Fermor from the Shallows

Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnesse


By Patrick Leigh Fermor

Kindle edition, 379 pp. New York Review of Books Classics. $9.99

I found myself awake at 3:30 on a Wednesday morning, two days before the Anatomy Division 2 exam, and could not go back to sleep: my circadian rhythm, shaky at best, had given up entirely after days of intensive studying. Rather than work on reducing the foreboding pile of unfinished books and periodicals laying open in my apartment, I reached for my Kindle, remembering that as it was now October 12, my preordered copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel memoir “Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnesse” would be ready for download. Sure enough, as soon as I turned on the Kindle, the book was whisked immediately and imperceptibly from the airwaves to appear at the top of the screen. I began:

 “YOU HAD better look out if you are going up to Anavryti,” said the young barber ominously as he snapped his scissors. He plunged them into another handful of dust-clogged hair. There was a crunch of amputation and another tuft joined the ring of colourless débris on the floor. The reflected head, emerging from a shroud in the looking-glass opposite, seemed to be shrinking visibly. It already felt pounds lighter. “They are a queer lot.”

“Why must I look out?” The nature of the threat sounded ambiguous. The reflected Spartan faces along the back of the shop were bisected with happy grins of anticipation. “Why?” The policeman leant forward.
“They’ll have the coat off your back!” An old Arcadian in a kilt went even further.
“They’ll skin you alive, my child,” he said. A child, beaming at the barber’s elbow said,
“They’ll eat you!” Their tone made it impossible to treat their warnings with too much concern. I asked why they were so much to be feared.
“Because they are Jews,” the policeman said.
“So they say,” one of the Spartans added.

As if I hadn’t already felt enough affinity for an author famous for his indulgences in “ramifying tendrils of digression,” here was Fermor opening his work with a tale of crypto-Jews in modern-day Sparta. I selected the above passage to post to facebook from my Kindle. I had never used the Kindle’s sharing tool, so I logged on to facebook from my computer to see how the excerpt would appear on my profile. It appeared, all right – or at least the first half did, cut off awkwardly mid-sentence. I clicked the link appearing below the post, assuming that the excerpt would be expanded to its full length, but instead I arrived at a page offering to sell me the book. I soon realized that Amazon’s “Social Sharing” feature doesn’t allow sharing of more than four or five sentences at a time. These days, who has time to read anything longer?

Patrick Leigh Fermor in an undated photo

Patrick Leigh Fermor in an undated photo

I had never heard of Patrick Leigh Fermor before I read his obituary in the September issue of the New York Review of Books. (It’s worth a read.) I learned that Leigh Fermor was among the last of a remarkable cadre of warrior-scholars whose gradual disappearance must be counted among the negative effects of the fall of the British Empire. Born in 1915, he was a precocious youth with a strong independent streak, and spent his twenties wandering in Greece and Eastern Europe. At the outbreak of World War II, Leigh Fermor returned to England from Greece to join the infantry. Fortunately for the Allies, his talents were noticed by his superiors, and he was soon sent back to Greece to help organize a guerilla campaign against the Nazi occupation.

There is one particular anecdote from Leigh Fermor’s service in Greece which always seems to appear in any article about Leigh Fermor, perhaps because it so dramatically shows his unique blend of fearlessness and thoughtful erudition. At one point during the campaign, Leigh Fermor and a few of his comrades decided to abduct the German military commander of the entire Cretan occupation. This they accomplished by posing as German MPs, stopping and then hijacking the commander’s vehicle, and finally – and most incredibly – leading their captive on an almost three-week journey by foot over the Cretan mountains to rendezvous with a British extraction team on the shore of the Mediterranean. On one morning of the march, the trio awoke to the sight of dawn breaking over Mount Ida, the birthplace of Zeus in Greek legend, and the General was moved to recite a bit of Horace: “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum…” Leigh Fermor recognized the ancient Ode and recited the remaining five stanzas from memory. In one of his later books, “A Time of Gifts,” he recounts the general’s reaction:

The general’s blue eyes had swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.

This story of understanding in the midst of a global conflagration is the climax of an epic worthy of its setting. The theme of mortal enemies finding common ground in shared values has gripped us since Achilles was moved by Priam’s grief for his dead son. In the Illiad, this common ground forms the inviolate bedrock on which humanity is anchored. Priam’s appeal is granted, the body returned, the Trojans given a reprieve. At the close of the Iliad the Greeks hold to their camp as they watch the smoke rising above the walls of Troy from the funeral pyre of Hector.

