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Lion in Winter: A last interview with Harry Mark Petrakis

By on March 23, 2021

By Nicholas Cotros

(Harry Mark Petrakis, the legendary author of 24 legendary books, most-notably of Greek-American life, died this past February at his longtime home in Chesterton, Indiana at the age of 97.

“He passed away imperceptibly, like the flutter of a sparrow’s wing, seemingly without struggle, with my brother and his wife by his bedside,” his son Mark Petrakis told the Chicago Sun-Times. Author Stuart Dybek called him “a major figure, certainly in 20th century Chicago literature. He was part of a movement that was national at the time, with Chicago in the forefront, in which America claimed its identity through its ethnic writers.”

A last interview was with writer Nicholas Cotros.)

March 25th, 2021 is the 200-year anniversary of Greek freedom: Greek Independence Day. Last year, I was introduced to the work of Harry Mark Petrakis, the Greek-American novelist who first detailed the events of this war in English, in his epic novels The Hour of the Bell and The Shepherds of Shadows.

Soon though, I learned that the life and work of Petrakis far exceed his recounting of these historical events. In fact, his work, beginning with the sale of his first short story to The Atlantic in 1957, has long-chronicled the many struggles and triumphs of immigrants and other working-class peoples, like the Greek shop-owners of Chicago’s once-thriving “Greek Town.” who are at the heart of his short stories and novels.

Last year, Petrakis and I spoke via telephone several times. We discussed his novels, short stories, and life. At ninety-seven years old, Petrakis is kind and thoughtful. He often paused before speaking, as if searching for certain words before sharing them aloud. Laughing, he said, “Nick, it’s been a journey, and I’ve lived it longer than most people live. I’m ninety-eight, so imagine how I look back across the landscape of my life, and the width and the scope of it, the mistakes, the blunders, the triumphs, the small victories, the defeats, the humiliation. The whole cauldron of human experience sits in my memory.”

Harry Petrakis was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1923, the fifth of six children. His family, seven years earlier, had immigrated to America (from Crete, Greece) with their father agreeing to be the priest of a small parish in Price, Utah. But the Greek coal miners of Price who yearned for a priest to care for them also desperately wanted a priest with a family, to remind them of their own families who still lived in Greece. In his memoirs, Petrakis shares his mother’s memory, that when his father, mother, brothers, and sisters were first greeted by the community, the miners cheered jubilantly, firing gunshots into the sky. She told Petrakis that, as they approached the men, some were seen with tears in their eyes. Others knelt and offered prayers of thanks as their family walked through the congregation.

After pleading with their bishop for months, the coal miners’ collective wish had been granted – a priest and his loving family had arrived from the island of Crete.

Petrakis’ family later relocated to St. Louis (where Petrakis was born), and soon to Chicago. Although his father wore the traditional, dark-black garments of a Greek Orthodox priest, young Harry Petrakis

surely sported a tee-shirt and shorts. In partnership with other rambunctious young Greeks, he soon joined a local immigrant gang. The youths’ mission: to become Americans! They contended with store-owners, street merchants, and push-carts to, “deride the customs of the old country,” as Petrakis writes in his first autobiography, Stelmark.

Ironically, a son of immigrants from “Greek Town” Chicago, Petrakis, who had once subscribed to the idea of eventually shedding his heritage, would later embrace it. At fifty years old, having already authored acclaimed novels and short story collections, Petrakis began writing The Hour of the Bell. Published in 1976, this historical novel documents the events that transpired before and during the Greek war of independence, beginning in March of 1821 as revolts broke out across Greece.

The Hour of the Bell and its sequel, The Shepherds of Shadows (published some thirty years later in 2008), detail how not only the Turks, but also the Greeks, on the backs of stampeding horses, baring muskets and curved swords, slaughtered their enemies without mercy.

