‘Some have called it a Hellenic For Whom the Bell Tolls…self-conscious. A bit PoMo. But epic,’ or so describes the guerrilla film being made in Matthew Asprey’s novella Sonny’s Guerrilla’s (2011), set in Greece during the 2008 riots.
Having read this work online when it came out last year, finally getting the book shouldn’t have made much difference to my reading experience of the story. However, when the glossy blue and white paperback written by the Sydney writer and academic pulled in at the mailbox, inevitably though surprisingly the reception differed from my first encounter, heightening the poignancy of the underground/backpacker tale.
While Sonny, an underground director, calls the film a Hellenic For Whom the Bell Tolls, filmed with a skeletal cast and crew for peanuts, Asprey’s writing echo’s Hemingway’s own with the quick, stripped down prose, with each sentence jumping to the next:
‘Sonny was trying to tie everything together- politics, race, history, sex. A grand synthesis. He needed four minutes of music. I liked the guy, so I put aside my dissertation and wrote the score one weekend. I scored for 4 flutes, oboe, 2 bassoons, a bass clarinet, vibes and a harp’.
The narrator, a semi-autobiographical caricature of the author, is hired by Sonny to compose the soundtrack for an ultra-low budget guerrilla film being shot on location on the island of Katastari in Greece. When the riots break out, the shoot goes to hell, and the narrator navigates his way through while trying to make money and love. While there are some bizarre similes, to resurrect a tired English-class term (‘weariness hung on my shoulders like a warm wet blanket’), the racing (and often racy) text speeds through the story while managing to provide colourful illustrations of the scenery of touristic Greece along the way, giving it an added depth that likely would not have been achieved if written with more laborious prose.
There are some humorously composed scenes:
‘I ate pasta alone at a tourist restaurant, got drunk at Brettos with some exchange students from the Netherlands Intitute, and wound up in a mutual-masturbatory grapple in an alley with a nineteen-year-old whose name was Gaby or maybe Geddy.’
While the prose and characters engage in salacious dialogue and episodes, the relationship between the narrator and an Albanian student named Luljeta has a pseudo-erotic taste. Nearly all of the characters are created with experiential loyalty, though the character of Luljeta, the love-interest of the narrator, has a distant, almost disappointingly indifferent composition. Not quite insipid, but somewhat detached. Asprey could have done well to flesh this character’s personality out as well as the other supporting characters.
Meanwhile, while boasting an oddly melodic prose, the novella has an inevitable undercurrent of musical appreciation:
‘My piano lay exposed in the sun. I stepped out of the car, picked it up gently as if it was a fallen comrade, and yelled to the sisters:
“How could you leave this lying out here?”
Throughout the reading, I’m reminded of Anthony Burgess, whose numerous works feature music interweaving throughout to express the author’s fondness for the art of music.
The atmosphere is tense and erratic to the point of hilarity, as we empathise with the down on his luck narrator whose experience during the filming, aside from a sexually palpable, though deceptively simple sex scene, is anything but Hellenic, if not more hellish. Despite the speed at which the story is sent through, the chaotic events are expressed with a voice that rests on the precipice of Dantesque solemnity, but is still carried off and juxtaposed nicely with an informal, and hence characteristically backpacker style language and observation that adds a strong sense of believability.
The story features the kind of local detail only garnered through first-hand experience, but also through a thorough cultural research, as Asprey’s Amazon Listmania pages dictate:
The strong sense of authenticity adds to the experience of the story, probing your curiosity as to what it real and what is fiction. The story captures the seemingly endless and debilitating struggle that goes into producing a small but significant amount of beauty, the kind perhaps only found in the guerrilla-style of art-making that isn’t reliant on money or profits:
Mike had entirely transformed that chilly overcast day. He was an alchemist. The sea water was azure. The sun was liquid gold in the ochre mist. The hills of Katastari rose like giants above the cove. I knew exactly how I would score the scene.
This sense of making a movie for next to nothing nicely parallels with the nearly broke narrator, who still manages to experience true Greece without the need for a lot of money. Asprey goes ‘behind the scenes’, as it were, to delve into an as yet explored backpacker literature that Asprey manages to expose in a politically ripe period. Despite the disarray of anarchic Greece, it’s all for the creation of art. We forget that the multi-layered story is written within the confines of a novella, given the breadth of storytelling, though I feel it works better as a novella than if it had been extended to a novel. It exists in a fleeting, almost dreamlike sense.
The book is available online, as an ebook, though I recommend the book version since, not only does it come with Asprey’s equally enjoyable Tales from the Stolchlickoff Scrapbooks, but having the tangibility of the book creates a stronger visual component for the story. A great work consistent with the ‘underground’ art-making scene.