers, Antonis only manages to scrape by, even at the heyday of the city’s industrial might. His daily existence is fragile. But even when he proves himself a quite capable entrepreneur as an exclusive owner of two shoe repair and clothing alteration shops, instability shadows him. It is not merely the long-term, unintended consequences of a life consumed by the struggle to keep the business afloat, which deplete his energies and in turn strain his marriage. It is also that macro-changes in the economy lurk to dismantle his carefully planned life.
If the general depravity during the Depression era catapulted Antonis’s business of inexpensive alterations into a successful one, the diffused optimism of post-WWII consumer culture marked the demise of the very same business in a throw-away society. Drastically curtailing the city’s economic core, industrial production, the Depression also depleted municipal resources, forcing the residents to scrape by for survival. In these conditions, the shoe repair and clothing alteration businesses became vital for the middle and lower middle class to retain a modicum of respectability. On the other hand, the introduction of inexpensive, mass-produced, ready-made clothing in post-WWII America made alteration a nonprofitable business, and dramatic industrial decline in the 1960s and 1970s diminished clientele. These structural changes in the economy, coupled with mounting debts and steep increases in taxation, force Antonis to sell his business for a too-low price. Not able to show much now after a life drained in toil, he further sinks into resignation, exemplifying the way historical realities, unforeseeable and beyond one’s personal control, decisively shape one’s lot.
Psychological crises also plague the characters, even bringing them to the verge of collapse. Dendrites focuses on the characters’ search for stability and self-realization as they face overwhelming ever-present obstacles threatening to derail them, which they often do. Children face bullying at school, simply for their unusual names, their lower social class, their race or ethnicity, their poverty, or merely for being seen as different. Scars are implanted early in life and in some cases they may torment for a lifetime. Adults enter marriages with high hopes in their hearts but end up with insecurity and discontent in their souls. Domestic routine, daily toil, and obsessive rationality to run a household stymie the imagination when it comes to cultivating relationships. These are the circumstances plaguing the marriage between Basil Kambanis, Antonis’s son, and Susan Miller, a former hippie. When abuse makes its ugly appearance—as it also does in the household of Antonis and Rallou, his wife—the early marital bliss turns into a domestic nightmare.
But it’s not all foreboding and despair. The characters’ minor triumphs, when they occur, offer a moral compass and a justifiable claim to a meaningful life. Basil, for instance, cares deeply for the welfare of the waitresses in his diner. Susan, equally compassionate to strangers, offers her home as a shelter to Mini, an orphaned girl from a Puerto Rican family, plagued by poverty and abandoned by her father and brother. An ethic of care also stirs Antonis late in life when the public sight of Rallou drenched in alcohol renews the sparks of his initial love for her, mingled with compassion for their shared suffering that unites them:
… είδε τη φτενή φιγούρα της Ραλλούς να διασχίζει τρεκλίζοντας τον δρόμο, μ΄ ένα φθαρμένο ζακετάκι στους ώμους και μια χάρτινη σακούλα του μανάβη παράσχαλα, και την αγάπησε ξανά κεραυνοβόλα, με μια τρυφεράδα που του θύμισε πόσο είχε υποφέρει κι εκείνος στη δική του ζωή όλα αυτά τα χρόνια, και σκέφτηκε πως έπρεπε να τη συντρέξει τώρα στην ανηφόρα και στα δύσκολα… (150)
… he saw Rallou’s thin figure lurching across the street, with a worn jacket over her shoulders and a paper grocery bag under her arm, and fell in love with her all over again in an instant, with a gentleness that reminded him of how much he himself had suffered in his own life all these years, and he though how he needed to support her now in her uphill struggle, her time of trouble… (Translation by Karen Emmerich)
Dendrites narrates unconventional lives too, lives that collide against social norms. The figure of the American-born Konstantsa Mecca is the most emblematic. She is a young woman whose erotic stirrings for women crystallize and find a name while reading Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway. When she moves from literature that she thirstily consumes to the consummation of a real erotic relationship, for which she has longed, with a woman, her radiant happiness, alas, is short lived. The family discovers the affair and crushes it by forcing convention: a hurriedly arranged marriage. Disempowered, Konstantsa withers. Cancer overtakes her. She perishes. The ethnic family, the community, and the neighborhood, all accomplices in enforcing the heterosexual norm, fail to recognize the violence they unleash. Waiving away moral culpability, they injure more people by punishing powerless scapegoats, Antonis being one of them. The power of the majority enforcing normativity cripples the lives of those who do not conform. The moral is inescapably political: Elevate a value to an absolute truth and enforce it to all, and the violence of said value will surely pull the trigger on vulnerable Others.
