A coffee break

Posted on September 25, 2013


He who’s been burnt blows even on yogurt – Cypriot Proverb

I was clear in my own mind when approaching the choice of a Cypriot novel that I didn’t want anything political.  I wasn’t wedded to choosing a Greek Cypriot over a Turkish Cypriot book or vice versa, I wanted a neutral narrative (if such existed) and a book that showed daily life on Cyprus away from politics (if such were possible). Given these restrictive requirements, I resigned myself to having to compromise on quality. I was rather pleased with myself, therefore, when I found Andriana Ierodiaconou’s The Women’s Coffee Shop. This is marketed as crime fiction, set before the occupation and division, and offering a slice of Cypriot village life.   Good, better and best.   Furthermore, the reviews all pointed out that it was ‘well-written’.

Thankfully, The Women’s Coffee Shop surpassed expectations.   The novel opens after the murder of Avraam Salih a puppeteer of mixed Christian and Muslim heritage and the disowned grandson of the richest man in the village.  His body is being watched over by Angelou, a woman he has been in love with since boyhood, but who, though loving him deeply, is having an affair with Ermioni, the village nurse. The two main characters, therefore, are placed on the margins of village life. At the opening of the novel, Angelou’s preoccupation is not, as one might expect, with the whys and hows of Salih’s murder, but with who will bury him. The Christians refuse as Salih hasn’t been baptized and the Muslims refuse because Salih has never been seen at prayers.   So Angelou decides to bury him herself.  As the novel progresses we realize that this is not out of character for Angelou, who breaks with tradition and challenges authority at every turn.  The Women’s Coffee Shop of the title is Angelou’s bid to confront the traditional restrictions placed on the village women.  If men can have a coffee shop why not the women? Later in the novel the women’s defiance becomes more direct when they protest at the development of the coast, by standing in front of the bulldozers and refusing to move.

In terms of the structure of the novel, it shifts between a present, third person narrative and past, first person one. The third person narrative mostly deals (after she’s got over the thorny issue of his burial), with Angelou’s need to find answers to Salih’s death and (having gone to so much trouble to bury him) someone’s later removal of his corpse. The first person narrative presents the perspective of the dead Salih.  It is through Salih that we understand Angelou’s back-story and motivations, that we learn of all the petty village feuds and love affairs, and the increasingly troubled relations between Christians and Moslems.    It is also through Salih, I suspect, that Ierodiaconou is ventriloquised, which is perhaps why she writes him as a puppeteer.  And it is through Salih that Ierodiaconou makes observations about life and death that give one pause for thought.  For instance, at one point Salih notes that when a parent dies a child is reborn.  I can’t speak for everyone who has lost a parent, but for my own part this simple statement rings true.

The novel ends with Salih narrating his own murder. We never actually discover who has killed him, however, as Salih gives us various possible scenarios and tells us to make our own minds up.  And so it is that at the end of the novel we realise that through its bittersweet love stories, local squabbles, and discussions of encroaching modernity, Ierodiaconou has, sneakily, given us a deeply political book after all.   As in Cyprus itself there is division.  A division between the women and the men. Between the Christians and the Moslems. Between tradition and modernity. And as in Cyprus, there is inexplicable, mindless and heart-breaking bloodshed.  Perhaps, it is best not to know who’s to blame, but to simply bury the dead.  As Salih’s narrative shows, there are many equally plausible versions of the truth.