Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time of Confusion
On first reading John Fowles’s The Magus, a novel set in the fifties, an odd locution snagged my attention. Early in the story Nicholas Urfe is talking to a man who previously held the teaching post in Greece that Urfe is about to take up. “He had been parachuted into Greece during the German occupation, and he was very glib with his Xans and his Paddys and the Christian names of all the other well-known condottieri of the time.”
Xans and Paddys? Later I found out that Xan was Alexander Fielding and Paddy was Patrick Leigh Fermor, colleagues in Crete during World War II. While the hapless Urfe’s disdain for these condottiere is partly explained by the fact that the character’s unloved father is Brigadier “Blazer” Urfe, it may also reflect the author’s own feelings. If so, Fowles was in the minority, but he was not alone.
It wasn’t until 1984 that I learned more about Leigh Fermor, while trying to walk from one end of Crete to the other following ancient paths described in John Pendlebury’s The Archaeology of Crete (1939). The island is 160 miles long, studded with mountains of knife-edged weathered limestone; I ended up mostly taking the bus. But at the cost of shredding a pair of leather boots, I did manage to walk good chunks of it.
One leg started in the village of Anogeia, on the northern slope of Psiloritis, where the bus dropped me at midday. It was a place of no charm, a collection of blocky concrete houses.
The Anogeians, like Greeks everywhere, peppered the newcomer with questions; at the mention of “American,” however, they all clammed up. Later that day I walked to the nearby ruin of Axos. From my journal: “on the way back a guy gives me a lift in his truck and accuses me of being a spy…. ‘Crete is nice,’ I offer, and his reply is ‘Nice for Americans.’”
That trek took me from Anogeia over Psiloritis and across the Messara Plain as far as Kommos on the Libyan Sea. A week later I was back at home base in Koutoulofari, where Grecophile Rosemary Barron had a cooking school. I asked her about Anogeia. For one thing, she said, it had long been an outpost of the KKE, the Greek Communist Party, much in the minority in Crete.
As to the tedious architecture, it was postwar. “The Germans leveled Anogeia during the war.” She named several books in English that could tell me more: The Villa Ariadne by Dilys Powell, Ill Met By Moonlight by W. Stanley Moss, and the refreshingly non-Anglocentric The Cretan Runner, by George Psychoundakis – translated, and with an introduction, by Patrick Leigh Fermor.
From these, I learned that the archaeologist Pendlebury, whose tracks I’d been following, had organized British support for the Cretan resistance but was killed within days of the German invasion in 1941. That Xan, Paddy, Billy Moss, and other members of the SOE had carried on through the war under extraordinary hardships.
And I learned what made Leigh Fermor famous, alluded to only in passing in his introduction to Psychoundakis’s book but spelled out in the others: he led the successful kidnapping of the German General Heinrich Kreipe, then commandant of Crete, who was quartered in Arthur Evans’s former home, the Villa Ariadne in Knossos. The first stop after they hijacked Kreipe’s car, on the way to evacuating him by boat, was Anogeia.
With this much to go on, I assumed what many others had assumed, based on the Germans’ own pronouncements – that Kreipe’s abductors were at fault for the death and destruction visited upon Anogeia and other villages where the Germans suspected he’d been held.
As late as the late nineties I still thought that was the true story. My 1997 novel Secret Passages is set in Crete, the protagonist a physicist named Minakis. Telling the story of his youth, he says, “As for the war, you may have heard stirring tales of kidnapped German generals and the like. These were English adventures, worse than useless to the Greeks.” Minakis has earned his opinion, but it is one not shared by most Cretans.
A few years ago, I discovered what Leigh Fermor did with his life before and after the war, when I stumbled upon his 1977 memoir, A Time of Gifts, the first of three volumes recounting his walk across Europe from Holland to Constantinople beginning in 1934. It was an extraordinary work, and I read more. A Time to Keep Silence (1957) tells of his sojourns in monastic communities. I devoured Mani (1958), Roumeli (1966), and part two of his hike to Constantinople, Between the Woods and the Water (1986). A startlingly different take on Leigh Fermor came from In Tearing Haste (2008), his long correspondence with Deborah Devonshire.
Last week I finished Patrick Leigh Fermor, An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper, which puts his remarkable life in perspective. Kidnapping a German general led to fame, but that was almost the least of it. More next time.