CAPTIVE SUN, THE
Author: Irena Karafilly
Picador Australia RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
When you hear the words ‘war’ and ‘resistance’ together, what images do they evoke? Do you think of resistance or underground movements in occupied countries during World War II? Do you think of people or weapon smuggling, covert operations, hiding soldiers or resistance sympathisers, disinformation, codes, or more? I only know what comes from books, so all of these images fit for me; in reality, my idea is likely somewhat Hollywood-esque. The Captive Sun, by Irena Karafilly, examines the impact of both these words on one character, Calliope Adham; as it turns out, the words have a multi-layered relevance for this intriguing and unusual character.
Young, headstrong and recently widowed, Calliope is a schoolmistress in the Greek village of Molyvos when the Germans arrive in 1941. As they set about occupying the small village, the Germans soon realise they need someone to act as a liaison officer – an intermediary between them and the villagers; with an adequate command of the German language, Calliope is ordered to take on the role. It’s not an easy role and her thoughts on this reveal a lot about her character: She found it as difficult to mediate between the Germans and the Greeks as she did between her own conflicted selves. What a telling sentence – and so easy to miss.
Calliope’s wartime duties bring her into close contact with Lieutenant Lorenz Umbreit; before long their shared interest in literature sparks an unlikely and lasting friendship. And yet, while their friendship deepens and her role as liaison officer expands, Calliope is also doing her part in the Greek resistance. Her dual roles are fraught with tension; her friendship with Umbreit endangers her as much as her resistance efforts. However, their bond survives the Occupation and several tumultuous decades in which Greece is ravaged by civil war, oppressed by military dictatorship, and finally liberated in the mid ‘70s.
The Captive Sun has so much to recommend it. The research is impressive, the writing masterful, the plot line intricate and challenging; what Karafilly has delivered is a brilliant character-driven work. It’s one of the best novels I’ve read this year. Aside from an interesting and complex lesson in Greek politics and history, the novel tells the story of an extraordinary woman – it is Calliope and her ‘conflicting selves’ that makes this novel the page-turner it is. Karafilly says on her website: “Nothing will make a story more memorable than an interesting character”. I might (will) forget the history lesson, but Calliope will be far less easy to forget.
Calliope’s character is summed up by her mother, Mirto, early on: “We shouldn’t have pushed you to marry. You were not born to be a wife and mother.” So what was Calliope born to be? Calliope, the reader finds, is a non-conforming woman who wages war (privately and publicly) on convention and societal expectation. She resists what society thinks she is born to be (a wife and mother) in a myriad of ways – from her friendship with Umbreit and her sexual relationships with a number of men over her lifetime (all the while resisting marriage), to wearing trousers and standing up for women’s and civil rights. She’s both a woman of her time and a woman ahead of her time. The political wars came and went, but as the following quote shows, Calliope’s inner war was lifelong:
Was Heraclitus right, then, saying character was destiny? If so, was her reluctance to acquiesce and conform, her inability to curry favour with the likes of Tsouras, responsible for her latest predicament? She remembered reading Stendhal, asking herself whether it was possible to live in society and still be true to oneself, without hypocrisy, without the need for perpetual compromise?
The Captive Sun is also notable for its examination of women’s issues. Poignant and heartbreaking, the novel delves into issues that remain as complicated and prevalent as ever the world over – domestic violence, incest, rape. As time goes by, Calliope (through social work) continues her war on tradition and calls on women to speak out against crimes against their gender. Most are not as strong as she; it’s a sad realisation for her. Sadder still, is the knowledge that little has changed, despite the best efforts of many dedicated women.
I loved this book – it comes with a high recommendation from me. I believe Calliope has something to say to women everywhere (her name means ‘Beautiful voice’) – for me, it was simple: “Be true to yourself”. What will it be for you?