Monday, April 18, 2011
The Greek, by Pierre Rey
April, 1975 Berkley Medallion
(Originally published in France as Le Grec, 1973)
TNT fans take note: Pierre Rey was one half of the duo who created and wrote the whacked-out adventures of Tony Nicholas Twin. The Greek was published in Rey's native France in 1973, five years before he and comics writer Loup Durand united to become "Michael Borgia," the psuedonym under which the TNT novels were originally published. However I can happily report that The Greek is just as whacked-out as anything in TNT.
In fact, it might even be more whacked-out, as The Greek takes place in "the real world," whereas TNT was more of a parody/satire of the men's adventure genre and so was free to verge on utter fantasy. The Greek was Rey's first novel and it was an instant mega-seller in France, soon translated into several languages and published to international success. It is a roman a clef in the tradition of Harold Robbins (Robbins's name is pointedly referenced in Berkley Medallion's back cover copy), its subject of course being "that billionaire shipping magnate" Aristotle Onassis -- here named "Socrates Satrapoulos." All of the expected characters from Onassis's life are here, just with new names: Jacqueline Bouvier/Kennedy/Onassis is instead "Peggy Baltimore," John F. Kennedy is "Scott Baltimore," temperamental opera diva Maria Callas is temperamental pianist "Olympia Menelas," and so on.
But the reader must not expect a typical roman a clef. Anyone who has read TNT will know that there's nothing typical about Pierre Rey's way with a narrative. Rather, this is a chaotic, parodic, insane trip into the world of the super-rich, and though some of the incidents herein reflect what happened in reality, The Greek is moreso a sort of over-the-top satire on the Harold Robbins-type novels that were all the rage at the time.
The Greek spans the years 1952 to 1973, with the majority of it taking place in the 1950s. This is a digressive novel (aka very French), and due to its parodic nature it lacks the primal drive of a Harold Robbins novel. Indeed, there's no unifying thread to this novel; Satrapoulos is as distant to us as any of the other characters, and instead the book comes off more like unrelated sequences of jet-setting rich characters doing goofy things. A quick point of reference: readers of TNT will remember Arnold Benedict, the mutli-millionaire who acted as both Twin's boss and archenemy. Throughout the series Benedict was always throwing hissy-fits and getting into bizarre and goofy predicaments. Imagine if Benedict had been the star of TNT and you'll get the feel of this novel.
The plot thrust I guess is the rivalry between Satrapoulos and his brother-in-law, German shipping magnate Herman Kallenberg, but this plotline is obscured due to the massive cast of characters on display. Whereas the usual Robbins-type novel would have really played up the Homeric rivalry between the two billionaires, Rey instead devles into this angle only occasionally, which as a result neuters any sort of drama or suspense. To tell the truth, I eventually came to find The Greek a bit wearying; the intentional goofiness of it wore thin over the course of its 474 pages of tiny print. (This mass market paperback edition by the way is littered with spelling and grammar mistakes.)
If only there had been more of a central narrative to hold everything together. Instead the novel hops from character to character and the Satrapoulos/Kallenberg rivalry is lost in the jumble. In between his business ventures Satrapoulos chases several women: there's Helena, gorgeous daughter of another Greek shipping magnate; there's Olympia Menalas, famous pianist given to monumental furies; and finally there's Peggy Baltimore, socialite heiress and widow of a slain president. However these love stories are scattered through the novel; the union with Peggy doesn't even occur until the final quarter. Despite this all characters are present and accounted for from the opening pages, and so we see how they move about in their own lives before coming into contact with the titular Greek, Satrapoulos.
None of the characters are likeable, which is another pity. You'd figure the Jackie Kennedy analogue at least would have some redeeming qualities, but she's just as money-hungry, fame-obsessed, and predatory as the others. In fact she comes off poorly throughout the novel, only reaching a sort of hummanity in the seconds before her husband is assassinated (in a complete Dealey Plaza riff). Kallenberg at least has some personality about him, what with his inhuman drive to conquer his brother-in-law Satrapoulos; everything about the man is focused upon dominance, as he equates sex with violence. The family that unites these two men has its own share of problems: Satrapoulos's first wife Helena and Kallenberg's wife Irene are daughters of Medea Mikolfides, overbearing matron and inheritor of her dead husband's shipping empire. These women squabble and scheme throughout the narrative. And Satrapoulos himself comes off like a complete ass, using and abusing everyone in his quest for superiority in all things. In fact I actually enjoyed Kallenberg more, because at least he had more entertaining traits.
So, there really isn't a strong central narrative, but there are many bizarre and goofy moments, just as one would expect from the co-creator of TNT: A "Christmas in August" party at Kallenberg's London estate which culminates in an attack by Satrapoulos-funded thugs; an old woman killed by vultures; an entire sequence devoted to Peggy Baltimore having her pubic hair trimmed into the shape of a heart; an Arabic sultan who gets off on nicking the bare bottoms of prostitutes with a blade and then paying them for their troubles with jewels; Satrapoulos's epic battles with the pianist Menelas, complete with him temporarily abandoning her on a remote island, leaving her with nothing but some food and a Bechstein piano; even a re-enactment of the assassination of the Oswald analogue (here given the awesome name "Slim Scobb").
I'm pretty certain now that Pierre Rey wrote the majority of the TNT novels himself. The tone of The Greek is identical to that of the TNT novels and the writing style seems very much the same, even with two different translators (Victoria Reiter for the TNT books, J.F. Bernard for The Greek). My guess is that Rey and Loup Durand collaborated on the TNT storylines and Rey then handled the actual writing chores on his own.
Anyway, all who enjoyed the adventures of Tony Nicholas Twin and seek a similar fix should check out The Greek. I didn't love it, but I enjoyed it a lot, so much so that I've already gotten the three other Rey novels which were translated into English. Next up is his 1976 sequel to this novel: The Widow, which I will review here soon.