Yorgos Theotokas, Leonis – novel and poem

I’ve recently reread Yorgos Theotokas’s Leonis for the first time in years. How odd it is as a novel, and at the same time, how compelling. Both the oddity and the power come from the book’s extreme compression, and from its being in some ways less like a novel than a long narrative poem in prose.

Sadly, it isn’t on the rather short list of modern Greek books that have gained currency in English, though I gather there is a translation. In brief outline, Leonis – the hero – starts as a little Greek boy in Istanbul or Constantinople – or just ‘The City’, the Greeks call it – shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. He ends it as a seventeen year old refugee in Athens, after the collapse of the Greek attempt to take Asia Minor from Turkey. In between, the novel travels rapidly through the arrival of German soldiers as Turkey’s First World War allies, childish games in the public gardens, Leonis’s admiration for an older boy called Pavlos Proios, the development of a childish obsession with drawing into a real passion for art, his first erotic experiences, the end of the war, Istanbul’s occupation by the Allies, the explosion of festivities that follows what the Greek community sees as liberation and victory, Leonis’s and Pavlos’s participation in these festivities as members of a scout troop, Leonis’s falling in love with the admired teenage beauty Eleni Foka, who was once Pavlos’s girlfriend but whom he’s broken with and now says he despises for her promiscuity, Pavlos’s enlisting to fight in the Greek irredentist struggle, news of Eleni’s engagement and Pavlos’s death, Leonis’s aimless depression in an Athens choked with refugees from Turkey, his inability to paint any more, his meeting with a shattered friend who had fought alongside Pavlos … In a final scene he climbs the Hill of Acropolis and accepts that his future will be in the little kingdom of Greece, not in the great City of the Byzantine emperors.

So the story follows the kind of arc you’d expect in a bildungsroman, taking the hero through various stages of emotional development and development in his attitudes towards his art. From this point of view, though, it’s pretty sketchy. Character, setting and circumstance are all presented in a starkly foreshortened way. People appear, play a brief part, then most of them vanish. They have no existence as characters beyond their immediate impact on Leonis himself, and some of the people and places that would have been most important in his life – his father, his mother, his home – are barely mentioned or not mentioned at all. Even the most important characters – Eleni Fokas and Pavlos Proios – are seen in a wholly external, intermittently vivid but sketchy and fragmentary way, through the eyes of other people, mainly Leonis’s, and it becomes clear that he has no real understanding of either of them. As for the hero’s art, at the end of the novel it’s unclear whether it will have any place in his new life in Athens. Somehow it’s become unimportant.

What makes this odd novel so compelling?

Partly it’s the sheer vividness with which some episodes hang in the mind, saturated in the protagonist’s emotion and seeming to resist the stream of time and event. Instead of being staging posts to what happens next they feel like moments of pure being, moments we’re drawn into and invited to linger over. Presenting them, the writing seems to fold in on itself, to become more rhythmically charged in a way that gives it an incantatory evocativeness, while the tense becomes the imperfect tense of repeated or ongoing action. Perhaps you need to read such passages in Greek to experience the full effect, though I’d be interested to see a translation.

These moments are poetic in themselves, but Leonis is also like a poem in a deeper sense. Episodes and events are chosen not for mere circumstantial interest but because of their concentrated symbolic power. Moreover, they’re woven into a pattern of echoes and repetitions that urge us to respond to the whole rather short book in the imaginatively simultaneous way in which we respond to poems. So at the same time as experiencing the particularly heightened and intense moments as they feel to Leonis at the time, we experience them in relation to the other moments they echo in different ways. Key themes, in an almost musical sense, are sounded from the start. For example, in Chapter One we hear about little Leonis’s games with toy soldiers of many nations. These always end in a parade that comically includes soldiers who’ve lost their heads. Chapter Two brings news of the start of the War, with an excited family discussion of what it will mean, at which point we hear about how the children of the coal merchant below the house will often call up to Leonis ‘Pethaki! Pethaki! Rixe ena stratiotaki’ (‘little boy, little boy, throw down a soldier’ you might say, though that loses the sing-song rhythm and the rhyming repetition of the -aki diminutive). The parade with toy soldiers is picked up several times later in the novel, with the parade of German and Turkish troops receiving the Kaiser into the city being ironically balanced against the parade that accompanies the arrival of the Allied troops after the Turkish surrender. This parade strand flowers in a series of festivities celebrating the Allied victory and in marches by the Greek scouts, of which Leonis is one, waving Greek flags with their officers proudly carrying swagger sticks bought from the British. It culminates, devastatingly, when Leonis is in Athens and sees tattered remnants of the Greek army that tried to take Asia Minor from the Turks, in the war in which Pavlos Proios was killed:

Leonis IMG_3007 (2)


Flags were passing again in the brilliant light but they were torn and blackened by the smoke of battles. The men who accompanied them seemed sick, staring feverishly. One day Leonis saw some soldiers weeping in the ranks as they marched behind their tattered flag in the Athenian sunlight. That crying by the soldiers was the saddest thing he had ever seen.


