Though the narrator of Petros Abatzoglou’s novel, also named Petros Abatzoglou, is half in the bag from start to finish, he can still pull off a nice metaphor. An alcoholic’s body is “possessed by… an uncoordinated mobility, like a dog who has lost the scent and no longer knows which way to go.” The same could be said for Petros’s brain, as he lies on the beach with a female companion, telling her the story of Mr. and Mrs. Freeman’s romance, which may be a good enough way to pass the time between glasses of ouzo, but not without the glasses of ouzo.
He begins his monologue on the subject for no reason he can muster and concedes early on that even he hasn’t the “slightest interest.” But he pushes ahead, trying to recover the scent he lost when he, say, bragged about his “Nobel” or finally broke things down for us: “man drowns in water and fish drown in air.” It’s not clear why Petros knows Mrs. Freeman. She’s in her nineties and alone, and she’s told him her story “innumerable” times: how as a student she reeled in her husband-to-be (a gentle, conservative linguistics professor) and proceeded through the usual bad sex, motherhood, and diets till he had his fatal stroke on the crapper. She’s an “extraordinary woman,” says Petros, and yet the discrepancy between his high estimation of her and the quality of his reasons is almost laughable. She has “tremendous willpower”—that is, “if things don’t turn out the way she wants them to, she takes it as a personal insult.” She’s “never had any regrets”! She “never dreams”! She refuses to acknowledge even the “existence” of “anything that’s unpleasant”! Petros goes so far as to endow her encroaching senility with spiritual weight, and wonders admiringly what she’s “fighting for so fiercely,” when she doesn’t seem to be fighting at all. It could be an attempt to inject some narrative thrust into his story, but if it did he’s been carried away again already, and again, etc.
His digressions most often focus on food—probably due to the drunken quickening of his appetite—and approach the pornographic (“steaming hot pies,” “succulent sausages”), not less for his use of hunger to mean a craving for a veal chop or for sex in equal measures, and sometimes both. Then, ten pages from the end, Petros mentions being a “child under Nazi occupation [who] got crippled with rheumatism and nearly starved to death.” (The real Petros Abatzoglou grew up in Nazi-occupied Greece.) It should be enough to knock the reader out of the book’s narcotic miasma, which appears “to be assuming the aspect of an endless nightmare… made up of senseless details and repetitions.” But the revelation is over so quickly and arises out of what’s so plainly a mix of facts, half-truths, and projections, that it exposes only the potential for a shift in context. Likewise, when we finally get Mrs. Freeman’s answer to the title question, it portends a disingenuousness suggesting it’s at best a rhetorical nostrum for Petros’s own existential worries.
These are the seeds of an aesthetic of incompetence. Not in the absurdist sense of stagnation and perpetual unresolve, but in its lack of urgency to move in any meaningful direction. Abatzoglou’s not unique in taking the mundane as a subject, but he resists dramatic impulse with an uncommon, illuminating commitment. Despite his long career (he died in 2004) that includes two Greek National Book Awards, What Does Mrs. Freeman Want?, the 1988 winner, is his first appearance in English. One can only hope for future translations, so we might follow this curious scent.