Yet it is peculiar that Homer ends his poem on this solemn but hopeful note, since we know that the understanding between Priam and Achilles will neither spare Priam’s life nor preserve his city from its brutal sack. Just so, the understanding between Leigh Fermor and the German Major, an understanding rooted in shared knowledge of ancient stories like the story of Priam and Achilles, could neither free Leigh Fermor and the Major from their roles as captor and hostage, nor end the enormous conflict in which they were engaged. Is it in spite of, or because of their apparent futility that such moments hold their power?


Leigh Fermor’s story of a flourishing respect between enemies also resonates for me as an American, in this time of hardship and bitter political division. It is especially poignant because we are in dire need of such intercommunal respect, and yet this story could not happen today. It might seem trivial to point out one immediately obvious reason, which is that we are no longer teaching our children the classics and canon as a means of expressing and understanding Western values. To be sure, the abandonment of the old pedagogy was in part the result of two positive trends: the institution of compulsory universal public education, and the adoption of a much-needed critical conversation concerning the moral content of those Western stories and values. And in any case, when has a familiarity with Latin lyric poetry ever prevented the patrician elite from acting out of petty self-interest?

But there is nothing trivial about the decline of liberal arts education. The Greeks and Romans, and the lessons our forebears drew from their stories, are not dead yet. The founding documents of this country are part of their legacy, a self-fulfilling prophecy that each generation must in turn enact by telling its own chapter of a shared and ever-evolving narrative. While we know from experience that this unfinished narrative has great resilience under conflict, I am less certain of its ability to resist the fragmentation of the mainstream, a process begun with the advent of mass media and fast approaching its conclusion in the internet age. In this sprawling, superconnected society, we are made targets for exploitation by a host of destructive commercial and political forces, and it is in the interest of these forces that we remain diverted and divided, the subversive potential of our freedom neutered by minutely personalized media that rewards us for our withdrawal from the public sphere.

Abandoned fishing boats on the dry bed of the Aral Sea

Abandoned fishing boats on the dry bed of the Aral Sea

Nicholas Carr caused a stir in 2010 by summing up some of these worries in his aptly-titled book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” It met with mixed reviews; one particularly common response was to place Carr at the head of the procession of Cassandras who have earned the disdain of future generations by warning with each successive media revolution – books, the printing press, the telegraph, radio, television – of the moral decay that would invariably befall society as a result of the new technology. But the book also tapped a rich vein of national anxiety, and it’s not hard to see why. The titular metaphor of human knowledge as a body of water appeals to our intuition. That ocean, vast though it is, can grow only so rapidly. With the area of its basin outpacing that growth, its waters forced to spread over an ever-greater territory, the ocean seems to be becoming alarmingly shallow. One recalls those unforgettable images of the great ships left listing, rusty hulks by the shrinking Aral Sea, and can only hope that our own ship of state does not run aground on a sandbar.


Leigh Fermor writes of the Greeks, “Education, whatever its extent and its results, is revered and there is aesthetic respect for skill in talk which can carry conviction by its style and fluency in defiance of its subject matter.” This sentence encapsulates what makes Leigh Fermor so remarkable, and Mani such a pleasure to read. The depth and breadth of Leigh Fermor’s learning are truly astounding. The book is best read in the company of both a dictionary and an encyclopedia, although the reader should be warned that some of the topics treated are too obscure even for Wikipedia. But this constant unfurling of knowledge is never excessive or ostentatious, because it is infused throughout with Leigh Fermor’s good humor and great charm.

He and his traveling companion (and future wife) Joan are greeted enthusiastically in even the remotest reaches of the Deep Mani, and the pages of the book are so soaked in ouzo and retsina that one wonders how Leigh Fermor managed to remember the experience with such startling clarity. Such hospitality is, or was, the Greek tradition, but Leigh Fermor must also have been an extraordinarily entertaining houseguest. The man who emerges from this most tangled of yarns is a man who knows how to tell a story, but also how to listen, how to draw from a reticent mountain peasant his own fascinating story. It is in the telling of these stories that the book truly comes alive.

To read Mani is to embark for yourself on a journey through the rugged Greek countryside and to be welcomed everywhere by its exotic inhabitants. In the evening, as you rest your legs and tuck into delicacies, your brilliant, voluble guide will pick up the slack, entertaining your generous hosts with tales of your past encounters, and listening as they share their own sacred stories. And he will be kind enough to stay up with you after dinner and explain to you what it all means. The Maniots emerge as a hardy people who have endured generations of poverty and political turmoil, but who maintain their way of life in spite of it all. Their example of perseverance may serve as an inspiration to us as we navigate these perilous shallows.

Submit comment