Dendrites subverts norms in other ways as well, tackling social taboos, such as a woman’s aversion to childbearing. Feeling entrapped by an abusive marriage, Rallou, a formerly spirited woman, lulls the heartache that gnaws at her with alcohol. Upon the news of her pregnancy she recoils, seeing it as yet another step into steeper confinement. Rallou feels the unwanted embryo inside her as a burden, it weighs on her body like a petra (stone) would; it sinks her inner self. The eventual birth of her son intensifies the domestic drama. Rallou descends deeper into alcoholism, finding in ouzo not only therapy for herself but the ideal hypnotic for her son’s cries as well. What is more, in an act of ultimate defiance, she secretively adopts the name Petros for her baby son, a Greek name approximately homophone to petra, a reminder of motherhood as a continuous burden. Rallou cannot bring herself to be a loving mother; Basil will be raised loveless.
Failure looms large in the novel: Broken relationships, divorce, despair over unfulfilled goals, aborted economic success, alcoholism, alienation, self-aversion, and inability to connect with children or to pass on ethnicity to the second generation all punctuate the characters’ lives. Failing, or falling short of self-expectations coupled with powerful outside forces, dwarfs individuals, stretches their endurance, pressures them into situations where the odds are against them. Unwanted outcomes, I must emphasize, do not come about as the result of people failing to act upon their longings and dreams. Individuals invest—and do so resolutely and urgently—to author their lives. They intensify their efforts to overcome adversity, assess situations rationally or on the basis of their beliefs and ideas; they brood over dilemmas and take action to the best of their abilities, aiming at the best possible outcome. Yet effort does not necessarily warrant success. The characters are also authored by historical events as well as their limited—and limiting—share of power and life skills in social life.
In placing its characters in this predicament, Dendrites highlights a tension pervasive in human life. A person striving for a meaningful life while being confronted by realities that thwart carefully designed plans. How to account for the elusiveness of self-realization? The novel provides a set of answers, a major one underlying life’s tragic condition. It is impossible for human beings to master full control of their destinies.
This position aligns with insights in scholarly conversations rethinking tragedy. Rita Felski (2008) writes that despite the entrenched belief “that human beings can orchestrate their own happiness, … the incalculable and unforeseeable” plays a constitutive role in human affairs. The operation of unexpected turns of events in life that are beyond personal control, she continues, “forces us to recognize that individuals may act against their own interests and that the consequences of their actions may deviate disastrously from what they expected or hoped for” (11).
Take Basil and Susan’s idealism, for instance, early on in their married life together. Their steadfast belief in an emerging better world—one presumably of racial equality—makes them remain in their neighborhood when other residents, Jews, Greek, and Italians, flee to the suburbs, part of the massive “white flight” exodus in response to the entrance of people of color in predominantly white ethnic areas. Though their stance is laudable, exemplifying a civil rights ideal, it inadvertently works against their economic interests. Home property values plummet as a result of the changing racial demography. And their diner, Ariadne, on which they staked their future, struggles until it is sold for a pittance to give way to a parking lot. Once again, the novel raises the question, who is to blame? Why does a civic success, a vision of interracial coexistence, turn into a personal disaster?
The answer lies in structural changes in the economy. Camden’s dramatic industrial decline, starting in the 1950s, the narrative points out, terminated thousands of decent-paying blue collar jobs, thinning to a trickle Ariadne’s base clientele. In its search for lower cost capital fled, first to the suburbs, then to the “regional periphery,” and “then extended even further to other countries as part of the process of globalization” (Howard 2003: 140).
But there was the factor of racism too. Racist policies played a pivotal role in the devaluation of home properties associated with changes in the racial makeup of residential occupancy in formerly white ethnic neighborhoods. The entrance of racial minorities in the areas correlated with institutional racial discrimination and lack of municipal and capital investment, which contributed to neighborhood demise and deterioration in the quality of life (see Brodkin 1998). In Dendrites, two historical events—deindustrialization and a society’s racism—brought a well-meaning family to its knees. Precarity reigns. History, indeed, as the epigraph by Kranaki reminds us, has the power to cancel out our immediate plans and wishes.
