Edward Dodwell, “West Front of the Parthenon,” from Views in Greece, 1821.
Translated by John Cullen
(Other Press, 2017)
Partly inspired by the Greek surrealist Yorgos Makris’s 1944 manifesto, “Let’s Blow Up the Acropolis!,” Christos Chrissopoulos’s novella, The Parthenon Bomber, sets out to imagine just what might lead a young man to write himself into history by blowing up an ur-symbol of Western civilization. To be sure, destroying the Parthenon is “inconceivable,” but this only underscores the fact that such acts are all-too-conceivable, as amply demonstrated in recent memory by the Taliban’s demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, ISIS’s destruction of ancient Palmyra in Syria, and the Russian and Syrian bombing of Aleppo, which seriously damaged the 900-year-old Umayyad Mosque and the city’s thirteenth-century souk and Citadel.
We are thus reminded that the age of the museum and the secular veneration of historical relics are relatively recent phenomena. Indeed, few cultural monuments demonstrate this more perfectly than the Athenian Parthenon, which was unceremoniously bombed in 1687 by a Venetian-led army of mercenaries hired by Poland, Venice, and the Vatican—the very Europeans whose culture it is meant to embody—to push the Ottoman Turks out of Europe.
Chrissopoulos opts for an uninflected minimalist narrative strategy: his slim volume is composed as a collection of documents each of which decidedly underplays its role. These include “A Probable Monologue Spoken by the Perpetrator, Ch.K.,” a diaristic confession that brings us into the bomber’s thoughts; “Witness Statements Recorded the Following Day” from neighbors and others who presumably knew the accused; and “Sentence and Punishment,” an account of the last moments of the bomber’s life by one of the soldiers charged with executing him on the firing line.
Together, they form a composite, panoramic view of events that ventures beyond the story of an alienated young man. But Chrissopoulos is also reticent to imagine how the bombing would affect average Greek citizens, or just what their relation might be to a symbol that both does and doesn’t belong to them. Still, given how easily the subject could have led the author into an overwrought DeLillo imitation, his reserve is warranted. The bomber’s confession reminds us, for instance, that even world-historical events are shot through with caprice and confusion: “I had no plan. I had no particular ideal. What set things in motion was an impulse, a kind of inner surge that brought me here. It might just as well have carried me anywhere.” Behind every history lies a chaos of mundane chance that remains the fallow field often cultivated by fiction.