Kallia Papadaki, Dendrites

Παπαδάκη Κάλλια [Papadaki Kallia], Δενδρίτες [Dendrites]. Αθήνα: Πόλις [Athens: Polis]. 2015. Pp. 15–234. Softcover [in Greek].

Excerpts, translated by Karen Emmerich

[Characters and context: Susan, born in Columbus, Ohio, meets and marries Basil Kambanis, born to a Greek immigrant family, in Camden, New Jersey. Leto is Susan's daughter, whose biological father is her old boyfriend, Scott. The events unfold in the late 1960s, early 1970s.]

A year and a half was as long as their romance lasted, a summer at the commune and two mild winters on the streets, panhandling love from passersby and handing out flowers in return. Leto and Woodstock came between them, and the alarming Atlantic seaboard, where winters and responsibilities aren’t just fun and games, and so, after the festival and the first rains they limped their separate ways, Scott returned to the family hearth and enrolled, like it or not, at Berkeley, where the western wing of the Department of Zoology carried the name of his great-grandfather Johnson Junior, while Susan, who had bumped heads with her Protestant, working-class father and wasn’t going back to Columbus Stinking Ohio even if the whole world burned, boarded a dilapidated Greyhound bus in the middle of the night and arrived at dawn in Camden, New Jersey, where her little brother lived and worked at RCA Victor. Two months later she met Basil, and they were married at City Hall within another six, just as Leto was celebrating her fourteenth pudgy month in this world, and cry as they might that it was love at first sight, there was no one there to hear except for her kid brother, who was less interested in his sister’s happiness than in the fact that he now had two fewer mouths to feed. It made no difference that he was a manager; tough times were coming, you could sense the inevitable knocking like death on your neighbors’ doors, you felt hope charging the atmosphere with illusions, you saw it in the deserted homes and abandoned factories, which multiplied exponentially from month to month.

First the shipyards in New York gave way, fell to their knees and dragged into their effluence two and a half thousand workers, the books couldn’t be balanced unless new orders came in, and whatever the wartime industry had built with zeal during those years of conflict and unrest was quickly destroyed by the popular demand for a new world, a better, more peaceful world, and a year or two later, after Nixon assumed the reins of power, the RCA Victor plant closed, too, and that music-loving terrier set its sights on Mexico and cheap labor, with management blaming the unions, which had been on indefinite strike seeking better wages, and the unions blaming management for putting profits above everything else, and the whole city was left bereft of jobs, five thousand people fired in a single week in a city of ninety thousand, and thus in the mid-70s the diner that had been renamed “Ariadne,” with the name Mickievitch still visible underneath, and the off-white columns painted above the colorful Greek Salad and the mouthwatering Gyro Plate, stopped being what it was and promised to be, as the decline in free enterprise and the continuing war in Vietnam drove the city into crisis and residents in the jumble of neighborhoods became distrustful, and whoever remained in the recently thriving city moved to the burgeoning suburbs, first the Jews, then the Italians and Greeks, while her parents, her very own parents, remained immutably optimistic, and in their optimism immutably unmoving, sunk their heels in like mules and watched as their savings blew away on the wind, and their dreams vanished once and for all.


Basil enters the diner, greets his girls—who are at least sixty, if not beyond—and tackles a pile of letters and bills that keep growing and eating away at his pockets, their earnings that month are negligible and it’s not clear whether or how long his bank account will survive the expenses that keep creeping up month by month, after all, Leto is growing as are her needs, and how on earth are they going to find the money to send her to college, tuition is lower at the state university, but it’s still a not inconsiderable sum which he isn’t sure he’ll be in a position to pay, Christ, children grow up so fast, how will he manage it all? Among the letters and bills he discovers brochures singing the praises of useless products, leaflets inviting him on mythical vacations, pamphlets containing the word of Jehovah and futuristic ads for the scientologists, my Lord, where is this world headed, from bad to worse, and what can he do, income taxes have brought him to his knees, people are out of work and prices keep rising, the door of the diner opens, the little bell rings, and the first customers of the day take their seats at the counter and order the house special, suicide on a plate, grilled bread, a thick slice of Spam, a double order of fried eggs and plenty of melted cheddar cheese, with onion rings on the side.

The sunflower oil sizzles over the heat, forming enormous golden bubbles that seem ready to burst and overflow the deep fryer, Veronica tosses in the frozen onion rings, along with the pre-fried French fries, and then separates them so they’ll take on the desired pinkish red color while Basil, distracted, lets his gaze sink into the deep fryer, as if he’s trying to figure out how many bubbles will fit in there before they start to burst and spit oil onto the tiles which over time have accumulated filth that’s penetrated the grooves, before Sally lays out the silverware and pours coffee to the customers, which you can count on one hand, and who rarely order the mouthwatering gyros or the watery tzatziki, before Susan gets into her old car, which Basil gave to her on their first anniversary and which she never liked, because it’s a glaring cabbage color and has an ugly mug, like an enormous, hideous grasshopper.

Karen Emmerich is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University and a translator of modern Greek poetry and prose.

Editor’s note: For a review essay of the novel see here