Article published on February 12, 2018.
After reading The Greek Wall and musing on its powerful subject matter, Paul Burke posed some questions to author Nicolas Verdan:
Paul Burke: The Greek Wall raises a lot of issues people are reluctant to face. Are you angry at the indifference to the plight of immigrants?
Nicolas Verdan: I’m not angry. I try to look reality in the face. Writing, and more specifically fiction, is a way to describe reality. In this case, I want to focus on what’s going on every minute on the European borders. People want to join our prosperity. They are candidates for a new life in what they consider to be the best place for a new departure. But the road to reach that dream often passes through hell on earth. This a tragic but common story you can observe every day in the news. So common you would eventually get used to it.
Paul Burke: The debate on immigration is an over-simplification of issues (corruption is rarely raised and if it is it is ignored). Your novel is complex; did you intend to expose the real situation at Europe’s borders?
Nicolas Verdan: I have to be careful if I’m talking about reality. What I expose in my book is pure fiction. But this book is also the result of a real investigative journalism. I’ve been two times on the Greek and Turkish border. What I describe in my book is the result of reports, interviews and observations. Knowing that I’ve worked many times on immigration issues, as I did in Greece after 2006, and also in Turkey already at the end of the nineties, in Istanbul and Mersin, I can say corruption is a hub for the migrants on the road to Europe. They pay huge amounts of money to a lot of people supposed to facilitate their travel: smugglers, of course, but also soldiers, state officials, policemen, frontier guards. This is obviously not a scoop. But we should not forget another aspect of corruption linked to immigration. Immigration represents a business. For those who help it, as for those who try to prevent it. Building a fence to prevent crossing a border, with the whole stuff of cameras and barbed wire access roads, special gates, buying lands, special equipment for frontier guards, patrol boats, survey planes or drones, helicos, and so and so. It costs a lot for the states. But some private companies make it a lot of profit. This a perfect field for seeds of corrupted elements.
Paul Burke: When you were researching material on the ground was it as a novelist or as a journalist? When did the idea for The Greek Wall come to you? Similarly, why did you to tell the story as a thriller?
Nicolas Verdan: As a journalist, with my press card and not off the record, I got special accesses to Frontex teams. I’ve been authorised to take pictures of the first samples of the so-called “Greek wall”, which is in fact a metallic fence. I got interviews with Greek officials and I could visit police stations close to the borders. I also investigated on my own when there was no official access. I got interviews in Athens about all the aspects of human trafficking concerning specifically the prostitution along the border. I met some women who testified to the danger of being a foreign escort in Greece. There was always this fear: you start working in a hotel but you can end in one of those brothels along the border. I got the idea of this book when I realised that I couldn’t find a media interested in my investigations. At the time, around 2008-2009, Swiss media started to reduce costs, facing big changes. Swiss French media were on point of being sold out to Swiss German groups and there was no more space for such reports. It was a time where I’ve been told that those migrants’ stories were not relevant. Five years later, there is no day without reporting about immigration. I chose the thriller because there was for me no other way to express the violence I met in Greece that time.
Paul Burke: Are the issues of corruption, forced prostitution and the abuse of power the real driving force of the novel? And were you shocked by corruption of agencies and institutions and the indifference of governments to the issues you highlight in The Greek Wall?
Nicolas Verdan: It’s not for me to answer this question. Some readers don’t have such a political reading. They might be more impressed by my descriptions of landscape. When I was writing, I had always on my mind Athens and the Evros delta. No, I’m not shocked by the attitude of governments. Maybe I’m too cynical. But don’t forget the Greek financial and economic crisis that haunts my novel. When your country collapses that way, it’s not surprising to observe such indifference.
Paul Burke: Do you think that the electorates of Europe are largely oblivious to the border situation? Do people care? How do you think the border issues affect our democracies/national characters?
