In 1961, movie and theater director Elia Kazan created, in script-like form, a story about a poor Greek lad whose goal in life was coming to America. Published as "America, America," it was the first in a four-A series that also comprises "The Anatolian," "The Arrangement" and now "Beyond the Aegean," all about the adventures of Stavros Topouzoglou.
Time, of course, has passed; "Aegean" begins in 1919, and Stavros is 42. In this book, he's going home -- not to Greece but to Anatolia, the western extension of Asia Minor, which then had been under Turkish dominion for centuries.
The European powers have slid into oil dependency; looking for a Westernized ally in the pathway to Middle Eastern deposits, Britain is encouraging the Greeks to wrest the land away from its Muslim masters.
Stavros and his one-armed brother, Michaelis, have joined the crusade. Michaelis, having shot the Turk who aggravated their father to death, goes into the Greek army. Stavros tries to corner the rug market, buying up whatever he can for eventual sale in America by their brother, Seraphim.
Family feeling, you see, is important. Stavros is devoted to his brothers, to the memory of his father and to his cranky and probably senile mother; he pays a lot more attention to the old woman's leg ulcers than most readers would want. Money and geography are his obsessions, arrogance and ambition his driving forces. But reason and generosity will prevail: Recognizing the devastation his expansionist dream has brought to his people, he creates a factory where the widows and orphans of fallen Greek soldiers can make rugs for him to sell in America.
"Years ago," an uncommonly rich Stavros will say sadly, late in the book, "I had the dream that I would help create another America in Anatolia." Whether that's a belated attempt to clean up his act, or pure cynicism -- he has, after all, abandoned the American wasteland -- isn't altogether clear. Closer to the mark, perhaps, is an earlier thought: "Did he really care who won the war? Had he ever truly cared? Wasn't it only for the commerce a Greater Greece would bring him? All he wanted now was to save his skin."
It should be noted that this epiphany occurs in a bat cave and follows an unlikely scenario in which he has been sent by the archbishop of Smyrna to spy on a strategy meeting of the Greek king, prime minister and army leaders.
Masquerading as a waiter, Stavros has blown his cover by whispering advice to his sovereign. The Greeks have thrown him into a dungeon and forgotten about him, and a friendly Turkish jailer has set him free.
Mr. Kazan is marvelous at setting tableaux. You can almost see the carnage, as you can, in other scenes, watch the kaleidoscopic human movement on and around the rug on which is spread a picnic sponsored by the extended family of the orphan Stavros will choose as his fiancee.
But Stavros is remarkably unsympathetic; what's worse: he's not credible.
In this picaresque tale (which would have been improved enormously by a map), he wheels and deals, makes friends and foes, courts and separates from, returns to -- and then leaves in danger -- an outspoken, independent-minded woman who is the antithesis of the servile, adoring wife he has been seeking.
The most memorable character here is the fiancee, Thomna, a pragmatic type who sees Stavros as her ticket to America, just as he, way back in Book No. 1, saw his first fiancee, also a Thomna, as his: Stavros abandoned her and used her dowry as passage.
This Thomna knows there is no fate worse than death and makes her bargains accordingly. In other words, while Stavros is spouting off about Greek superiority to the Turks, Thomna is sleeping with them -- which, all things considered, may be the better choice. Her childhood buddy and sometime lover Salih is an honorable man; her military captor, Ekrem, is tender, paternal and finally husbandly -- he takes her home as his third wife.
Actually, the hated Turks get some of the best lines. Before turning the archbishop over to a bloodthirsty Turkish mob, the victorious commander Noureddin Pasha, frothing at the mouth, lists some pretty understandable grievances: "You have caused the death of three hundred thousand boys of the Greek mainland nation, who should never have been brought here. . . .[You] have caused the death of a quarter of a million of our best Turkish boys, caused their mothers to be forever bereaved. . . . Boys I saw die. Day after day. Giving up their lives before they had lived them!"
Those lines, finally, are believable. And unbelievably sad: They make you wonder whether anything ever changes in the world.
Title: "Beyond the Aegean"
Author: Elia Kazan
Length, price: 449 pages; $25