In Shades of Resistance, unexceptional people take exceptional risks
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Paloma Velasco
The adrift young American doesn’t find his idyll. It’s 1973: when Jonas Korda washes up on the Aegean islands, Greece has been under the heavy thumb of a military junta for six years. The protagonist of Joseph Matthews’s novel Shades of Resistance is instead swept up in the politics of a small place struggling to withstand a fascist regime.
Two small Berkeley presses partnered to first publish Shades of Resistance in 1994. Though both Headlands Press and Creative Arts Books have since shuttered, the tradition of radical Bay Area publishing continues.
Over 30 years, Matthews has pursued the question of what it means to have a personal politics amidst the social movements and upheavals of one’s era. The question is at the center of his most recent novels: The Blast (2022) follows anarchist and labor activist groups in 1916 San Francisco, while Everyone Has Their Reasons (2015) examines the desperate choices of Herschel Grynszpan, the Jewish teenager who shot a German official in 1938—an event the Nazis then used to justify Kristallnacht. Both books were published by Oakland-based independent stalwart PM Press.
Shades of Resistance, which PM Press reissuedearlier this year, can be understood as the rediscovered first offering in this trio of novels. All three explore how a person arrives, as Christopher Hitchens wrote of Shades of Resistance, at “the discovery that resistance is not so much a choice as a necessity.”
In an extension of their 2022 Public Seminar conversation about the depiction of left-wing artists and organizers in The Blast, Matthews and Evangeline Riddiford Graham chatted about using fiction to unravel oppression, and why the “regime of the colonels” found the Greek underground counteroffensive of poetry and music so difficult to control.
Evangeline Riddiford Graham: Can you talk a bit about how you came to write the novel? I know that your own time in the Greek islands was a pivotal point in your life.
Joseph Matthews: I arrived in the islands just after the fall of Greece’s brutal seven-year military dictatorship in 1974. Local folks were still very raw, mistrustful of each other, extremely tight-lipped, fearful that the fascists might yet return to power. But a few people, needing to unburden themselves, found it easier, safer, to speak with a young foreigner than with fellow Greeks. And so, slowly—I was in the islands for several months—I began to hear horror stories about life under the junta. But I also learned about people who had never before been “political” summoning the courage and imagination to resist, defy, and subvert. Unexceptional people taking exceptional risks—acts that form the warp and weft of Shades of Resistance. And I was deeply inspired by them. Inspiration not merely for the novel, but for me personally. Like the novel’s protagonist, I was “adrift,” as were so many others, after the end—the collapse—of the sixties. I had been intensely engaged in various political projects, all of which had for the most part crumbled. Not only did I not know exactly what was next, but I was unable to even imagine for myself any political engagement at all. The extraordinary bravery of “ordinary” Greeks in opposing the junta woke me up and turned me around, just as it does for Jonas in the novel. The specific encounters with the junta that befell Jonas did not happen to me—Shades of Resistance is not autobiographical—but our politico-emotional journeys followed a similar arc.
Riddiford Graham: In Shades of Resistance we meet Greek characters who defy not just political fascism but convention more generally. Eccentricity is the stuff of novels, of course, but I think the anti-conventionality Jonas meets in the Aegean islands is more than local whimsy.
Matthews: Because Shades of Resistance is a political as well as a characterological novel, I’ve made many of my characters’ oddities connect somehow with resistance to the imposed order of things: “anti-conventionality,” but with a political cast to the notion of “convention”.
So a character refuses to move aside his scooter on a narrow island road and, in the burning midday heat, creates increasingly wild and elaborate curses and maledictions directed at the driver of the car he’s blocked, culminating in him removing his shoes, climbing a stone wall, and jumping into the air so that he can gesture with his bare toes as well as his fingers in an absurd extension of a traditional Greek form of insult: but the subtext of the personal animosity is that the car driver is a fawning supporter of the junta. Or the woman who hangs a bedsheet on her hovel’s makeshift clothesline, as a flaunting signal to nearby villagers after every nighttime visit by her lover: flaunting as a response to being ostracized by the villagers because she’s on the island as a junta political exile. Or the jolly character who wanders around a Cretan village playing American jazz on a clarinet and singing Ella Fitzgerald songs but who can’t quite remember what happened hours or days before: a “forgetting” that resulted from torture in one of the junta’s prisons.
Riddiford Graham: How does the relationship between fascism and the absurd play out across your novels?
Matthews: Fascist regimes often counterpoint their outright violence with maddening absurdities that demoralize and demobilize their populations. In Shades of Resistance, for example, a known leftist is denied access to a small generator, which could produce barely enough juice to light his village café, unless he can “prove” that it won’t be used to foment violent rebellion. In my novel Everyone Has Their Reasons, a character faces imprisonment in 1930s Germany for growing parsley in a window box because it violated laws against Jews engaging in farming.
