The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins
By James Angelos
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
A recent essay in The New York Review of Books was ominously titled “Is Europe Disintegrating?” The essay focused on Brexit, Turkey’s slide into authoritarianism, and the sulfurous fumes of nationalism spreading across Europe like a gritty remake of the ramp up to the Second World War. Suffice to say, the mainstream media has shown a recent increase in apocalyptic hysteria. Then again, that’s how one would act when they treated the American election like a joke. To borrow a one-liner from the world of retail, “Your lack of planning is not my emergency.” Others saw the storm clouds way before the mainstream media, although not being bound to ratings and the 24-hour news cycle made them immune to reporting on every utterance of a certain reality TV star. Which brings us to Greece.
Greece’s role in the Euro fiasco is not news. During the Great Recession, Greece played an instrumental role in European fragmentation and international tension. It is also a nation subject to the rest of Europe’s contradictory stereotyping of it. French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing has called Greece “the mother of all democracies,” but changed his tune in 2012 when he said, “To be perfectly frank, it was a mistake to accept Greece. Greece simply wasn’t ready. Greece is basically an Oriental country.” James Angelos, a freelance journalist and former reporter for the Wall Street Journal added, “When Europeans use the term “Oriental,” in this context, it’s not meant as a compliment. The Greeks were other, Middle Eastern, backwards when compared to noble, loftier Europeans.” With The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins Angelos brings together investigative journalism, travelogue, and personal commentary to give a human face to Greece in the throes of the present financial crisis.
Is Greece the bastion of democracy, philosophy, and the West? Or is it a backward and corrupt regime dominated by inefficient bureaucrats, political extremists, and greedy opportunists? The answer is Yes. (Then again, I’m from the United States. Who am I to chide them for corruption and extremism? In the United States, we’ve turned those two things into art forms.) Angelos tours the Greece he knew as a child and encountered a country devastated by internal and external forces. He visits “The Island of the Blind,” questioning citizens, medical professionals, and civil servants. He tried to understand how the island of Zakynthos pulled off such a large-scale con on the Greek government. He also interviews members of the civil service in relation to a notorious murder case. Despite committing murder, two members of the Greek civil service continued to get paid even while in jail. When questioned, supporters came back with the old saw, “Think about the children!”
The Full Catastrophe also reveals external fault lines in Greek life. When Chancellor Angela Merkel – also head of Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union – organized the bail-out program for Greece, it included draconian austerity measures. (In fairness, Greece’s government bureaucracy was a bloated, inefficient behemoth.) The austerity measures opened old wounds. Since Greece owed billions, a populist reaction rose up against the draconian measures. Greeks started demanding war reparations from Germany, since the German occupation led to starvation, oppression, and terror.
James Angelos weaves together heart-wrenching human stories with a dark comedy. While he remains proud of his Greek heritage, he doesn’t hide his outrage and contempt for the long-held tradition of corruption, graft, and outright thievery present in Greek corporations and Greece’s civil service bureaucracy. Greece has long been in need of massive civil and corporate reforms. When a nation is on the verge of economic collapse, austerity measures usually aren’t the best solution. What better advice to tell a starving person than not to eat? The Full Catastrophe was a highly satisfying read, playing out like a Greek version of The Wire, David Simon’s group portrait of universal institutional corruption of the Baltimore area.
Out of 10/9.0