Review published on February 12, 2018.
Slim and pithy but meditative, this is a novel about borders, between states and between people. We all pick our sides. A wide sweeping thriller of modern Europe.
The Greek Wall is the first novel by Verdan to be translated into English and it’s a decent thriller with a neat change of pace half way through. The novel says a lot about the value European societies place on human life at the edges of the continent. A severed head turns up on the Greece/Turkey border and it’s western European. That brings the matter to the attention of Athens; these are sensitive times. Plans are well under way for the Greek Wall to be built on the banks of the Evros to prevent the uncontrolled flow of migrants into Europe.
It’s a slow burn but the novel is about more than a murder it’s a serious investigation of life on the border; for the refugees, the locals and European institutions. Regardless of your attitude to the issue of immigration this is about big business, corruption, the abuse of power and human dignity.
Donald Trump isn’t the only one who wants to build a wall to keep out the immigrants. The Israelis already have (for defence purposes/to isolate the Palestinians?). The Greek Wall of this novel is more like an unbreachable fence but the basic principle is the same. A barrier against a tide of people.
So The Greek Wall is a crime novel with some really contemporary themes: people trafficking, mass immigration into Europe, and the financial crisis in Greece. Not quite a polemic but an intelligent political novel that is an engaging and chilling thriller of our times. It’s the issues that underlie the story that stick with you, they are such an ingrained part of modern European life. It is scary to think about the tragic scale of the problem and the lack of concern among governments to ensure things are done properly. Verdan exposes the corruption and criminality that blights the border regions and the shocking level of official collusion in that. The Eastern European borders have been the scene of conflict in recent years and new measures to block people entering, some legal some illegal, can add to the violence. What Verdan exposes is the lack of empathy for what happens on the edges of Europe, there are zones of near lawlessness.
The Greek Wall is set in 2010, migrants attempt to cross the Evros river into Greece every day. The economic crisis in the country just gets worse and austerity is hurting everybody. The IMF, Brussels and the World Bank are all playing hard ball with the Greek Government. On the one hand demanding actions against the flood of refugees and on the other starving Greece of bail out money. In Athens, Security Agent Evangelos bemoans his problems, not least the rise in petrol prices that hits every ordinary worker hard, even civil servants are not well paid. There are reports from Orestiada of a corpse-less head turning up on the border. Just where the authorities want to strengthen the barriers to migrants. The rest of Europe is looking at Greece criticising their response to the crisis as part of the problem. The Amsterdam Treaty has opened borders and the free movement in the Schengen area means that those who arrive in Greece can travel on throughout the continent.
The severed head, discovered by the Frontex guards (a combined force of European agencies, in this case Finns), becomes a national issue. There are too many ramifications for the local police captain because the head is European and Western. Sure enough, that attracts the attention of the National Intelligence Agency (counter terrorism, counter espionage and organised crime). Agent Evangelos is sent to investigate but given the sensitivity of border issues his bosses expect a simple result quickly. On arriving Evangelos discovers that things are anything but simple. The Frontex officers are implicated in some nasty goings on at a local brothel. The building is empty by the time Evangelos arrives, all the witnesses cleared out. The investigation has been badly handled so far. Eventually one of the prostitutes is found and she has quite a story to tell. What Evangelos uncovers could help Greece squeeze the EU. for more money. Athens order Evangelos to drop the murder investigation in favour of blackmailing Europe but he still wants to know why a man died in apparently vicious circumstances.
The style is a little off putting at the start, as I said it’s a slow burn. The third person narrative established a personal history for Agent Evangelos. It gives a context to Greek history, the dictatorship of the Generals, and as far back as the Armenian crisis of 1922. Most importantly it a sort of every man story that remained us we are all migrants somewhere down the line. It reinforces that history repeats itself. It’s an intellectual read, political but also emotional.
Verdan is a Swiss author writing in French and living a lot of the time in Greece. The level of research into the border situation is almost journalistic in intensity. This is a dark vision of the parlous state of Europe at the edges. It smacks of authenticity and reflects on the almost daily stories that we now hear in the news. At the heart of the novel is fear and the plight of the individual against a system that really doesn’t care.
This is a thriller that carries a message, it’s breadth and audacity are remarkable in a crime novel of only 200 pages. This is not one that you will forget in a hurry.
What you think is going on is not necessarily the case. The strings are being pulled and one young woman, forced into prostitution, and one businessman looking to make the deal of his life are caught up in political events, machinations by people who don’t care how many little people are destroyed in the process. Yet no one is innocent; they made the choices that brought them to the border on the day of the murder.
Evangelos is a fascinating character, because he appears to be searching for the truth there is a tendency to trust his motives but is he all he seems? The Greek Wall is not an easy read, the human peril is very real and the things people do to each other can be so cruel.
Paul Burke 5/3
The Greek Wall by Nicolas Verdan
Bitter Lemon Press 9781908524850 pbk Jan 2018
READING GROUP GUIDE: A Darker State by David Young
Author meets Reviewer: Nicolas Verdan meets Paul Burke
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