To get a full sense of how much this belongs to a musical pattern you perhaps need to see how the precise phrasing relates it not only to other images of marching soldiers or scouts but also to other strands – for example, a series of moments in which Leonis finds himself suddenly abstracted from the present in a kind of visionary apprehension of history as a kind of dance.

It’s implicit in the way this novel asks to be grasped as a kind of spatial whole that what comes later transforms our sense of what comes before. So on second and subsequent readings the initial funniness of the headless soldiers in parade becomes tinged with horror when we see it as an anticipation of what happens to Pavlos and so many others. In this way, it’s of a piece with the whole movement of the book, through naive misapprehensions and romantic illusions to a harsher vision of realities. Part of its beauty and pain, at least for me, is in the way it both tenderly relives and absolutely punctures youthful dreams.

The most brutal puncturing illustrates another way in which Leonis is like a poem – a Modernist poem in this instance. That is in its abrupt changes of gear, register and tone. The chapter before the one in which we suddenly see Leonis in Athens consists of entries in his diary. He writes as one who dreams of being a poet as well as a painter. The entries are escapist dreams, full of flowery language and exuberant fantasy, suffused with self-regarding poeticisms. Then suddenly this:

1 June.Pavlos Proios has been killed.
That’s all[2]. I can’t write.


The various dreams themselves are interwoven – the dream of romantic love focused on Eleni Foka, the dream of art, the dream of poetry. The one that embraces all of them is that of recreating the Greek world’s lost greatness, not the greatness of classical Greece but that of the Byzantine empire centred on Constantinople itself, the City. Different strands intertwine and blur into each other in a way that keeps one’s sense of the book in shimmering movement. So evocations of Leonis’s romantic adoration of Eleni Foka look towards and play against descriptions of sexual encounters of an earthier kind. They also relate in an ironic and poignant way to the national dream. Pavlos Proios writes to Leonis from the front about his vision of Greece, the Greece he’s fighting and dying for, as a proud, sad woman with wounded feet wearing the tatters of a rich costume. In Athens, after he’s seen the weeping soldiers, Leonis meets a scout troop friend who was with Pavlos, who says that far from falling out of love with Eleni, Pavlos died, essentially, for love of her[3]. The two meditate on the unknowability of other people and their motives. It’s intensely moving when they do so because Theotokas has made these unknowable other people mean so much to the two of them and to the reader – at least to this reader. Few books I’ve ever read have moved me as violently as Leonis does.

A short book, then, missing some of the features one would expect in a novel, but absorbing and powerful in ways that weirdly infuse the body of a novel with the spirit of a lyric poem. Even more extraordinary, perhaps, is its profound ambiguity as a lyrical work. Its theme and imaginative scope are epic, but refracted through the eyes of a child on the fringes of the action. Sometimes it seems to be most essentially about Leonis’s intense emotional experiences against the background of the First World War and the tragedy of the Greeks in Asia Minor. I said, though, that his most intense experiences are presented in a way that makes them seem symbolically fraught, as if they’re radiated through by forces and processes of which he’s only dimly aware. Sometimes it seems that he is only the prism and the deepest subject of the book is the Greek historical experience over the centuries between the tenth century Emperor Basil II the Bulgar Slayer and the failure of the dream of Greater Greece in the aftermath of World War I. At other times, more vaguely, it seems that youth itself is the subject. There are one or two very brief longeurs, if I can be permitted the oxymoron – Leonis’s struggle with a head teacher gives several very boring pages – but for me at least it’s a book that repays endless rereading and becomes more moving with every reimmersion.



[1] Apologies for this clumsy insert – WordPress doesn’t seem to carry Greek characters over from Word.

[2] Literally, I stop.

[3] Could her name echo the idea taken from Stesichorus and Euripides that the Helen for whom the Greeks and Trojans slaughtered each other at Troy was not the actual Helen but a fantasy image? Theotokas’s friend Seferis wrote one of his most powerful poems, ‘Helen’, on this theme. That was many years after Theotokas wrote Leonis, but it’s easy to imagine that the two men shared a sense of how Euripides’s twist on the Homeric myth might relate to the tragedies of twentieth century Greece.

One Response to “Yorgos Theotokas, Leonis – novel and poem”

  1. Therese Sellers said:

    Nov 03, 21 at 5:52 pm

    This is a wonderful, detailed review of a lesser known masterpiece of Modern Greek literature.

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