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‘And I really don’t see why we should leave Andros and go off to some island’, begins the prolific narration of Petros Abatzoglu’s What Does Mrs Freeman Want? This bastard copy of the author, ‘my dear Petros’, as he calls himself, launches himself on the reader with aplomb and such a narrator is an ideal tribute to the Greek author, who died last year at the age of 73. Born in 1931, Abatzoglu grew up in Greece during the Nazi occupation and went on to write journalism and fiction. He won the Greek National Book Award twice, in 1965 for Balance of Terror and in 1988 for What Does Mrs Freeman Want?
D.H. Lawrence famously stated, ‘never trust the teller, trust the tale’ and Abatzoglu’s playful presentation of a pseudo-self leaves the reader a little dazed. Petros’ tale is full of contradictions and this is reflected in a meta-narrative about language as characters try to measure the value and purpose of words. Initially, Mr. Freeman, a linguist, thinks that ‘words are lethal weapons’, yet he learns from his wife, Mrs Freeman, that ‘they are simply the answer to some need, a human need’. In his devotion to his wife, Mr Freeman tells his students ‘unless words express emotion indeed passion, they are nothing more than dead matter’, yet when his marriage loses its fire, he insists that words are ‘independent entities, practically existing on their own, unaffected by us humans’. Abatzoglu’s commentary suggests that fickle human nature taints any empirical ambitions to organise or understand language and it affirms that emotion cannot be eradicated from a human view of the world.
The narrator, Petros, is the filter or frame for Abatzoglu’s story. While liberally plying himself with booze – ‘I might as well have another ouzo’ crops up a number of times – Petros, tells the story of a fiercely independent English woman. The narrator’s location is gradually revealed as a Greek island and the subject to whom Petros addresses his meandering narrative is a scantily-clad, lithe young woman sunbathing on the beach. The storytelling often diverges into comic rants:
if a close friend called me Mr. Abatzoglu, and especially if he emphasized the Mister, I would waste no time answering back, “Don’t you Mister me, you slob. If that’s your idea of making fun of me”
Yet there is a deep self awareness and a playful sense of self mockery in these digressions. Abatzoglu creates an endearing aspect to the teller whose epicurean revelling contrasts with his more philosophical speeches.
Ultimately Petros’ telling of Mrs. Freeman’s story encourages our respect. The heroine of the book is the opposite of the passive blonde to whom the narrator addresses his monologue. Some of the most comic interludes in the book are created by the ironic or sarcastic comments that Petros aims at his companion:
Of course I see your point, it must be wonderful to feel the sun scorching you, burning you through and through, sucking all the moisture out of you. Yes, of course I understand my dear.
In contrast, Petros describes Mrs Freeman as ‘no ordinary woman; she wasn’t one of those silly suburban girls who enjoy reading cheap magazines like Donna’. Petros’ story is a kind of moral lecture given for the benefit of the listening companion in an effort to present a sublime model of the female spirit.
Mrs Freeman is an ideal of a romantic heroine with monumental passions and obsessive fervour. The story describes her courtship with Mr. Freeman, their subsequent marriage and the conclusion to her domestic life. At the beginning of the novel, Mrs Freeman is figured as a character burning with desire and desperate for an object worthy of her passion. Abatzoglu comically describes her courtship with her future husband as a military assault as she switches from ‘trench warfare’ to ‘blitzkrieg, with armoured vehicles and 18 and 22 mm guns reducing the chair of linguistics to cinders’. Abatzoglu often uses bathos for comic effect, deflating Mrs Freeman’s magnificent passion, which is restrained by the ordinariness of her husband and the mundane surroundings that she inhabits. She is described in pursuit of Mr Freeman ‘like a tigress stalking her victim, whiskers quivering in exquisite anticipation, lay in ambush behind some shrubs in the University grounds’. The predatory image is deflated by the mundane trappings of her environment and it is this kind of comparison which creates the wry humour of the book.
Although Mrs Freeman announces ‘I’m not interested in daydreams…I want proof, I want facts’, the tragic aspect to this novel is that life simply does not live up to her expectations. One episode describes Mrs Freeman’s first childhood encounter with death. The narrator describes her questioning adults about her dead grandmother, who reply, ‘she’s gone far away …but she’ll come back and bring us chocolate and ice-cream and pretty dolls’. The narrator confirms that ‘ever since then Mrs Freeman has been convinced that the dead simply go off on a journey’. Later in the novel when Mrs Freeman comes to the end of her life, her husband’s death is a terrible truth that must be faced. The imagination has an alchemistic power, yet ultimately the starkness of reality cannot be escaped.
The narrator confides that Mrs Freeman had told him that imagination ‘is like a cancerous growth in men’s minds, it only leads to disaster’. Mrs Freeman’s adamance does not ring true and ultimately, it is her burning imagination which creates the tragedy of her later life.
One role of the narrator, Petros, is to be the harbinger of cold truth. Petros’ view of harsh reality contrasts with Mrs Freeman’s optimism about death. Petros describes his own childish encounter with death remembering the grotesque image of a snake swallowing a mouse. However, even Petros has some imaginative verve and when the dead mouse disappears from the snake’s gullet, he questions whether it ever existed. To understand death involves the ultimate flight of the imagination.
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press