One of modern Greece’s greatest writers, Papadiamántis wouldn’t recognize his home town today. The Skiáthos he immortalized in his short stories, with stark realism and serene, dispassionate prose, was a poor, tragic place, where most of the men were forced to emigrate or spend years at sea, and the women lived hard lives of servitude, often in total penury to accumulate a príka, or dowry, for each daughter; this was such a burden that, when a little girl died, other women would comfort the mother by saying: ‘Happy woman, all you need to marry this one off is a sheet.’
Papadiamántis’ strongest story, I Phonissa (The Murderess), written in 1903, concerns an old woman who, reflecting on the conditions of her own life, sees the monstrous injustice of the system and quietly smothers her sickly newborn granddaughter, to spare her daughter the need to slave away for her dowry. Always the island’s herbal doctor (the one herb she could never find was one for contraception), the old woman believes that her destiny is to alleviate the suffering of others, and she kills four other daughters of poor families before being pursued to her own death. As she drowns, the last thing she sees is the wretched vegetable garden that was her own dowry.
Twelve of Papadiamántis’stories have been beautifully translated by Elizabeth Constantinides as Tales from a Greek Island, complete with a map (it’s usually available at the house) – a perfect read on Skiáthos, a century on.
Image by PD Art