And it’s not only fascist states that reach for the absurd when dealing with “unwanted” personages. In Everyone Has Their Reasons, the main character, a Polish-German Jewish immigrant teenager on his own in Paris, is denied a French residence permit because he must prove to the authorities that he has work to support himself. But he can’t get legal work without a special foreigner’s work permit … which he can’t get without a residence permit.
Sometimes, though, people manage to turn such absurdities on their head. The Greek junta, for example, banned the music of certain artists who opposed the dictatorship. In Shades of Resistance, some clandestinas set up a tape recorder and loudspeaker inside a car, park it in the middle of a big Athens square, and blast banned music. The police, afraid to approach the car, call in the army. A squad of soldiers takes up positions and opens fire with automatic weapons … on an empty car. The loudspeaker continues to blare the music, the soldiers continue to machine-gun the car, and hundreds of residents watch the ridiculous spectacle from their windows around the square.
Riddiford Graham: I’m drawn to the presence of pamphlets—and pamphleteers—in your recent books. But instead of pamphlets, the Greek characters of Shades of Resistance turn to poetry and music. Can you talk about these different approaches to expressing and fostering rebellion?
Matthews: My novel The Blast is set in 1916 San Francisco. A powerful organized working class, spearheaded by a vibrant, predominantly Italian anarchist milieu, was in an epic struggle with the barons of capital. At the same moment, the United States was deciding whether to enter World War I, the debate breaking down largely along the same class lines. Newspapers and book publishing, which were the only mass communications of the time, were all controlled by big capital. Labor groups, anarchists, and other radicals took to the small printing press as a tool of resistance, creating easily digestible texts, often with creative visual images. Alexander Berkman’s weekly pamphlet, also called The Blast, was one of the most powerful. Radical wings of the women’s suffrage and birth control movements of the time in the United States and Britain also relied on the leaflet and the broadsheet, such that printers and printing presses became a focus of state repression.
If you have little money but enough arms and legs, the handout pamphlet or leaflet is a very effective way to reach a large local audience. But there is also something extremely effective about the form itself, particularly the one-page (one- or two-sided) broadsheet: its brevity makes it undaunting, it can be broadly accessible if its language and images are well crafted, and it feels individual to the person holding it while simultaneously connecting that person to everyone else who has one.
During the mass demonstrations in 2003 to protest the impending invasion of Iraq, a group I was involved with produced and handed out thousands of copies of a broadsheet, Neither Their War Nor Their Peace,which set out some arguments about the relations between war and capital and modernity. We received hundreds of responses which were so interesting and encouraging that we expanded the broadsheet into a book, Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War. So into the twenty first century, the old broadsheet form was still alive and kicking. Now twenty years later, I wonder what media-ologists are finding about the forms that are most effective in political organizing and propagandizing through social media.
Music and poetry loom large in Shades. Those specific art forms were prominent in Greek cultural life at the time and therefore became central to a certain type of underground counteroffensive against the regime. Also they were the art practices least controllable by the junta. Films, books, and theater could be—and were—tightly restricted. One character in Shades is an actor who wanted to stage Lysistrata in Athens. Not only was the anti-militarist, women-wielding-power play itself an offense to the junta, but this woman actor who was directing—also an affront—cast an otherwise-banned openly gay actor in the lead female role, all of which resulted in the police closing the play after one night and the military exiling the director to a remote island.
But music and oral versions—poetry and song—of the written word, were much more difficult for the regime to contain. The junta banned the music of certain composers, which had the unintended consequence of turning the playing of those composers’ best known melodies into easily displayed, albeit risky, gestures of defiance. In Shades of Resistance, Jonas becomes entangled with a couple of self-exiled Greek musicians who are returning to their beleaguered homeland armed with a hidden microfilm portfolio of well-known poems by opponents of the regime, set to the music of a banned composer. The musicians are arrested and brutally interrogated upon arrival in Greece simply for having been self-exiles, but the portfolio remains undiscovered, thanks to unwitting help from Jonas. When the unreconstructed materialist Jonas learns of their scheme to spread these songs of defiance, he’s incredulous that they are running such heavy risks for “a bunch of poems”. But as the novel progresses, a key phrase from a poem set to one of the banned composer’s music becomes a sort of meme that travels alongside Jonas in his wanderings through the islands, until finally, he comes to appreciate its capacity to unite terrorized but ultimately resilient Greeks.
Joseph Matthews is author of the novels The Blast, Everyone Has Their Reasons, and Shades of Resistance, the story collection The Lawyer Who Blew Up His Desk, and the post–September 11 political analysis Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (with Iain Boal, T. J. Clark, and Michael Watts).
Evangeline Riddiford Graham is the senior managing editor of Public Seminar and host of the poetry Multi-Verse.