The implications of the couple’s refusal to relocate in the name of interracial coexistence is one example among many where the novel explores people’s experiences in concrete times and places. It is not accidental that the opening page of the novel feature a hand-drawn map depicting the cultural geography of Camden in which the plot unfolds. The map marks historical as well as economic landmarks. It locates ethnic neighborhoods in the racially and class segmented city, and identifies immigrant enclaves that exercise political power. It offers, that is, a visual imprint of the real setting in which it situates its characters. Dendrites historicizes human lives, placing its characters in specific locales, charting the effects of history on individuals and the efforts of individuals to navigate the effects of history within their everyday settings and immediate cultural geography.
The value of this historicist perspective is evident once we place the text in relation to wider debates regarding history’s role and the constitution of one’s Self. Dendrites challenges the American Dream, the deeply held secular belief in American society that individuals possess the power to absolutely control their fates and that they alone can propel themselves to success. The following passage, by Ilaria Serra (2007), illuminates the issue:
Americanized autobiographers … tell stories of self-made men who fought and succeeded against all odds … . [T[hey adopt [Benjamin] Franklin’s individualism and claim their success because they exercised the virtues of labor, frugality, strong will, and tenacity. Americanized authors do share the American sense of history where the self, not history, prevails: events do not happen to them, rather they make them happen … . On the contrary, common immigrants are filled by a sense of self where history, not the self, prevails. There are stories of the “self in history.” While successful immigrants tell the adventures of the self as rising against the background of history, common immigrants tell the misadventures of a self constantly wrestling with history. (32–33)
The idea of history as a force that shapes, even constitutes, the Self is even more visible when certain historical developments warrant a government’s direct interference in the lives of the immigrants and their descendants. From the Palmer Raids targeting for deportation immigrants who were suspected as political radicals, to the War World II Internment of Japanese Americans and Italian Americans as alien enemies, American history abounds with government surveillance disrupting and destabilizing lives. One particular example in Dendrites brings home the violent impact of stigmatizing loyal Americans into a political threat: Antonis, subjected by the government to a humiliating interrogation during World War II, is subsequently classified as alien enemy due to his Italian passport. This application of political power devastates this immigrant subject. Feeling coerced and violated, Antonis moves closer to becoming a broken man, a resigned person whose sovereignty of Self is compromised. His example illustrates a wider phenomenon, namely the ways in which fear and intimidation discipline immigrants into consenting to normative values and siding with those in power. Antonis’s profound transformation of emotional collapse speaks volumes to the process of turning immigrants into docile subjects. He wholly surrenders to all regimes of power, failing as a sovereign citizen:
… κάτι μέσα του έσπασε και δεν ανασυγκολλήθηκε ποτέ, σαν να παραιτήθηκε από τα εγκόσμια… (184)
…something within him broke and was never pieced back together again, as if he had resigned from all worldly things…
… ο Αντώνης Καμπάνης δεν ήθελε άλλα μπλεξίματα με τους ομοσπονδιακούς, ήθελε να ’ναι με την τάξη, με τους ισχυρούς, με τους Αμερικανούς και με τους εκάστοτε κυβερνητικούς. (204)
Antonis Kambanis didn’t want to get mixed up with the federalists anymore, he wanted to be on the side of order, the powerful, Americans and those currently holding the reins of political power. (Translation by Karen Emmerich)
The novel’s position on the question of Self in history is resolutely political. For the suffering and hardships of certain populations cannot possibly be seen independently from the “failing [of] social and economic networks,” of historical forces, that is, having a negative impact on individuals, as Judith Butler points out in an often-quoted reflection on precarity (2009: ii). Along these lines, Dendrites makes amply visible, as I have already argued, those conditions that engulf the lives of its characters into a precarious existence. In doing so, the novel takes a concrete position on an ongoing interrogation of a particular form of capitalism, commonly referred to as neoliberalism. At stake in the questioning of the neoliberal logic is identifying the causes contributing to the plight of certain vulnerable demographics. The following passage by Shaw and Byler (2016) aptly explains the issue on hand, illuminating the place of the novel in the ideological clash over explaining poverty:
This form of capitalism, often described as neoliberal, promotes a political logic of radical individuality, self-responsibility, and independence. It places blame for poverty, conflict, and difference on the backs of migrants, temporary workers, the elderly, the homeless, and racial minorities. It asks us to see precarity as a result of moral failures of individuals, masking the power relations and structural violence embedded in our global political economy. At times this logic produces apathy toward the suffering of others, as if they somehow deserve it, and dislodges responsibilities to care from broader social, political, and economic institutions. (n.p.)
