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April 19, 1987|Jack Miles

HELLAS, A PORTRAIT OF GREECE by Nicholas Gage (Villard: $17.95; 248 pp.). Nicholas Gage, born in Greece in 1939, is best known as the author of "Eleni," the story of how his mother saved his life at the cost of her own during the Greek Civil War that followed World War II. Among the many merits of that extraordinary book, one is that it is a fine popular history of the war in Southern Europe.

It was my memory of Gage's skill in handling the historical background of his memoir that led me to "Hellas," the revised edition of his 1971 tour of Greece. I was hoping that he would find a way to accommodate some of the history that lies between Pericles and Papandreou within the conventions of travel writing.

I was not disappointed. He does just that and as well as anyone could, now and then displaying, as well, a quietly lyrical way with landscape and a shrewd eye for behavior. Thus, of Greek men, he writes: "They would rarely consider uprooting their families to move to another city for a better job, and if they have to leave home for economic reasons--to earn a living on ships or as guest workers in other countries--they choose to leave the family behind, surrounded by a support system of relatives and neighbors, rather than to disrupt their status quo by transplanting them." A final bonus is Gage's affectionate chapter on remote Epirus, his native province along the Albanian border.

The best way to visit a foreign country is in the company of a relaxed and knowing friend to whom it is not foreign. Gage is that friend--American now, a victim of Greece at its worst, but still in his heart a philhellene.

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