Karaghiosis: Durrell’s Corfu evening at the shadow-play


Still slightly fixated on Lawrence Durrell and Corfu. In Chapter 4 of Prospero’s Cell, he gives an absolutely wonderful description of an evening in Corfu watching the shadow-play performance by an itinerant group of players of one of the many tales of the Greek folklore hero Karaghiosis.

Durrell can be, even his most fervent admirers must accept, a slightly cold fish sometimes when it comes to his depiction of his Greek neighbours on the island of Corfu. The younger brother whom he protected so well, Gerald of My Family And Other Animals, betrayed a curiously similar distance to the bugs and reptiles he loved so much: oh look, how they wriggle! One longs sometimes for them both to be stripped of the protagonist’s armour.

But on the occasion of the shadow-play “in a little sunken garden by the Italian school”, Durrell seems to be so transfixed by the drama – both on the stage and in the audience amongst him – that he appears to forget himself and allows the power of the art presented to him and his neighbours seated beside him to hold sway.

The shadow-play tells a comic story of how the imbecile Hadjiavatis (“He is to Karaghiosis what Watson is to Sherlock Holmes – his butt and feed at the same time”) is encouraged by Karaghiosis to spend his last two drachma on a scheme to sell wine in order to make sufficient profit to buy votes at the forthcoming election: “It is simple, says Karahhiosis. We will buy a bottle of wine for one drachma. We will sell it to the public at a drachma a glass. In that way we shall make a considerable profit. With our profit we will buy more bottles of wine and sell them at a drachma a glass. In this way we shall become extremely rich and bribe enough voters to launch a party.” Inevitably, the pair end up drinking the wine themselves.

The passage needs to be read for its brilliant immediacy, but here’s Durrell’s conclusion: “On this little dazzling screen you have the whole laic mystery of Greece which has been so long dormant in the mountains and islands – in the groves and valleys of the archipelago. You have the spirit and the unconquerable adaptability of the Greek who has penetrated with the leaven of his mercuric irony and humour into every quarter of the globe.”

Note to self: next visit to Greece, seek out a shadow-play. Meanwhile, here’s the great Karaghiosis with his legendary phallic arm in action:

Durrell’s Corfu

White House Durrell

“The little bay lies in a trance, drugged with its own extraordinary perfection – a conspiracy of light, air, blue sea and cypresses.”

This beautiful phrase from Lawrence Durrell wasn’t actually about the bay where he and his family had a house in Corfu before the outbreak of the Second World War; rather, he was speaking of nearby┬áPaleokastritsa but he could just have been talking of the bay at Kalami where the family lived their curious life together:

The Durrells in Corfu

The Durrells left Corfu in 1939, never to return, and Lawrence famously regretted his own writing about it, thinking that he had encouraged the mass tourism which he abhorred. Yet on a recent visit, the beauty of those bays in both Corfu and neighbouring Paxos remain intact, seeming quite able to absorb the bobbing white charter yachts and the ferries filled with selfie-sticked visitors. There is an uncomfortable snobbishness inherent in the denigration of tourism – it’s OK for me to visit, but not you. The Greek islands seem still to offer a lesson in kind welcoming.

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