Dendrites gives voice to the “messiness” of ordinary lives, speaks to the tragic condition in their struggles. It enters difficult yet real issues such as family disintegration and inner despair among immigrants and their offspring, experiences that often leave little to trace in the archival record, and purposefully find no place in triumphalist narratives extolling ethnic identity. Undistinguished lives are purposefully or unintentionally forgotten. Dendrites is vested against this forgetting.
The title of the novel speaks to this investment to reclaim what is hidden from public view. The word “dendrites” after all points to processes associated with remembering. In neuroscience, it refers to “the treelike branches of a neuron” that are instrumental in storing experiences as memory. Their lack of activation, on the other hand, precludes the formation of lasting memory (Fellman 2014). The term “dendrites” captures this tension between remembering and forgetting when it is used to describe the crystal shape, tree-like, geometry of a snowflake type. The metaphor of dendrites as temporary presence is clear in this usage. The reality of a snowflake, its presence, is followed by its dissolution, its absence. Solid before it melts, enchanting before it vanishes into thin air.
The novel concludes with a quote by Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley (1865–1931), an American farmer and the first person to “photograph a single snow crystal.” Bentley was irresistibly drawn to a snowflake’s “miracle of beauty,” and its uniqueness; he discovered, in fascination, that despite the appearance of sameness for all snowflakes, “[e]very crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated” ( http://snowflakebentley.com/bio.htm ). Dendrites dedicates its very last page in citing Bentley: “it seemed a shame that this beauty [of a snowflake] should not be seen and appreciated by others. … When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.” But this narrative ending raises an important question: Is the uniqueness and “beauty” of each undistinguished life a reason alone to want to make it visible for others to see? Or, most significantly in the context of the novel, in what way is a tragic life beautiful? Dendrites deserves a political not an aesthetic reading.
Literature, many attest, magnifies one’s understanding of reality and enhances understanding of lives far removed from one’s own. Dendrites is not an exception. It invites reflection on lives lived in stress, on struggles fought valiantly but not always won, even abandoned. The novel, in other words, directs attention to the tragic element in life, a mode certainly not alien among real people. For alcoholism and broken families among Greek Americans, let us face it, is not a literary invention. Neither is poverty, despite effort. Neither is the second generation’s rejection of the old-world culture that certain parents insisted on transmitting. Dendrites insists on the value of discussing a difficult subject, people in precarious situations negotiating history and contingency in all their complexity, beyond the simplistic cultural mythology of self-propelled struggle and success. The novel advocates the understanding, not the valorizing of the immigrant experience.
Beneath the veneer of a widely disseminated narrative, that of European Americans as “successful model ethnicities,” human tragedies circulate, in the distant past as well as in the near present. The experience of systematic deprivation, oppression, and dire circumstances, the novel signals, also made some European Americans in the past susceptible to failure like any other people who find themselves under duress. The dissolution of a Puerto Rican, poor family in the novel also speaks to this condition. A product of extensive historical research, Dendrites, however, refrains from perpetuating racial stereotypes that associate people of color with dysfunctional families and also features Greek and Italian failures. Although Pete, Mini’s brother, is into gang life and drug trafficking, the European Americans presented in the novel have also committed their own share of illegalities and acts of aggression. Antonis, for example, hides deep inside his own secret of sexually assaulting a mute young woman. The Italians and the Irish are implicated in illegal activities too, to which some Greeks participate peripherally. But the difference between the Irish and the Italians on the one hand, and the Puerto Ricans on the other, is that it is only the former who possess a measure of local political power. This enables them to negotiate with the dominant society, which includes Catholic-Protestant intermarriage, and consequently utilize their alliances to bolster their social and economic standing.