Nicolas Verdan: The moment you feel unsafe, you ask for more borders. That’s exactly what now happens almost everywhere in Europe. Immigration has become associated with Islamic terrorism and democracies fold backwards. Controls have been restored inside of Schengen area. Far right political factions and populist do call for more walls and restricted accesses to “fortress Europa”. Actually, I don’t deny the efficiency of walls. In Israel, for example, it allows a drastic control on the border with Palestinian territories. For the Palestinian people, this fence means humiliation, economic disaster and lands expropriation. For the Israeli authorities, it’s a guarantee of security. They say the wall led to a 90 percent reduction in terrorist attacks. But in the end, it doesn’t change anything to the conflict. Walls are only walls. They never represent a solution. And history has taught us that there comes a day when the wall falls down.
Paul Burke: Evangelos is a complex character, you could be tempted to think he is looking for the truth but is it fair to say he is a pragmatist and a patriot?
Nicolas Verdan: That’s true. Like most of my Greek friends, Evangelos is a pragmatist. The world around him collapses. He doesn’t stop living, looking for those little extras that make life simpler: having a beer in Batman, his favourite bar in Athens. Honestly, I don’t think there is another country in Europe but Greece where people are so resilient. You can’t even imagine how much the daily life of the middle class has been affected by this crisis. I don’t want to discuss here the question of the responsibility of this social, economic and political disaster. I’m just deeply impressed by the way people resist to the shock doctrine of the troika (European Union, World Bank and IMF). Go to Athens and you will not meet people complaining about the only fact they miss money to repair the fridge. Evangelos does think the same I do about Greece. But he’s not a patriot if you mean a nationalist or one of these crazy fans of Golden Dawn. He never forgets his beloved country is a mix of western and eastern influences. He never forgets his family comes also from immigration. Like millions of Greek people, he knows history can something resumed by one word: Catastrophe. An allusion to the Great fire of Smyrna, in September 1922.
Paul Burke: The border soldiers in your novel are heavily involved in forced prostitution in an echo of reported incidents across the world. Are the UN and other agencies part of the problem rather than the solution?
Nicolas Verdan: Above all, my book is pure fiction. I never saw border soldiers involved in forced prostitution like you read in The Greek Wall. However, UN and other agencies do employ thousands of people engaged in crisis contexts with all the risks of sex crimes and prostitution rackets. My story is more based on a simple observation. Every night, the borders guards of Frontex survey the border with infrared binoculars and survey cameras. I spent a night with them, watching what they were watching on their screen: migrants crossing the river. You could see the smugglers staying back on the Turkish shore. But there was another dramatic scene playing in front of their nose: the bordellos you could also see inside the binoculars, with their red lights, the parking lot full of cars, the customers, the girls. This was also a story of human trafficking on the border. The one nobody cares.
Paul Burke: You highlight the plight of two individuals, Nikos Strom and Polina Zubov, innocents caught up in the border issues. Is it true to say we have to survive on small victories, the system always wins?
Nicolas Verdan: The moment you cross the red line, you lose your innocence. It happened to Nikos and Polina. Both of them ignore where is the border is located exactly and they shouldn’t have crossed it there. This is the real story of borders. You never know which side you are on. It happened to me around Jerusalem as well as in Evros. I think we have to resist against the system. Same victories already give you the feeling of freedom. A good start.
Paul Burke: The third person narrator gives us a very personal family portrait of Evangelos? Or is it an “everyman” history? We all have an immigrant experience of some sort.
Nicolas Verdan: I hope you can feel a certain affinity for Evangelos. I wouldn’t say he’s the guy next door. But in some ways, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of my readers wearing a T-Shirt that kind: “We are Evangelos”. LOL.
Paul Burke: Evangelos is a strong character and The Greek Wall is an exciting thriller. Is there a chance that he could feature again? Do you have any plans for a new novel?
Nicolas Verdan: No doubt he will make his comeback. He retired. But somebody told me he made a strange encounter in the mountains of Epirus. This was the day road from Igoumenitsa was closed to traffic because of heavy snowfalls.
Our thanks to Nicolas and Paul for this informative Q&A.
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