Sunday, 12 June 2016

REVIEW: "The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins" by James Angelos

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins
by James Angelos
Broadway Books
ISBN: 978-0385346504
Copyright June 2016
Paperback, 320 Pages

The Full Catastrophe is an astoundingly comprehensive survey of the convoluted circumstances contributing to the Greek fiscal demise, and complications stemming from the Greek commitment to the memorandum of understanding—the mnimonio—with “the Troika,” which comprises the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank. The book is further fortified by an exceptionally lucid overview of relevant political, historical and cultural details, whilst supplemented with firsthand accounts of local perspectives.

The author laudably and exhaustively examined the manifold factors leading to Greece's, otherwise officially known as The Hellenic Republic, economic collapse. The pervasiveness of tax evasion in Greece is “a national preoccupation,” and an “axiom,” with collusion being extremely commonplace between Greek tax collectors and tax evaders; there were “all kinds of feigned disabilities in every prefecture of Greece,” with doctors proclaimed to engage in the “industrial production of disability certificates;” injudicious armaments expenditure came to “symbolize both Greek government fecklessness and German hegemony;” the profligate practice that adheres to the principle that recognizes the “perpetuity” of a Greek government job to be “as incontrovertible as the earth's solar orbit;” and the overwhelmingly corrupt and “deeply entrenched tradition of political patronage.”

The book contains a strategic sampling of pertinent information. Angelos very clearly expounded upon the “40-40-20 deal” utilized by tax collectors; of 100 euros owed to the state, “40 euros remained with the taxpayer, 40 would go to the tax collector for the service provided, and the state, as a token, received 20.” He compellingly highlighted the colossal disparity between the actual estimated number of pools—“a taxable luxury”—in Greece compared to the mere “few hundred” declared in tax forms, and drew attention to the notorious Lagarde List containing “names of some two thousand Greeks” having “undeclared Swiss bank accounts” in “a Geneva branch of HSBC.”

Other selectively interesting details included in the book include the seemingly outrageous entitlement of incarcerated employees to “half their pay” as imprisonment simply equated to being on “automatic holiday;” Greek banks' tacit reliance on alternative indicators of customers' true earnings due to the widely accepted unreliability of income tax statements; and the discovery of a disproportionate number of retirement checks being paid to dead people, or “ghost retirees.”

The issue of illegal immigration and the nation's dysfunctional asylum system was illustrated most notably by the Agios Panteleimonas Square case. Locals' indignation towards the influx of illegal immigrants was scathingly expressed as, “We went to bed in Athens and woke up in Kabul.” Other Greeks felt that their nation has fallen prey to becoming “the basement of Europe,” whilst locals gathered and formed the Committee of Residents protesting the square's supposed degradation. Ironically, the author noted the description of the square as “particularly dangerous areas for anyone who does not look Greek,” by the Human Rights Watch, as he further commented on the countless “serious attacks” waged on migrants.

The book is marvelously enjoyable owing particularly to the multiple infusions of linguistic morsels of the Greek culture, accompanied with apt explanations. Most memorably, a local's use of the word magas was interestingly noted as “an untranslatable and complimentary term that can loosely be understood to mean 'badass.'As a preamble to the discussion of illegal immigration, the author discerningly introduced the Greek word for hospitality—philoxeniameaning “love of strangers,” but thereafter highlighted its non-application to “those who arrive in need, to work and to stay.”

In other instances of linguistic delight, the Greek usage of the English word, “dose,” was elucidated with a beautiful analogy—“the common Greek way of describing the bailout loan installments, which came in trickles, like methadone for an addict, based on the fulfillment of the creditors' rehabilitation program.” To “eat” was noted as the ubiquitous Greek shorthand for “illicit feasting on public money,” and other intriguing examples were one where a new property tax was “scornfully” called the haratsi, after “a hated levy imposed by the Ottomans,” and another where the Ottoman period is known as the Tourkokratia.

