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Notes on The Hidden

 

 

My father once met a woman who once sat on the lap of Tchaikovsky.

The great man was old at the time of being sat upon, and the woman was old by the time by father met her. My father shook her hand, and offered me his own (with mock-solemnity) when he told me the anecdote. Hold my hand. This is the hand that held the hand that held the hand of Tchaikovsky.

What impressed me about the story was the way it brought the past close. It struck a chord, one I’d still be listening to when I wrote my second novel, The Love of Stones, and which had become more resonant when I set out on this one, The Hidden. The hand that held the hand is a fable about the deceptive proximity of history. In The Love of Stones, two groups of protagonists - separated by a hundred and sixty years - are brought close through their descendents and ancestors. In The Hidden, the hand-that-held-the-hand is closer to the heart of the narrative. The Hidden is about the ease with which we forget history, about how deceptive the distances of the past can be, and how the lives of the dead and buried can come much closer to our own than we imagine.

Being a novel, The Hidden also has less abstract concerns. It is about love, about an innocent imagining himself loved and in love with people he doesn't fully understand. The kernel of The Hidden is the story of Ben, an eternal outsider who, being accepted by those he loves, finds too late that you should be careful what you wish for. It’s a story form I admire, one that leads back through The Beach and The Secret History to The Magus and The Lord of the Flies, Le Grand Meaulnes and Great Expectations.

The meat of The Hidden takes place in Greece, in the present day, in the backwoods town of Sparta. The protagonist is an archaeologist. Faced with the failure of his domestic life, Ben Mercer seeks refuge in the excavation of a strange and violent chapter of the past, only to find himself forced to faced its echoes in the present.

There are Hellenophiles and Greeks who would say that history is a Greek invention, like wine and politics. Certainly history goes deep there and yet still lies close to the surface. Welcome or not, the past is always present in Greece: it is as inescapable as family.

Sometimes the modern Spartans seem to wear the knowledge of their past lightly, but the weather in summer – that brilliant Mediterranean clarity – gives too great an impression of lightness. Go there in winter, when the rain can last months. Talk to anyone, dig a little into any grudge or argument, and it is impossible not to feel the weight and presence of history.

Sparta in The Hidden was more than a setting for me. Its history is extraordinary, though you wouldn't know it to look at it now. It has become a nondescript town, and a quiet one – even the teenagers in their Marilyn Manson T-shirts, racing dirt bikes around the old acropolis, are muffled by the lush acres of olives and oranges. Up in the mountains the only sounds are church bells, goat bells and the long, rolling echoes of the hunters' guns. You could pass through and think Sparta unremarkable, though this is the home of one of the most famous and potent extremist philosophies in human history.

This quietness doesn't mean the past is forgotten: if anything it signifies just the opposite. After all, it is only sixty years since German collaborators and Greek Communists massacred one another in the vineyards and olive groves. It is only a few centuries since invaders from the east and west fought over the mountain citadel of Mystras, here at the most vulnerable border of Christendom. It is two and a half thousand years since Sparta was a great power in itself - the most powerful city in Greece, a force known and feared throughout the known world, its army undefeated for three and a half centuries - but even that span of time does nothing to encourage forgetfulness.

Outside Greece, the city is remembered most fondly by those that hanker after its military and social extremes. One example of this is the Krypteia, a society of classical Sparta whose name translates as ‘The Secret Matter’, ‘The Hiding’ or ‘The Hidden’. In its day, The Hidden carried out a programme of institutionalised terrorism; its aim was the subjugation of conquered peoples through fear and paranoia. Nothing else quite like it existed in the ancient world. There are documents which suggest the Krypteia undertook eugenic killings of those enslaved by the Spartans, but the Spartans were too secretive to ever write about themselves. All we have of the Krypteia are the rumours passed on by historians from other city-states, and the modern echoes of terror for whom the Krypteia has often been a blueprint; the intelligence agencies, secret police, extremists and splinter groups, and the genocides of our own era.

People live a long time in Sparta, on their wine and olives. Eighty years is not uncommon. Hand in hand over the centuries, like paper cut-outs, it would take only thirty such old men to reach back to the Krypteia. Not even ancient history is distant here. Like the mountains that hang over Sparta, the past is closer than you think.

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