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God's Snake by Irini Spanidou (Norton; $15.95; 246 pp.)

September 07, 1986|RICHARD EDER

The earliest moment of this haunting childhood memoir is recorded in an old newspaper clipping. It shows the grave black eyes and the tentative smile of a 2-year-old girl, framed in a life preserver. "Man Carrying Child Crosses the Narrows of Euripus," the caption reads.

The sea-borne child is Anna; the man is her father, a Greek army officer and an implacable challenger of life. Not content with swimming the treacherous straits himself, he clamped a rope between his teeth and towed behind him the daughter he doubtless wished were a son; and from whom he demanded a sternly masculine prowess.

Later, when Anna, age 9, swam in these same waters, and the tide turned, her father forbade a friend who started out to help her. "The mother of the brave shall mourn," the father said.

"God's Snake" is fictional in form; but it is impossible not to assume that Anna is at least a partial projection of the author, Irini Spanidou. It is too harsh, too direct, too much a set of concrete memories that glow with a wider and terrible sense of life, to be a pure invention. Call it "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Maenad."

The baby in the life preserver is its emblem. Anna's growing-up is a journey; and we are made to think of her compatriot, Odysseus, wandering in strange places and encountering emblematic forms of love, fear, malice, delusion and knowledge. The people in Anna's young life appeared to her not as domesticated complexities, but as craggy archipelagoes, jutting out of the sea and inhabited by baffling and disquieting spirits.

Anna was a barracks child, moved from outpost to outpost as her father was transferred around Greece; often in areas that had supported the Left in the Civil War, recently ended; and where the army had something of the quality of an occupying force.

There were no roots except Greece as a whole; the language, the history, the mythology. The gods literally help to form Anna's imagination; and one of the achievements of Spanidou's writing is to make us, so far from these gods, sense the impoverishment of their absence.

For instance, a main theme is Anna's effort to discover herself as a female despite the vigorous presence of the masterful father she adored; and the vacancy of a depressed and fastidious mother whom she almost could not see. "What kind of man are you?" the father demands when she fails at something; and mythology gives her an image with a terrible question: "It was as though I'd sprung out of my father's head like Athena from the head of Zeus," she thinks.

There is no peace in the image. From loving her father, she comes to reject, even to loathe, him; and to identify with her distant mother's warm and gentle mother. But Anna's violence and extremism are her father's. She recalled his startling pleasure when, on one occasion, she defies him. She cannot escape him; she is divided against herself.

This divided field of force gives rise to the strange and electric sensibility of "God's Snake." Anna lives in a landscape where meanings are disguised and reveal themselves in unexpected forms: as animals, trees, rocks or in the mysterious shifts of the adult world.

Manolis, her father's orderly and her nanny and playmate, is commanded to educate her in snakes. He kills them and brings them to her, their heads crushed and unrecognizable. How can she be interested, she thinks--her reason asserting itself against her child's tendency to believe--in distinguishing species whose faces she cannot see.

What she does pick up, and this was her father's purpose, is that the world is full of dangerous enemies. Later, when an aunt tries to persuade her that God made all things to be beautiful, she thinks of snakes; and particularly, of slugs, which the peasants called God's Snake. "I had seen it. Amidst flowers, amidst his love, I had seen it creeping, black and vile."

Snakes, though, lead her to make friends with her father's commander, who shows her a South American snakeskin he keeps on his wall. The general is a gentle intellectual, held in contempt by his officers for lacking their absolute certainties. Anna is won by his gentleness, yet offended by his distinctions. When he tells her that Greek snakes are nothing compared to foreign ones, she protests: "You mustn't judge by looks. Our snakes are shrewder. They are the sliest."

The general punctures her father's Spartan code. Fear, he tells Anna, must be acknowledged. "It is as shameful to deny fear as to run away from danger."

And he also tells her: "Now, beauty makes you love and ugliness makes you think. When you grow up, ugliness will make you love and beauty, think." It is a prelude to a more than fatherly caress, one that shatters her love and revolts her. Beauty and ugliness.

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