In the story “Mao” from the collection Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonomou (translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich), a character known simply as “the admiral” sums up the entire story in one of the more powerful moments from the book:
We talk and talk and the more we talk the better I understand that what binds us together are the things we’re afraid of and the things we hate. How did we end up like this? Where did all the hatred and fear come from, can you tell me? And the more time passes the worse things get.
The short stories in this collection focus on the inhabitants of a port city southwest of Athens, offering a portrait of the struggle of life during the financial crisis in Greece. People are laid off, people screw each other, some even lose their lives in rough neighborhoods. In one story, a woman saves money in a piggy bank only for her boyfriend to leave her, stealing it. In another, five men wait by a barrel fire all night to be the first in line to see the doctors at the social security offices in Nikaia. In another story a man searches for money to get food to feed his son on Easter, only to end up on a church floor, injured by a fall after helping decorate a statue of Jesus.
The conversational tone of the language with its minimal use of punctuation accentuates the bleakness of existence for many of the characters. While the stories aren’t strictly connected via their narrative, the thematic and tonal thread running through them suggests that perhaps these characters all inhabit the same world; however, in their misery they can only see the world around them, closing in more tightly as things get worse.
There’s a sliver of hope throughout the book as well. Ikonomou doesn’t offer and overt solution to the crisis, but instead shows that through people’s solidarity and resilience they can still get by. They may not be rich or very happy. But sometimes it’s enough to just be okay.
Each of the four chapters is told from a different character’s point of view in In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano (translated from the French by Chris Clarke). While in some hands this could feel like a gimmick, tying all of the threads together and culminating in an “aha” moment akin to the end of a murder mystery, Modiano instead only briefly mentions the shared interactions between all of the characters. Still, as one of the four main characters, a detective named Caisley observes
In this life that sometimes seems to be a vast, ill-defined landscape without signposts, amid all of the vanishing lines and the lost horizons, we hope to find reference points, to draw up some sort of land registry so as to shake the impression that we are navigating by chance. So we forge ties, we try to find stability in chance encounters.
The story revolves around a young woman named Jacqueline Choreau née Delanque, also known by regulars of the café Condé as “Louki.” The overall narrative backtracks each time with each of the four perspectives but the overall story arc feels smooth. Through the first we find that the regulars of Condé are all fascinated with each other. In the second we find that one non-regular that was fascinated by her is in fact a private detective, hired by her husband to find her after she left him abruptly. The third perspective is from Jacqueline herself, providing much of the backstory before the main thread starts. Finally we hear from the lover she left her husband for, all the way to the tragic end.
The book takes place in Paris in the 1950s although aside from a few place names doesn’t really feel much like a period piece. It could be the book was written so concisely that it doesn’t need to feel nostalgic, or as a non-Parisian I haven’t picked up on all of the subtleties. Either way, the book could take place any time. What is important is how we study the way in which we all have an impact on each other, even in the most minor way. The first chapter alone is written by an unnamed character that we never see again, other than briefly once, in passing. Yet it provides a glimpse at how this one woman has had a big impact on others. The few flash-forwards scenes in the book then show that even though Paris has moved on, this one woman and the café she sometimes took refuge in remains in the memories of those affected by them.