The book of Katerina was written in 2013 by Auguste Corteau; it chronicles, in the first person, the life and death of the author’s mother. It is a compelling read, with vivid descriptions of intense emotions and events, that once again proves the writing talent of almost (and thankfully not) doctor Corteau…
Katerina’s grandmother was Jewish; her name was Sara but her Greek husband changed her name to Katina in order to avoid social stigma. She gave birth to three girls, the first of which was Irini (1913), the mother of Katerina.
Katerina’s father, Minas, was born in 1901 and married Irene in 1931. The person who offered significant help to the raising of their six children (the last of which was Katerina) was Zoitsa, a niece of Irene’s, who was adored by Auguste like a second mother.
Katerina’s eldest brother, Dimitris, was suffering from a syndrome related to autism; it became evident at the age of 5. The outcome was that he was committed to an institution in Switzerland – once again to avoid social stigma. He died at the age of 20 in another institution, Dromocaitio.
Therefore, the family treated their second son, Myron, as the firstborn; Irene was particularly fond of him and her favoritism was the only thing that blinded her to his obvious short-sighted nature.
After an unfortunate infant (Kostakis) who died at the crib from pertussis, Katerina’s favorite brother, Agis, was born in 1948; despite the fact that he suffered the bullying of both his mother and Myron, he became a generous person.
Finally, before the birth of Katerina (02/04/1953), came that of Cleo (1948); deprived of love as a child, Cleo became, as described in the book, a genuinely mean person for Katerina and her overall surroundings.
The children were essentially raised by Zoitsa, since their father was preoccupied with his shop and their mother busy decorating the house, beautifying herself and traveling. By the time they reached 40, they were all using prescription medication. The middle-class Greek family pathology is just a step below that described in the movie Dogtooth by George Lanthimos.
In his book, Corteau does not shy from describing in chilling details events and behaviors of his uncles that, in different circumstances, could possibly be treated with an ironic smile by a person who has merely one major frustration in life (as we all do). Yet, as parts of Katerina’s compelling life, these events and behaviors acquire the gravity of explanatory data for her character’s build – and, as such, they can neither be overlooked nor underestimated. The reader is asked to overcome the middle-class devil of cunning (from a safe spot) criticism of these descriptions regarding Katerina’s siblings and read between the lines the deep slashes to her soul, as the youngest child of the family.
We will not expand on the numerous stories of the wider family, which begin from the comic and end in tragedy. Corteau chronicles entirely naturally, as if over a cup of coffee, with the train of thought of the actual witness and the intimacy of a family member, in order to provide the outline and context of the shaping of Katerina. Let us, however, return to our heroine.
Already by the age of 14, she can feel something “tearing inside her”. While watching Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the cinema, she storms out and falls under the wheels of a passing car. The neurologist she sees touches her inappropriately. From then on, she trusts no doctor – only pills.
She goes through a difficult puberty. She becomes rude, starts swearing a lot, becomes explosive (a true Aries, I might add…). Her first love appears at the age of 18 in the face of a 48-year old architect, Andreas. Despite his tender attitude, he does not manage to become a memorable lover for her. However, Katerina gets pregnant and, in agreement with Andreas, has an abortion that she never truly regrets.
Katerina meets Tasos, the author’s father, while he is studying in university; he is the one who makes the first move, as his family is living in the same block of flats as Cleo. Their love blossoms in the tragic July of 1974 and, once Tasos has served in the army, they get married on 18/02/1977. On 2 April 1978 (mid-book), Petros is conceived; he is essentially the protagonist of the second half of the book.
The great earthquake of July 1978, finds Katerina pregnant; during her flight from home, she finds solace in a bottle of whiskey. After the birth of her son (02/01/1979), she will resume her fatal (for both her sobriety and her life) relationship with alcohol.
Following all that, comes a description of Katerina’s pathological attachment to Petros and the subsequent neglect of Tasos. Petros grows up to become an intelligent, gifted child; yet he is deprived of normal socialization. His first day at school will be an extremely painful incident for Katerina. She will make the fatal mistake to start shoving down her son’s throat pharmaceutical concoctions and royal jelly in order to kick-start his appetite; all that had catastrophic consequences on his body in the future. However, Katerina will prove herself by exhibiting an unprecedented (for her generation) generosity to Petros’s “conspiratorial” and, from an early stage, expressed homosexuality.
In the autumn of 1986, Katerina loses a foetus of six months from an alcohol overdose; ironically, she was planning to name the baby Zoe (Greek for life). This event will haunt her for life.
The book then chronicles (with time gaps) escalating incidents of Katerina’s disturbed behavior: her poisoning from excessive amounts of water in reaction to “mommy” Zoitsa’s death; her setting their house on fire out of jealousy over her husband’s imaginary infidelities; her over-eating croissants of a known wholesale chain (“the ones covered with chocolate, no half-measures”) along with Petros, who, seriously overweight by then, succeeds in getting into the Medical School of Thessaloniki in 1996. The family finds out over their holidays in Chalkidiki on the day that Aliki Vougiouklaki died.
What follows is Petros’s denial to study Medicine and his preference to start writing, his first sexual experiences, his travels; all the while, combined with Katerina’s emotions, who, while she did not shy from self-critique over all the negatives she accumulated when raising her son, would still (in her escalating psychological pathology) stand firm as a typical, selectively histrionic Greek mother.
Despite the recounting of events and approaches that could easily trigger irony or anger to the reader (if they were described in fragments), even the following of Katerina’s problematic character cannot fail to move the toughest of audiences. While the heroine may occasionally act like a spoiled woman who never had to work, who cannot feel sorry when reading about her outbursts and self-inflicted torture? The absolute victim of her own self, Katerina wins sympathy but not pity. Her presentation does not allow for such humiliation. The book of Katerina will have her emerge as an emblematic figure of a generation of mothers who “sacrificed” themselves for their precious sons; on the one hand, without being aware of the unfavorable consequences, yet, on the other hand, with a dedication that makes the harsh and, as a rule, emotionally indifferent mothers of previous generations seem so inadequate in comparison. Who can condemn the constant, spontaneous care and the intent for the child to want for nothing? It is only years later that we come back to throw sarcasm at the sarma; yet this happens at an age when the “child” itself is old enough to face responsibility…
We will say no more. Katerina died in a way we shall not reveal, preferring to leave the climax intact for the reader. We will merely say that this wonderful book, unique in its kind, has been transferred to the theatrical stage where Lena Papaligoura delivers a magnificent performance (the show continues this winter). Look for the book as well as the play. With his wit, his eloquence and his immense linguistic imagination, Auguste Corteau will not disappoint you. May Katerina rest in peace…