By Fred A. Reed
When I read Colin Thubron’s review of Abducting a General, by Patrick Leigh Fermor in the New York Review the other day, something snapped.
Snapped into clear focus, I should say.
Fleeing family, assigned future and country, I’d decamped from Southern California and stepped ashore in the port of Piraeus in the fall of 1960. This I did on the strength of a book, when a normal young man might have done it for a woman. But in my case, the book came first, the woman later.
The book that snared me was by Nikos Kazantzakis, an immensely popular author of the early sixties whose novels, particularly Zorba the Greek, were international best sellers. They took up the great themes of liberty, redemption, justice and fate.
But Leigh Fermor’s books about his travels across the micro-landscape rapidly became a part of my Greek universe. He and I shared a love for and fascination with the country but could not have been more different. He, a child of the British aristocracy, of traditional classical education, the most refined taste and erudition, but with a contrarian, rebel streak of the kind you could find in Orwell. Not to mention rare courage. The rebel streak I had; the rest I did not.
After establishing myself in Athens, my first trip was a pilgrimage to Crete where Kazanzakis had set several of the novels that made his reputation. The great island had not yet become a tourist destination; that would come soon enough. But the epic era of its struggle against Ottoman domination had long ended. Crete was part of Greece for the first time in its millennial history, I might add.
A newspaper publisher in Iraklion, the island’s main town, befriended me and arranged lodging at an experimental farm in the suburbs. The groundskeeper/supervisor was a man called Yorgos Tsangarakis: a man from the rugged highlands to the south who spoke in nearly incomprehensible Cretan dialect.
It wasn’t long before we established a friendship. Yorgos spent his days working in the vineyards and vegetable patches; I studied Greek and slept on an army surplus cot and we washed our hands from the same watering can that hung from the wall, with its spigot and mirror. I can’t remember how I bathed, or even if I did.
Nights we would take the bus downtown to a hole-in-the-wall joint he knew, where men from his home region, dressed in pantaloons and high boots and wearing beaded scarves wrapped turban style around their heads, would congregate. There they would eat tiny potatoes roasted in the coals, served with salt and lemon juice, and washed down with tsikoudia, the Cretan variant of raki.
That was—and is—a beverage that loosened tongues. So it was not long before I found out about Yorgos’ past. A past revealed anew to me when I read Thubron’s review. In it is a photo of Leigh Fermor with one of the Cretan guerrillas who had joined the operation to capture General Kreipe, the German occupation commander in Crete.
That man’s last name was Tsangarakis. My boon companion Yorgos’ surname. By no means a common name. That’s when everything snapped into focus.
During our drinking binges he’d told me about his youth and his participation in the abduction. I took due note, but paid insufficient attention. But one thing stayed with me: the title of the song Filedem, a Turkish ditty adopted by the Cretans that Leigh Fermor learned, sang and proudly adopted as his nom-de-guerre. The fighters under his command knew him as “Filedem.”
Yorgos would have then been in his late teens. Quite old enough to have participated in the resistance against the Nazi occupation forces. Quite old enough to have joined his older brother in Leigh Fermor’s abduction brigade. Quite old enough to be one of those anonymous heroes. And of course to remember the song.
The capture and abduction of Kreipe was a daring exploit that was designed to boost morale. It certainly heightened the brutality of the Nazi reprisals, carried out under a new commanding general, a war criminal named Müller who ordered his troops to kill all the male inhabitants of the mountain villages suspected of complicity. Hundreds died.
When I visited those villages, I saw the brass commemorative plaques along the roadside. Later German soldiers returned to the site of their atrocities as if seeking absolution. Back then, in those dirt-poor settlements that lived by sheep-herding, no forgiveness was forthcoming.
But time passed and tourists replaced the repentant killers. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s posthumously published account of reckless and high-priced courage will surely bring Crete as it was in its last heroic age to vivid and tragic life again.
And for me, the words of a song long forgotten.