Readers will appreciate the cogent exploration of historical dimensions. Most notably was the examination of the “Hellenism and Orthodox Christianity” Greek national identity, and the “intertwinement of the Greek Church in political and civil affairs.” It was illuminating to read about the 100th anniversary commemoration of Thessaloniki's liberation from the Ottoman Empire, augmented by the discussion of the Panagia icon and its transportation to the Church of St. Demetrios in the city. Of the occasional light legal coverage, the author briskly noted for example, the enshrinement of “parliamentary immunity” in the Greek constitution.

Highly valuable are the insertions of the local Greeks' perspectives, though distorted, remain poignant and significant. Very unfortunately, locals saw Greece as “the target of an international plan for economic plunder” in the Troika bailout, and viewed the Troika to be the “most culpable” for their country's fiscal problems. Greece's “perceived subjugation at the hands of its creditors” is pervasive. The reality that Germany was one of Greece's creditor was bitterly received; anti-German sentiment rose, and references to “an economic war” common.

Many other disgruntled Greeks viewed the government as lacking “the moral authority” to tax them. Angelos aptly expounded on the prevailing perception as the result of colossal corruption best exemplified by the case of Apostolos Tsochatzopoulos, a politician and minister of defense—“probably the most hated man in the country,” and “an unwilling representative of the whole class of corrupt big ones.”

The author's masterful writing and narrative skills are similarly conveyed in a further emphasis of a dichotomy of views between two opposing thought camps—“For the rapidly rising far left, the Greek people were generally blameless victims of inevitably doomed neoliberal policies that were benefiting the big capitalists at the expense of everyone else;” “for the rising extreme right, Jewish bankers and job-stealing immigrants were to blame.”

The book aptly fulfills its obligation of covering relevant prominent figures. The coverage of Manolis Glezos, a hero of the Greek World War II resistance, was absorbing; he committed an act which “became famed across the nation and abroad, blemishing the sheen of German invulnerability,” and as a member of the far-left Syriza, was known for his forceful war reparation demands. On the other hand, Yiannis Boutaris, the mayor of Thessaloniki, was accused to be a “Turk lover,” and “a devil;” he was highly unpopular owing to his campaign to lure Turkish tourists, his proposal to name a street Ataturk, and talks highlighting the “non-Hellenic, non-Christian aspects” of his city's past.

Political matters were satisfactorily covered in the book, most prominently the far-left, anti-bailout Syriza, and the “fascist” Golden Dawn, the country's third most popular party. Less notably detailed was the center-right New Democracy, and the center-left PASOK party. Golden Dawn, a party said to be steeped in “anti-Semitic, anti-Turkish hate,” in its support for the Committee of Residents, and pledge to “clean” the Agios Panteleimonas Square of the “mostly Afghan migrants,” was noted to parallel “the tactics of German neo-Nazis.” The election of Syriza, on the other hand, with Alexis Tsipras as the incoming prime minister, was highlighted for its near-disastrous bailout negotiations; Tsipras controversially held a “referendum on the creditors' terms,” “vigorously campaigned for Greeks to vote oxi”—“no”—and stuck to his relatively uninformed “mutual annihilation thesis.”

Botched governmental attempts to heed wishes of the Troika was also illustrated with the case of the “dictatorial” closure of the state broadcaster, ERT—the “quintessence of waste” and “nepotism.” The act was collectively criticized as being “undemocratic and unprofessional,” “very heavy-handed” and “clumsy,” despite the fact that it very conveniently, swiftly, and massively reduced the country's public workforce, and most importantly, through the act, the Greek government attempted to prove its drive to break the “sclerotic, Soviet-like insularity of the public administration.”

The author's keen personal commentary, observations, and reflections are particularly welcome in appropriate junctures within the book. Beautifully written, Angelos “found myself vacillating between revulsion over such populist disinformation and shedding tears of sympathy” for Glezos, whilst noting Glezos's use of “inexcusable falsities” in making his case on reparations. Regarding a “curious comment” made by the “only ophthalmologist at the only public hospital” on the island of Zakynthos plagued by a disabilities scandal, the author fittingly reflected, “since only the legally blind are entitled to the benefit, there's not a lot of room for leniency.” Remarkably, Angelos questioned, “Who were the real criminals?” in response to reports by Greek media outlets on the “unspeakable criminality suffered by the residents of Agios Panteleimonas.”

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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