Bell and Shepherds share with us stories of real-life characters like Theodoros Kolokotronis, the high-ranking Greek general who, for a time, in a sad act of betrayal, was sent to a faraway island by other competing men of their revolutionary military. They tell of patriots like the English poet, Lord Byron, whose poems inspired English support of Greece, and who eventually died in Greece hoping to contribute to its repose. And they tell of young villagers who, in the beginning, among swirling whispers of an impending revolution, joined their older counterparts and ran away from their homes to enlist in bands of wild “pakilars” hiding in and attacking from the mountains.

As 2021 signals the 200-year anniversary of this war, Petrakis reflects on these novels. “It was a time of slavery after four hundred years,” he said, “and the Greeks suffered. The Turks treated them like animals. If a Greek walked down the street and a Turk approached, he was supposed to get out of the way, not to impede his progress. All kinds of cruelty.” Centuries of slavery is important context. Imagine being born into slavery and, sixty-seventy years later, dying in the same fashion, your children and grandchildren forced to endure a similar life.

His motivation, Petrakis said, was that, “… there seemed never to have been any kind of a major work in English on that war of independence, and it seemed to me that it deserved it.”

Petrakis spoke of his working with the books’ publisher, Doubleday, and with a friend, Kimon Friar, the famous writer and translator of Nikos Kazantzakis. In preparation for The Hour of the Bell, Petrakis and Friar visited Greece. They traveled south to the deep Mani, to the southernmost tip of the Peloponnesus, and to the high mountain ranges that border Bulgaria, where Petrakis said he first witnessed Greek snow.

In Greece, Petrakis studied the war logs of Theodoros Kolokotronis, and perhaps Alexandros Mavrokordatos, Yannis Makriyannis, and others. But neither Bell nor Shepherds begin with these celebrated men. Instead, The Hour of the Bell begins in the small town of Kavasaras that is, as Petrakis writes, “situated on a plain dominated by the towering peaks of the ancient, holy mountain, Parnassus.” It is here we first meet the town’s priest, Father Markos. Petrakis explained that he often used priests as vessels to tell stories through. Because his father was a Greek Orthodox priest, Petrakis knew of their struggle. He said, “I saw him, and I saw the weariness in him. After church, there’d be a small crowd of people waiting to speak to him… asking his help, asking his intercession for them. And I saw the way in which this weighed on him.”

Father Markos is a central, through-line character in both Bell and Shepherds. He is a peaceful presence who juxtaposes the stories’ other characters, like the many soldiers whose garments are dressed in bandoliers of ammunition and long, hooked knives.

Before Petrakis became a writer, he was a reader. At twelve years old, Petrakis was diagnosed with a terminal case of Tuberculosis. Other than visiting the fresh air of a mountain sanitarium, which his family could not afford, rest was the only cure for Tuberculosis. Then bed-ridden, he remembers one night in particular, when his parents thought he had fallen asleep. Outside his room, he heard his family’s physician admit to his father that he thought he would not survive. Thankfully, despite this gloomy prognosis, Petrakis endured his debilitating illness. Resting, recovering, he spent two years in bed reading books.

Petrakis said, “Now, this was before the days of television, and the good radio programs, like Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy, didn’t come on until evening. So, I started to read.” During this period, with little else to do, Petrakis “consumed” books. “I’d read a book a day, seven books a week,” he said. “The bookstore advertised the ten- and twenty-five centers, and my brothers and sisters would buy a handful… and bring them to me.”

Petrakis later enrolled in some writing classes, attending workshops at Columbia College. Once, after reading a short, Christmas-time assignment to his classmates, no one raised their hand to offer feedback. After the teacher insisted that someone critique his work, a student finally said they could not talk to the story because it was obviously written from first-hand experience. “I wasn’t a fool,” Petrakis said. “As I walked through the snow in the park across from Michigan Avenue, across from Columbia College, I thought, if I can, in these two pages, so impact a reader they believe it to be true, maybe writing is what I should consider doing.”

Although Petrakis is now considered to be a master of short stories, he recalls receiving rejected manuscripts for ten years, before his first story was published in The Atlantic in April of 1957. Its title: Pericles on 31st Street. Its lead character, Nicholas Simonakis, who, in Pericles, makes his living at the corner of 31st and Dart, is unlike the other tenants who sip spirits and heckle Simonakis inside, at the corner bar.

