Allegorical Readings and Metaphors of Identity: Sexuality, Society and Nature in Vassilis Vassilikos’ To Φύλλο
In his novel Vassilikos brings together two themes: the clash of nature vs culture and the protagonist’s search for identity. These themes are even alluded to in punning fashion by the title Tο Φύλλο (1961) which alludes to nature (φύλλο) as well as to gender and sexuality (φύλο). The story also deals with social disillusionment and loneliness or even fear, thus adding another dimension to a multi-layered and intricately structured narrative. The opening and closing pages of the novel, which function as a kind of frame for the narrative, invite a reading of the novel in terms of the clash between nature and culture. They refer to the rapid reconstruction and the erection of blocks of flats in Greece during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Yet, they could also be read in psychonalytic terms as an attempt by the protagonist to enter the Symbolic order from the chaos of the Imaginary. As he writes to his friend he lives on the boundaries of two worlds trying to define his position and identity. The protagonist of Tο Φύλλο lends himself to an absorbing and complex analysis. Through the third-person narrator’s descriptions of his actions and behaviour, and the occasional forays into his thoughts and monologues, the reader is treated to telling insights into his mental processes, insights which are invaluable to the study of his character from a psychoanalytical perspective. Though the main character has a name, Lazaros or Lazos, he is referred to throughout as ‘Aυτός’ (i.e. He). The initial capital suggests that the word is a substitute for his real name, which is only mentioned four or five times, and then only after he has been introduced as Aυτός, and exclusively in his dealings with others. For example, his real name is first given when, at the end of a letter to his friend Kostas in Munich, he signs off as ‘Lazos’ and later during a conversation in which his parents’ guests ask after ‘Lazaros’. To the narrator, and therefore to the reader, he will always remain Aυτός, in other words, he is effectively without a name. If to possess a name is to possess an identity, it can only follow that to be without a name is to be without an identity. The protagonist’s lack of identity (except where it is imposed on him by others) is a sign that he has so far failed to reach this crucial point in human personality formation and is still stuck somewhere in the pre-Oedipal phase or Mirror Stage of his psychological development. It could be argued that the novel might indeed be read in different ways. Firstly, as a metaphor for the nature-culture opposition; secondly, as the story of a young man who is either at odds with his social context or trying to come to terms with his sexuality; and finally as a narrative of identity, focusing on the childish immaturity of the protagonist and his relationship to others, particularly his parents. The last two readings could be seen as overlapping by focusing on the sexuality and identity of the main character. Basically all three readings could be summarized in psychoanalytic terms as a transition from the chaotic Imaginary to the Symbolic order, the world of language and culture, which subjects gradually enter in shaping their identities. Vassilikos subtly weaves in his narrative identity anxieties and existential uncertainties regarding modern progress and the defeat of nature. He skilfully intertwines the social and the personal, realism and fantasy, monstrous urbanization and sexual ambivalence, producing one of the most interesting and still very readable Greek novels. Tο Φύλλο can still appeal to modern sensibilities and young readers who try to reconcile rebelliousness with the search for identity. The modern reader still faces the issue as to whether this text comes across as an identity narrative rather than a nature-culture allegory or a novel of anti-social behaviour or even revolt. Though it would be unwise to dilute the complexity of the novel or to ignore the fact that it lends itself to analysis from an eco-criticism perspective, the theme of identity appears to be more dominant and deeply ingrained in the novel.