The public history of the Greek Revolution: “The Battle of the Square”

What would the 1821 Revolution look like if it was rendered in sketches? How would a graphic novel’s approach to the narrative of 1821 reconstruct it? The occasion of the bicentenary is not the first time that the Greek Revolution inspired graphic novels. As early as the 1950s, the comic Κλασσικά Εικονογραφημένα was familiarising children with episodes from the revolution. Its stories were mainly structured around the exploits of the heroes and consequently the glory of the revolution, and the cartoons complemented the dominant narrative about the revolution: they largely resembled the portraits of the heroes in school classrooms and reinforced what children were taught in textbooks.

The graphic novels boom, however, came at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, when they were rediscovered as a literary genre, largely overcoming the scepticism towards comics that had existed previously. The recognition of the influence of the image on readerships that had been largely formed through iconic representations provided the necessary impetus for a more systematic cultivation of the genre. From magna to doodles and graphic novels, storytelling through images (usually with accompanying text) acquired a wider audience and new creators. It is in this context that we should consider the new wave of graphic novels that are related to the theme of the Greek Revolution. They appeared around 2010 and the relevant titles multiplied as the bicentenary approached. Most of them were fictional, based on a historical core. An exception is the graphic novel by Antonis Nikolopoulos (Soloup), The Battle of the Square (Ikaros 2021). It tells the story of the revolution, as told by a homeless man in Kolokotronis’ Square to a young girl in the shadow of the statue of Kolokotronis on Stadiou Street. Besides the literary device of the homeless old man (who used to be a teacher) and the young girl, the book is thoroughly documented, containing a special relevant section at the end, which includes a detailed chronology and detailed documentation of the events presented in the narrative. Therefore, far from being fictional, the book becomes an alternative mode of historical writing.

The graphic novel is read at two levels: one is about the present, the contemporary narrative, with the girl and the homeless man as heroes, and the other is about the past, the time of the 1821 Revolution. These two levels are also indicated through the image technic: more intense colours are related to the past, while the use of shades of grey indicate the present. The narrative is organised in a modular fashion: The 21 chapters make up the five sections of the book: Square, Dagger, Displacement, Heroes, Guillotine. The chapters present episodes in which the heroes and anti-heroes of the revolution, as well as Ottomans, Egyptians, common people, military, politicians and intellectuals, are featured. Through the pages of the book the reader traces not only the military history of the revolution, but also its intellectual, political and economic history, as well as the experience of everyday life.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way it converses with contemporary reality. It is about the recent history of Greece almost as much as it is about 1821: the economic crisis, the Greek society of the memoranda, protests, racism and xenophobia, the rise of the far right, poverty. Past and present are intertwined, and the meaning that the past takes on is refracted through the anxieties of the present – as can be seen very clearly in the chapter devoted to the slogan written by an anti-memorandum demonstration at the base of the statue of Kolokotronis. The issue here is not only how the past has shaped our view of the present but mainly the reverse, that is, how we re-examine and give new meanings to the past through the challenges of the present. And we discern this in two ways: one is the direct one, the one that points directly to contemporary history. It is impossible to read the book and not discern the references to the experiences of the crisis decade, small and larger episodes that had engaged public opinion, that shaped the lens through which we read our place in the city and in historical time. Even the title of the book, “The Battle of the Square”, raises connotations with the “movement of the squares” (the Greek version of the indignados movement), that is, the claiming of public space that began during the crisis and took place, apart from Syntagma Square, in many squares of the capital, expressing either broader or locally defined demands. The second mode has a rather indirect character and concerns the way in which the narrator approaches the 1821 Revolution, not only in terms of the finding of the modular narrative or the multiplicity of voices referred to here. What is of additional interest are the episodes on which the narrator focuses and the realism with which he renders them. The book is not read with emotional ease. The violence of the war, which leaps from its pages, and which affects everyone involved, leaves little room for embellishment and easy emotional resentment. But these are questions of contemporary historiographical research, determined by the turn to experience. Similar contemporary conceptions of the revolution are answered by the way it has been approached as an international event. The international resonance of the revolution, the role of the Great Powers, philhellenism, the encounter between Greeks in the revolutionary regions and Greeks in the colonies are all issues that concern contemporary historiography and that find their place in the graphic novel.
Lastly, it is important to think about the graphic novel in conjunction with the related website, the documentary and the exhibition that was held at the National History Museum. With the book at its centre, a multimedia condition has been created through which one can approach the 1821 Revolution from various perspectives, following different routes according to what he wants to explore each time and discovering alternative aspects of the past, that may not have occurred to him until then. “Forget what they taught you at school,” the homeless teacher says at one point to the girl, inviting us to join them on a journey of searching for traces and reconstructing the complexity of the early 19th-century world. Without in any way negating the centrality of the revolution and its importance both in its time and today (we see this, moreover, through the constant references to how it occupies a central place in people’s imagination), one of the most interesting elements of the book is the way it converses with contemporary reality.

 

Aimilia (Emilia) Salvanou, post-doc researcher DUTH

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