Petrakis admits that Pericles may still be his favorite. “Well, I write of immigrants because that’s the community I knew,” he said. “The parishioners at my father’s church were all from Greece and had come within a space of a few years. So, that pride they brought with them, that stubbornness they brought with them, that integrity, I put it into this old man, a street vendor pushing a cart selling hot dogs.”

Of Pericles, Petrakis continued:

“It was a rebirth, Nick. I had been writing for ten years, not writing with intensity and regularity. I may stop for a few months, then I’d write a story. Another month passed by before I typed it and sent it away, and then wait for the rejection slips which came for several years. And then a note under a rejection slip: ‘Good job. Try us again.’ from The Atlantic, which, in 1953, wrote a note in one of my stories and said, ‘We have been following your work with attention and admire the improvement. Keep writing, and we think you will make publication someday.’ My wife and I had a celebration that night with a bottle of wine and a candle on the table, thinking a month, two months, and I’d sell my first story. It actually took me three more years, and that was the Pericles story, Pericles on 31st Street.”

Petrakis’ wife, Diana, was a constant source of support through years of odd jobs that preceded his writing career. In his memoirs, Petrakis writes how Diana’s mother fed their family during periods of struggling income. He joked that he closely examined each meal, convinced that her mother may try to poison him to rid herself of Diana’s poor husband.

Diana and Harry attended middle school together, at their Greek Parochial school in Chicago. They discovered an enduring, joyful love and together raised three sons, all with families and children of their own. Many of Petrakis’ stories begin with a devotion to Diana, and, of course, her baklava.

For Pericles on 31st Street, Petrakis was awarded with an Atlantic First (1957). He is a two-time National Booker Award Finalist (1966, 1967), first for his collection of short stories, also titled Pericles on 31st Street, and again, for the best-selling novel A Dream of Kings, later adapted into a movie starring Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas.

But The Hour of the Bell and The Shepherds of Shadows may prove to be his most influential work. With these novels, he has provided us with a history of the Greek war for freedom. Through a range of characters and perspectives, beside priests, wives, and warriors, we are told this story.

“You don’t appreciate, when you’re young,” Petrakis said, “the richness of our heritage. From that small country, came the great literature of that time, which is great today. Of the four greatest tragic poets, playwrights, three of them are Greek. When you look back, and you think what came from that small beleaguered country that struggled under slavery and under invasion, it’s awesome.”

At an advanced age, Petrakis has continued writing. At his lakeside home in Indiana, he described his workshop as a little alcove porch, a downstairs anteroom.

“I don’t have the enthusiasm that I had, the excitement about finishing a work. I realize that any work I’m doing now could remain unfinished if something happened to me. So, I’m still writing because it’s what I’ve been doing for sixty years. But I don’t have the energy, I don’t have the enthusiasm that I had. But, like an old professional, like an old actor who’s been acting all of his life, I do it because it’s what I know how to do. And when I finish a story or a paragraph or a page that I like, I’m grateful that I can still put words together.”

Finally, I asked Petrakis which moments are worth remembering. “The ones we’ve missed and recall at the end of our lives,” he replied. “It’s hard to tell unless you look back at the different shadings of experience, and the meanings of those experiences…’

“In other words, if you have an experience in your 20’s, you may reflect on it in a different way in your 30’s, and reflect on it again. In terms of the accumulation of experience, it gives you a different perspective. And so, all your life, there’s a changing evaluation of things that happened to you. That’s the way we live. We live by stumbling through our days and remembering our memories, which are sometimes chaotic and jumbled. But here and there, we glimpse particles of meaning.”

Petrakis said, “That I survived, and that I’ve been able to write my books, that I found Diana, a wonderful wife, and that we had three fine sons, all this is a miracle.” Nikos Kazantzakis, who Petrakis often refers to as the greatest of modern Greeks, described miracles as moments when all hope is lost, yet, in a quick, shooting fashion, the miracle rises and shatters the earth, like the legend of Boukouvalas, a miracle.”

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