Made by the Sea and Wood, In Darkness is Alexandros Plasatis’s first novel. Published in 2021 by Spuyten Duyvil and shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize, the novel does more than carry you to Kavala, a city located in Greece, but transports you into the lives of locals and immigrants through language, setting, nature, and most of all, food. Told with both lyrical and crude language, Plasatis does not pull punches in those 226 pages and expresses a clarity of his hometown that is captivating to watch.
Framed between two main characters, Pavlo and Angie, the novel begins at its most critical location: Café Papaya. Café Papaya is inhabited by many locals, most importantly the Greek and Egyptian fishermen. Both locals, Pavlo and Angie work at the café and are drawn to the workers. The café becomes a sacred place in the narrative and is centered in nearly all conflicts.
A single chapter is filled with multiple sections where Pavlo and four Egyptian fishermen tell stories about women; the dialogue is crude and often harsh. But at the end of the chapter, the narration pulls back, and the reader is left with this:
It would dawn soon, and each man had to take his own way home and face the reality of the day, the misery of their single beds. Tired, they sat back around the round table, just to enjoy for a little longer this sweet summer night, remembering with pleasure the stories they’ve shared, sucking back the smoke of a last cigarette, feeling free.
The writing turns lyrical and melancholy as the men reflect on their bond and the place they have shared their stories in. The entire novel is made of shared stories. Though Pavlo and Angie are the main characters, they are a device used to tell the immigrants’ and locals’ stories through.
One night Angie is working and begins talking to One Arm (aptly named because he has only one arm). He tells her how he became a fisherman and how he came to Greece from Egypt. Mentioned in nearly every story are caïques, a traditional fishing boat. They are described with romantic imagery and the reader imagines boats coming from the distant sea, lighting up the night. One Arm has a different description of the place where he makes his life’s work. “‘Army is fire and caïque is fire. I say to myself, “What the hell is this? Better die.” I want a bit of life: buy clothes, go to the disco, go with, you know, women. I want to taste some of the good life.’” He tells his life story with a melancholy that warns against romanticization and yet can’t help but do it to itself, anyway.
Set in a café, it is only natural that food becomes an important part of the narrative. The names of the food alone are enough to make someone’s mouth water, but it does more than that—it creates a rich air, characterized by the culture of the food. Sprinkled throughout one single chapter are foods like “‘Two spaghetti carbonara, one tortellini carbonara, one baked manouri cheese stuffed with red pepper and bacon,’” and “‘One fried tigania souvlaki in white wine and mustard sauce, one grilled lamb chops with fries, tomato-cucumber salad without the onions but with olives—with the olives—one retsina, one coke.’” This chapter follows Pavlo and his boss in an excruciatingly long night as they interact with the customers of the café. Filled with abuse against prostitutes and complicated orders and customers who seem bent against Pavlo, the reader gets a taste of the underground life of Kavala. A group of men arrive and tell Pavlo they want a traditional Greek soup. “Oh, no, they were patsa soup enthusiasts… Stay cool, Pavlo. They’ll try to intimidate you with their knowledge of patsa soup, but you can handle them. Stay cool.” Despite the mundane-ness and comical air of the situation, there is tension between Pavlo and the customers. These things matter.
The main draw of Made by the Sea and Wood, In Darkness is the variance between all the stories told. The connecting thread—life of the locals and immigrants in Kavala—does not get tiring to read because each character stands out. Talked about endlessly, it seems only fitting that the novel should end on a caïque as the fishermen take Angie out to sea to witness what they experience, every shift. She thinks about how other locals wouldn’t dare to go out to sea with the Egyptians, about how their lives are immensely different and yet similar. After the voyage, the narrator says, “She kept on listening with pleasure to the tales of the Egyptian fishermen at the café. She listened and learned, and learned again about their lives.” But still, her gaze is drawn to the caïques and what lay beyond it.
Made by the Sea and Wood, In Darkness is available at Spuyten Duyvil
Amber Beck (she/her) is a writer with an MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing from Chatham University. She has been published in Calliope, Rejection Letters, Bindweed Magazine, Poets.org, and has a forthcoming piece with Bone Parade. She won second place in a Florida statewide writing contest, first place in NEA Big Read’s writing contest, and won the 2022 Laurie Mansell Reich Poetry Prize. She has worked as an editor for The Fourth River, 101 Words, and Chatham’s MFA Program’s Newsletter. She is the founder of Barmecide Press.