Review by: KEN KORCZAK
Like Another Helen, penned by American intellectual and distinguished diplomat GEORGE HORTON, is a competent novel but not a great work of literature. It appears to have been an attempt by Horton to write a popular novel for a general audience, but one which would also educate readers on the brutal and dramatic events which occurred on the island of Crete during the 1898-1908 Greek rebellion against the Ottoman Turks.
The result, however, is a book that falls short of being a gripping portrayal of this violent chapter of history. At the same time, the entertainment factor is anemic. It misses the mark with an attempt to engage readers with a tale of three adventurous men opting to plant themselves in the middle of tumultuous events in an exotic location.
An obvious comparison is Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway creates for us the itinerant soldier Robert Jordan who elected to participate in the Spanish Civil War. But where Ernest Hemingway produced a masterpiece, Horton’s book, published 40 years earlier, is light-weight by comparison and forgettable.
Let’s face it, George Horton was no Hemingway. He was a serious intellectual and scholar, however, who mastered Greek and Latin. He was a noted translator of the works of the archaic Greek poet Sappho. Horton was also a respected journalist and formidable literary figure of his day. He was a prominent member of the Chicago Renaissance, a group of writers that produced some of the America’s brightest literary lights.
Horton’s considerable output of books and journalism went hand-in-hand with his work as a diplomat. He was appointed to a number of consular position in Greece and the former Ottoman Empire. He was the Consul General in the Greek-controlled city of Smyrna in what is today Turkey. Horton witnessed the catastrophic burning of Smyrna at the end of the Greco-Turkish War. The victorious Turk army took some extra revenge on their bitter enemies by setting fire to the Greek and Armenian quarters of the city which killed tens of thousands.
Horton’s book, The Blight of Asia, documents the burning of Smyrna and the ethnic cleansing promulgated by the Turks against Christian Greeks and Armenians. The Blight of Asia is still regarded today as a work of historic importance.
In Like Another Helen, Horton gives us vivid descriptions of Cretes’ villages, manner of dress, culinary tastes, attitudes and outlooks of the people, religious practice and other authentic insights into the culture. He also provides us with a window into how the tensions between the Islamic Turks and the Christian Greeks came to a boil after decades of uneasy Ottoman rule on an island that had for centuries been fundamentally Greek.
Horton plucked the title for this book from an 1697 ode titled Alexander’s Feast written by England’s first Poet Laureate JOHN DRYDEN. The poem tells of a feast celebrated by Alexander the Great after his conquest of the Persian city of Persepolis. In the story, Alexander is goaded into vengefully burning Persepolis by his beautiful lover, Thais — Thais being the one who is “like another Helen” — of Troy, that is.
In Horton’s book, “Helen” is reincarnated as Panayota, a young maiden of extreme beauty. She is the daughter of a widowed priest in the Cretan village of Ambellaki. The village is prompted to go to war when Panayota is threatened to be taken captive by a nearby Turkish warlord who wants to add the lovely Greek maiden to his harem.
This is all pretext for plot, of course, as this was a time when all of Christian-Greek Crete was embroiled in throwing off the suzerainty of the Ottomans. Horton adopts the plight of Panayota and the chivalrous attempts to save her as a pivot point around which to tell the story of the Cretan struggle for independence.
The first part of the novel involves almost whimsical descriptions of village life evincing the gaiety and colloquial charm of the simple merchants, goat herders, orchard tenders, fishermen and their deeply pious Christian culture — but then Horton leads us into war — and he does not flinch from portraying the horrors of village bombardments, massacres, gun battles, village burnings and the desperation of refugees fleeing all the mayhem and violence. Consider the description in this passage:
“A woman, completely crazed with fear and grief, came stumbling along the stony road, bearing upon her back a lad nearly as large as herself, holding him by the wrists. His throat had been cut, and the head fell back horribly, lolling from side to side, pumping out the blood that had soaked her dress to the hips and her long hair that dabbled in the gash.”
Yes, and Horton shows us mass hangings, babies burned alive, bones being shattered by sizzling bullet strikes, rotting corpses strung out for vengeful public display, young women splayed and broken strewn across rocks, their twisted bodies twisted, gashed and bloody after a mass suicide leap down a mountainside … and so forth.
While these would seem visceral descriptions of human depravity in times of war the odd effect of Horton’s prose renders it all with a curious lack of gravitas. Furthermore, the plot gimmick of gallant men striving to rescue a fair maiden creates a melodramatic effect that detracts from what in reality was an utterly depraved and barbarous episode in world history that would have better been handled with a staid seriousness stripped of literary theatrics.
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PLEASE SEE MY REVIEWS OF OTHER HISTORY BOOKS:
A HISTORY OF PYRRHUS by Jacob C. Abbott
HUMPHREY, DUKE OF GLOUCESTER By Kenneth Vickers
DOWN THE OHIO AND MISSISSIPPI 1789-90 By Samuel Forman
Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS
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