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January 04, 1987|Sharon Dirlam

HELLAS: A PORTRAIT OF GREECE by Nicholas Gage (Villard: $29.75; 256 pp.). This is a lovingly written tribute to his native land by Nicholas Gage, born Nicholas Ngagoyeanes in northern Greece in 1939. He escaped the horrors of the Greek civil war in 1949 and, later, as a prize-winning journalist, wrote "Eleni," the story of his mother, who was executed for her role in saving her children. "Hellas" is a rewritten version of Gage's first book on Greece, published in 1971.

Gage clearly knows whereof he writes, and he gives an insider's commentary on the Greek passions for dancing, eating, arguing politics. His chapters on history and religion are succinct and informative. Comments about the Greek personality and behavior have the ring of truth.

If there is a weakness, it is small and forgivable: Gage sees Greece through the warm tones of memory. He rhapsodizes to such an extent on the dazzling light in the country that one feels overwhelmed. And many would not see Athens as the smiling carnival that Gage sees, but rather as a teeming city with dusty streets, loutish cabbies, ordinary food and bitter coffee.

But Gage captures a feeling, the special intensity of this land, the magical presence of the Parthenon that looms over the Plaka, the sense of something that is lovely, perverse, crazy, delightful and beautiful. One reads Gage's book and wants to return to see again.

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