Kallia Papadaki voices, and thus imprints in memory, the ordinary and the obscure, the forgotten and the forbidden, the subversive and nonsubservient, the divergent and the purged. In the example of Dendrites, literature visits issues that canonical ethnic historiography is reticent to acknowledge. In this respect, writing fiction is an act of producing counter-memory, of orienting remembering toward what has been deemed unworthy of narrating, of scavenging what has been purposefully discarded. The novel prompts readers to reflect on how history shapes lives, and how lives navigate history, occasionally sculpting it too. Herein lies the novel’s political and ethical significance: Papadaki explores the ways society severs nonnormativity, frustrates the potential of alternative lives, and curtails the well-being of economically vulnerable people. Her novel, like many novels, is fundamentally a political act. It raises consciousness and may incite action toward a greater public good. It is not uncommon for certain cultural institutions to advocate democratic principles while at the same time excluding the perspectives of ordinary people. In Dendrites, we witness literature working against the violence of forgetting thus underwriting an ethic of inclusion.
Recipient of the European Union Prize of Literature 2017, Dendrites has already been or is about to be translated into several languages, including Albanian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Italian, Romanian, and Serbian, among others. Reviewers have praised its narrative qualities. The novel’s long, winding, complex sentences, often sometimes a paragraph long, give the narration a sense of breathlessness, as if the story is so urgent it must be told. It’s also notable for its inventiveness in crafting a plot spanning more than eighty years across four generations; and for its wit; and, for that matter, for complicating the American Dream and presenting the ways in which individuals strive to build on lives in ruins, all of which critics in Greece have rightly noted.
A critical angle that amplifies the novel’s social significance, however, is necessary. Dendrites participates in several conversations in the United States and elsewhere, ranging from the role of literature in producing counter-memory to the politics of bringing immigrants or hyphenated Americans into representation. In tackling transgressive issues, Dendrites places itself within a literary tradition that includes authors Jeffrey Eugenides and Harry Mark Petrakis, both who have taken up topics that are taboo for society and an ethnic group. In intervening, as I have pointed out, on the question of history in mediating the course of ordinary lives, the novel questions ahistorical renderings of immigration. It lays open the political conditions and social structures producing precarity. What is more, Dendrites recognizes, refreshingly, that immigration stories cannot possibly neglect an immigrant’s entanglements with the lives of people outside one’s national or ethnic group. It moves therefore beyond what historians call “the single group approach” (Cozen et al. 1992), narrating instead how and why cross-cultural encounters lead to all kinds of intercultural boundary crossings and relationships, including marriage, friendship, hostilities, alliances, or partnerships.
There is more of relevance to this book. Its narrative dexterity complicates the view that contemporary writers are in no position to reliably represent the experiences of downtrodden and powerless immigrants–the subalterns–of the past (see Anagnostou 2018). And last but not least, the novel takes us beyond narratives that construct people designated as American ethnics around one-dimensional identities, often caricaturing them. Instead, it humanizes people with hyphenated identities. This kind of cultural work places the author in the same company with Philip Roth and Toni Morrison, or for that matter Zadie Smith, who have done the same for Jewish and African American narratives. On the publication of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, for instance, Joan Acocella wrote that Smith made her characters “normal subjects for the novel, no longer people who have a sign over their heads saying ‘Jew’ or ‘Black’ but regular people, with the same privilege of texture—of self-contradiction and error, and thus of tragic force—as white people." And Papadaki has done the same for Greek and Italian Americans, and Puerto Ricans as well. Let us mark the political importance of doing so. To portray “American ethnics” in these terms is an act of emancipation from the domination of the “host” society. For what else but an illustration of domination is the self-representation as a “good ethnic”? Because it is designed to please, placate, and protect it exercises grave violence on the understanding of Self and Others. It compromises the autonomy for self-determination. Insisting on narrating what has been at the verge of forgetting, and pointing to the violence of normativity in rendering what is alternative as dangerous, Dendrites makes visible the forgetting of violence that has been exercised on ordinary people and names the violence in the act of forgetting this violence. Because of all this I certainly hope the novel will find its way into English so that it sparks further public reflection on the issues it so engrossingly brings to the surface.
1. I thank Gerasimus Katsan for tips in the translation of this passage.
Editor’s Note: Karen Emmerich has translated selected passages from Dendrites exclusively for Ergon. (Karen’s translation)
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Yiorgos Anagnostou is Professor in the Modern Greek Program at The Ohio State University. His research interests include Greek transnational studies and American ethnic studies.