Early 20th century Greece
A novella fucked me up. Not now. That would be some 20 years ago, at the nationally held university admission exams. So, last week I went for a complete re-read of the thing, “Η Τιμή και το Χρήμα” (translates in either Price or Honor, and Money, a witty ambiguity in Greek) by Konstantinos Theotokis. It follows a family drama in Corfu island, circa 1910. It’s prose is something for its own sake, but more importantly, it is a relatively rare depiction of lower class people, not as proud, hard-working laborers, but as quite cold calculating individuals.
Rigid constraints are in place, from tradition and custom: Social hierarchy is alive and kicking, with old noble families and new-moneyed ones on top and the poorer, working ones beneath. Women are generally subordinate. There is a clear distinction in occupations, so that men of higher heritage are unavoidably expected to be masters, not employees, securing that their women do not (need to) work. The drama arises as the son (Andreas) of such a family, plighted by ill economic tidings, and the daughter (Rini) of a lower family, fall in love. It gets more complicated as the girl’s mother (Epistimi), the acting head of their house and a business partner of sorts to the prospective groom, refuses to offer the requested dowry.
It is a sad story, with just a bit of silver lining so no to come as downright depressing. Some take-aways:
- Smuggling was thriving. Andreas smuggles commodities and cattle.
- Epistimi, a factory seamstress, buys smuggled products from Andreas to resell them, and also lends him money for his endeavors. A homebrew little merchant – money lender she is.
- The interest rate is around 20%-25% for a term of weeks or so. In written pact.
- Smuggling operations have a nearly explicit political coverage. Andreas uses his family’s connections to remove the local constable at some point.
- This patronage is flimsy, as governments change. Smuggling shifts to the new minister’s electoral district. Hardly a good fit for trade theorizing.
- Per Andreas’ uncle, who is also his accomplice, smuggling is as decent as any dealing, and those “fat cats” at the capital could do with less taxes.
- Women’s’ social position plainly sucked. But at least they could take some initiatives.
- Hard labor is in fact praised throughout the novella.
Juveniles lack context to understand and appreciate the novella, I think. I agree it should be taught, but not in the hammer-it-in-your-head way it was presented back then.