Review: Discordia

Discordia, by Laurie Penny and Molly Crabapple, Vintage 2012.

With Greece collapsing in agonisingly slow motion over the past few years, it was inevitable that a slew of books would come along to chronicle the demise of the birthplace of democracy. Discordia, a collaboration between the English journalist Laurie Penny and the American illustrator Molly Crabapple, manages to avoid the usual journalistic cliches of Greek tragedy and Trojan horses, bringing us right into contemporary Athens with a lavishly illustrated gonzo snapshot of the crisis on the ground.

This summer, the two visited Athens for a week, encountering activists, anarchists, journalists, immigrants, fascists, and a host of others. Discordia records that trip in a pacey hundred pages (or rather e-pages, the book is only available in digital format), with Penny’s prose descriptions interspersed with Crabapple’s gorgeous neo-Victorian illustrations. Each picture is accompanied with a line from Athens’ graffiti, by turns poignant and defiant.

The Greece that emerges in Discordia is, unsurprisingly, a complex, and complicated one. The stories of violence against immigrants from the fascist Golden Dawn party are truly chilling, a reminder that economic insecurity brings some truly ugly social consequences with it. The news reported by Penny that up to 50% of Athenian police may have voted for the Holocaust-denying thugs in this year’s elections is disturbing in the extreme.

Other vignettes are less violent but equally confronting. At one point, Penny has her anti-anxiety medication stolen, bringing us face to face with the ballooning mental health problems of the bankrupt country. Black market anti-anxiety medication, we are told, is more expensive than illegal drugs like ecstasy.

As committed Leftists, Penny and Crabapple take a good, hard look at the Greek left. The aganaktismenoi “indignants” movement of 2011 appears to have largely dissipated by the time the authors arrived in Athens in summer 2012, broken apart by force by the police. Though the socialist party SYRIZA came within a hair’s breadth of winning the second election this year, the portrait of the Greek left is a demoralised one, unable to effect meaningful change and struggling in the fight against the Golden Dawn menace and indeed simply everyday survival. Penny pulls no punches in describing the malaise of political journalism, the depth of collaboration with the powers that be that have left the profession without much respect from anyone, anywhere.

Some of the strongest bits of the book are when Penny and Crabapple take the lens off the Greeks and get caught up talking about their own working processes as artist and journalist, reflecting on what it means to be a young woman trying to create art and social change in a still patriarchal world. “People don’t want women with swagger,” says Penny, but swagger these two certainly do.

If you want to learn about the political and economic roots of the Greek crisis, this is not the book for you. You certainly won’t find patient historical documentation, or nuanced political analysis. But these are not nuanced times – Greece is in deep trouble. Discordia is, by its own admission, a partial take on the problems facing the Hellenic state and its people. But its heady brew of journalistic reportage, theoretical reflection, graphic novel and travelogue hits just the right spot. Highly worth spending a week in the Athenian sun with.