Soti Triantafillou

The Pencil Factory
To ergostaseio ton molyvion
Patakis, Athens.

Read an interview with Greek novelist Soti Triantafillou on the Ithaca site. (Please allow time for the link to open.)

The Pencil Factory is a historical novel which begins in 1866, the year work commenced on the Suez canal. Stefanos Assimakis is the son of a wealthy silk-maker from Chios. He has studied engineering in Lyons, and goes to Cairo to work for the French on the canal. Stefanos is a visionary. He believes in industrial civilization, and in emancipation through technical progress. In 1871 he marries a middle-class young woman from Athens, Antho, who is intelligent but uneducated. She has a penchant for witchcraft. They have two children, Markos and Alicia. The young Markos befriends Gaston Wolf, a German explorer and former member of the French Legion, who has been part an expedition team in East Africa. Wolf is a larger-than-life figure who represents freedom, and adventure. Stefanos falls in love with Wolf's wife, Annie, an opium-eater and daughter of a French Egyptologist. She becomes pregnant while Wolf is away at Lake Victoria in the wilderness of Central Africa. When he gets back to Cairo, Annie has fled to Marseilles where her father has established a museum of Egyptian art. Wolf accepts things as he finds them. As he and Markos stroll together through the streets of Cairo, Markos is fascinated by Wolf's African stories - the slave trade, the elephant hunters and the magic of the dark continent. The German leaves a deep mark on his early years. Then, Wolf leaves for Zanzibar where he dies from a tropical disease.

Later, in 1882, the Egyptian revolt against the British results in a blood bath: Stefanos and Antho privately understand and pity the natives, but they feel they have to protect their lives, so they flee to Athens. The Assimakis family settle at Antho's house in downtown Athens, a neighbourhood under the Lycabettus hill. Cosmopolitan Stefanos is in distress - he hasn't seen Greece since the early 1860s - but manages to survive amidst the emerging local middle-class, working at the Isthmus of Corinth, a miniature of the Suez Canal. The Assimakis make for an exotic family. Markos is absorbed by the African dream and Alicia does as she pleases, riding a bicycle in the suburb of Kifissia against all convention. The Assimakis' servants are treated as family members and Stefanos expresses provocative anti-royalist views, evening mentioning equality for women. He waits eagerly for the «electrical revolution», and is delighted when the Orient Express is finally launched, «the symbol of modern times!»

As Alicia grows up many ask her hand in marriage, but she seems indifferent. She spends all day listening to music boxes and combing her hair under the yard tree where the birds gather. In 1893, Antho gets sick and dies, and Stefanos decides to take a trip on the Orient Express, but while waiting for the train in Istanbul he dies of typhus. Markos goes to the Zurich Polytechnic to study railway engineering: he plans to go to Africa and work on the new railroads. In Zurich, Markos is spellbound: Zurich is the freest city in Europe, and is like a strange planet to him. The first person he meets is the central character of the book, Nicos Vangalis, the son of a rich Greek industrialist who has spent most of his life in a Swiss boarding school. He is estranged from his family, and his mother is in a private clinic for the mentally sick. Nicos Vangalis is a whole new world to Markos: his intelligence is intimidating and his behavior unconventional - he is a Marxist and a libertarian, an atheist, a manic-depressive, a compulsive talker and smoker. He shares his apartment with a theology student, Louis Beaujean, a French-Swiss, as well as with a tortoise. Markos moves in with them and soon has an affair with Louis's mistress, Gitte - a cabaret girl who dreams of going to Paris. Through Nicos Vangalis, Markos meets the revolutionaries that gather in Zurich organizing strikes and uprisings in Germany, Poland and Russia.

Markos realizes for the first time that his father was a social pioneer, and he keeps remembering what he used to say and how he used to challenge the conservative communities in which he lived. One day Markos discovers a medieval book on pencils and decides that making pencils is what he really wants to do. A pencil factory in poor, retarded Athens, where few can write and fewer can draw.

A few days later he is due to leave for Africa, to work as a technical advisor for the Addis-Ababa on the Djibouti railway. In Djibouti he realizes that Africa is a circle of blood and death, of isolation and boredom. He feels trapped in the dream of his father - the trains - and in Wolf's romanticism - the illusion of Africa as a land of enchantment. His only contact with the outside world is his correspondence with Nicos Vangalis who divides his time between Zurich and St. Petersburg.

Markos leads a life of bourgeois contentment in Alexandria - but he is far from happy. In late 1900 his sister Alicia hangs herself. His life with Sophia is a drag: Markos escorts her half-heartedly to the receptions of the Greek consulate and the parties of the British diplomats. Vangalis is in St. Petersburg where great events are about to take place. He and Luselle live in the house of a Bolshevik, aristocratic couple Ossip and Elsa Petnov and fight more than ever. Vangalis is devoted to his cause, and spends his family's money on it, but Luselle is an unwilling revolutionary, fancying the good life in Paris, not party gatherings and riots. During the revolution of 1905 Luselle dumps Vangalis brutally and he falls apart. But life goes on, and when everybody is convinced that he is going to jump out the window, he recovers and goes to Geneva with Lenin.

Then begins a great adventure begins for Vangalis culminating in the October revolution. In 1917 he is in St. Petersburg where he becomes a living legend. It's an exciting time and for many years Vangalis struggles tirelessly: his sickness is recurrent, he plunges into melancholia and delirium, then coughs his way to recovery. He backs Trotsky, distrusts Kamenev and Zenoviev, and clashes relentlessly with Stalin. In 1932, still shaken after Maiakovsky's suicide and the growing incomprehension in the party, he leaves the Soviet Union and decides to go to Athens. He is certain that atrocities are about to happen and that he can't remain a communist in the Soviet Union.

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