Monday, 29 April 2013

Penguin no. 2109: The Man on the Rock
by Francis King

The staff consisted, for the most part, of pious, well-intentioned and hardworking English and American women, and Greek men, who like myself, took advantage of them. We borrowed money off them, and then forgot to repay it: we sold the petrol, the stationery, and even items of furniture; when a parcel arrived for distribution, we substituted worn-out clothes or shoes of our own for the clothes and shoes inside. The office station-wagon took us to the beach or to football matches. From time to time, one of us would be caught out, and then the rest would have to pretend to exclaim in horror at his crime.

Spiro Polymerides lies in his bed in a small flat in Battersea, suffering cystitis and feeling sorry for himself. His immediate problem is not his illness but the prospect of hours without any company, as it seems that Greek men hate spending any time alone. Even more than this, though, he resents the predicament he finds himself in: he is living in a foreign country without any hope of employment, and he is forced to hide from his creditors, and juggle what little money there is to pay some of the bills so that he and his heavily-pregnant wife can keep their small flat and get a little food. And all this through marrying a woman he doesn't love and barely cares about.

He knows that he alone is responsible for this fate. He married Kiki because she was the only daughter of Vrissoglou, a well-known and very wealthy Greek businessman living in London, and he was banking on a substantial dowry. His one goal in life has been to find someone who was willing to pick up the tab while he took it easy, unconcerned with whether they were young or old, male or female, and irrespective of what was required in return. He suggests that this is all any Greek peasant is ever seeking. But Kiki's father has chosen instead to disown his daughter as long as she continues to live with Spiro

And so Spiro is the man on the rock; a man without options. The metaphor is taken from Blake's The Mental Traveller, and it is being used here to describe his marriage, and the idea that he has traded his freedom for the prospect of a fortune, but perhaps the bargain was never going to be worth it.

As he lies in his bed he thinks back over his life, and the various people he has known and subsequently betrayed. He is honest in his reflections, never averring from a recognition of just how badly he has behaved, though caring more about the consequences for himself than for any cost borne by others. There have been people in his past who have genuinely cared for him, but he has always been self-concerned, and he has only ever pretended to return their affection; it has always been about what he could get for himself. He is hot-tempered, extravagant, and manipulative, but he is also well aware of all these faults, though perhaps he would consider them simply as attributes. There is not a single happy story here: everyone who has cared for him has been ruined in consequence.

He could find excuses for his callous disposition in the experiences of his childhood, for they were certainly traumatic. His parents and elder brother were killed in a Communist raid upon their village when he was a child. He recalls watching as the men of the village were lined up against a wall and executed, and seeing the village ransacked and then set alight. He was kidnapped by the rebels along with the other children of the village, with the young boys led away to be trained as militants, and the adolescent girls facing rape and sexual slavery. While he could reasonably claim to be traumatised by these experiences, that is not how he understands the underlying motivations of his behaviour.

He always views it as a clash of cultural values. He explains his behaviour logically in terms of the values imbued in him during his poor, rural upbringing, where being self-interested and willing to take advantage of the weaknesses of others is recognised as the way to get ahead, and finding someone with money is perceived as the only way to escape from the village. In such an environment to be viewed as cunning is to be considered clever; he says it is an attribute Greek people admire rather than condemn. The people he has injured have been either English or American expatriates: they are easily deceived and manipulated for they see in any situation the world as they wish it to be, rather than how it is, which makes them easy prey. As the passage quoted above makes explicit, he behaved the way he did because no one ever held him to account. But Kiki's father is Greek and presumably has a far greater understanding of Spiro and his values. He is the only one in the story who sees through him and doesn't give him what he wants.

Of course Spiro was also being used by those expatriates, who were beguiled by his good looks and charming ways and who sought to buy his affections, so it is hardly surprising that he was willing to give them everything except his loyalty. With its portrayal of the Greek civil war and the appalling implications for the villagers, and its analysis of the incompatible values of Greeks and Westerners, it is an interesting book, but also a difficult one to read. Spiro's story is told in the first person, and he never hides from what he has wrought, never seeking to justify it, but only to explain. It is impossible not to feel some pity for this man, while also feeling abhorrence for all he has done and his inability to care for anyone other than himself.


  1. The title of this novel, The Man on the Rock, makes it sound like William Golding's Pincher Martin (1956) -- literally about a man struggling to survive on a bleak rock, out at sea -- but of course it's utterly different. Thanks for the description. I've never read Francis King, though I know he was once quite highly regarded. You mention "the incompatible values of Greeks and Westerners." Does the novel actually use those terms? Greeks and Westerners -- with a sharp distinction between the two? If so, it wouldn't be regarded as politically correct nowadays; but, I wonder, does it in fact speak to the present-day predicament of Greece vis-a-vis Western Europe? If many more people had read this novel, would we have been less keen to allow Greece into the European Union (essentially a _western_ European Union) back in 1980?

    1. The book definitely isn't politically correct, because then I'm sure the explanation for his behaviour would have been found in the traumatic experiences of his childhood, but it is made very clear that it is actually because he has been brought up to be that way - his values are ones he shares with other Greek peasants. The term Westerners is not used, but the focus is on the Americans and the English - Spiro deceives them because they are easy to deceive, and because they assume everyone shares their own values. One point that should be noted, though, is that Francis King is not Greek himself, and so he is not necessarily describing something that actually exists but only something that he perceives to exist.



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