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From Hercules to Hemingway, Greece's debt tragedy gets scholarly – and silly

A statue of a dying Achilles at the Achilleon  on the Greek island of Corfu. The Homeric hero is but one of the numerous mythological figures evoked to describe Greece's present woes.
A statue of a dying Achilles at the Achilleon on the Greek island of Corfu. The Homeric hero is but one of the numerous mythological figures evoked to describe Greece's present woes. Wikimedia creative commons

For the past six years, the temptation to evoke Classical myth when discussing Greece’s debt tragedy has proved almost irresistible – often resulting in parables as unimaginative as the remedies offered to the country’s woes.


It is a well-known fact that Greece’s left-wing government faces a daunting array of Herculean labours to slay the Nemean lion of debt, clean up the Augean stables of corruption, and tame the three-headed Cerberus of the eurozone, IMF and European Central Bank – its tutor-creditors. Except Greece’s battered economy is hardly Herculean material these days. It’s more like Achilles with only the heel left. Or was it the sword of Damocles hanging over Europe?

None of this will amuse Greek people bruised and wearied by six years of depression, plummeting incomes and spiralling unemployment. Indeed, there is nothing inspiring – let alone amusing – in the way Europe is dealing (or not dealing) with the gravest crisis since the birth of the single currency.

"Shock therapy" and "fiscal waterboarding" are but two of the expressions used to describe the treatment Greece has been put through since the start of the crisis. In return for two bailouts worth €240 billion, successive Greek governments have been forced to impose savage spending cuts and tax rises that, critics say, effectively killed off any chance of economic recovery. Only 10% of the bailout money made it into public spending, with the rest going to debt repayment.

What little money the country makes is used to service the interest on its debt, which has actually grown larger as a percentage of GDP (it's now 180%) because of the shrinking economy. Industrial output has fallen by a third and millions have been pushed into poverty, with little or no prospect of living standards returning to pre-crisis levels in the near future. The country now desperately needs a new deal to unlock aid before the end of the month and avoid defaulting on its debts. But its creditors won’t release the money until Greece agrees to another dose of “shock therapy”.

Sisyphean trap

The Syriza government led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has delved into mythology to find the most appropriate description of the country’s predicament. In a March op-ed in the Financial Times, Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and the Deputy Prime Minister Yannis Dragasakis appealed for help to escape the “Sisyphean trap” that is “condemning an entire generation to a future without hope”.

Debt relief and Germany's economic miracle

In the Greek myth, Sisyphus was compelled by the gods as a punishment for his deceitfulness to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a hill only to see it roll back down and start again. The parallel with Greece is all too obvious, except this time the boulder is getting bigger by the day while Greece’s modern-day Sisyphus is visibly weakening.

As in the myth, there is no shortage of deceit behind Greece’s seemingly endless debt crisis. The whole saga began with past Greek governments fudging public accounts to deceive their EU partners and meet the requirements of eurozone membership. The Greek people were also deceived by the promise of prosperity within the single currency block, when in fact membership has ruined their economy and deprived the country of the monetary tools to devalue its way out of crisis.

Ultimately, the eurozone is deceiving itself, says the BBC’s Robert Peston. Pointing out that an economy as weak as Greece's cannot possibly pay its debts back, Peston writes: "The only rational conversation for Greece's creditors to have with Greece is the one they refuse to have - which is on the scale of a write-off necessary to take the country off an inevitable road to dangerous penury."

Cassandras ignored

Most economists have been saying this for months, indeed years. But for some reason Greece's creditors have been deaf to the many Cassandras who warned from the start that the eurozone's weakest economy would never be able to pay up.

Nowadays, the term "Cassandra" evokes doomsayers and conspiracy theorists. But the original Cassandra was spot-on with her predictions. Her problem was a curse imposed by the spurned god Apollo that ensured nobody believed her – not even her fellow Trojans when she warned against hauling in a giant wooden horse left behind by the invading Greeks as a "gift". Incidentally, “Trojan horses” is how German officials like to describe the various reform proposals put forward by Syriza and swiftly knocked back by Berlin on the grounds that they are deceitful plans designed to let Athens dodge austerity measures.

Leaked minutes of high-level IMF meetings in 2010 have shown that critics of the bailout deal imposed on Greece were also spot-on with their warnings against doling out such harsh treatment on an ailing patient. Latin American delegates in particular were alarmed at what they regarded as a possible repetition of egregious mistakes made in dealing with recent crises in their countries.

“It is very likely that Greece might end up worse off after implementing this program,” said Argentina’s Pablo Andrés Pereira, mindful of the disastrous impact of past “rescue packages” imposed on his country. His Brazilian counterpart, Paulo Nogueira Batista, warned that the bailout deal “may be seen not as a rescue of Greece, which will have to undergo a wrenching adjustment, but as a bailout of Greece’s private debt holders, mainly European financial institutions”. Both said debt restructuring should have been on the table, a view echoed by the Swiss, Egyptian, Iranian and Russian representatives.

Enter Kafka

The absurdity of Greece’s debt crisis has led some to seek parallels with twentieth century literature – seemingly more accustomed to such situations than the Classics. In a hard-hitting article published by French daily Le Monde last week, Greece’s prime minister slammed the creditors’ “absurd demands” and warned of dire consequences for all if Europe continues to ignore Greece’s pleas. “If some (…) think or want to believe that this decision concerns only Greece, they are making a grave mistake,” Tsipras wrote. “I would suggest that they re-read Hemingway’s masterpiece, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’."

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Since Hemingway’s novel is a bleak account of the Spanish civil war, the prelude to Europe’s darkest hour – i.e., World War II –, we can only hope that the Greek leader was not possessed of Cassandran powers of prophesy when he uttered those words.

Commentators have also sought parallels with authors from the past century. In its regular “Charlemagne” column, The Economist recently suggested Kafka as a guide to the Greek drama. “For the Greeks, the impenetrable ‘institutions’ they have encountered, seemingly impervious to reason and answering only to their own mysterious laws, resemble the bureaucracy that breaks the spirit of Josef K in ‘The Trial’,” said the British weekly, which can hardly be suspected of leftist sympathies.

The column in turn likened the creditors’ difficulty in adapting to a Syriza government after years of pliant administrations to the shock experienced by the family of Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”: "One day they wake up to find their hard-working son inexplicably transformed into a hideous insect, whose attempts at communication reach their ears as incomprehensible screeches and squeals". Just as Samsa’s family finds it cannot coexist with its monstrous son, eurozone leaders may soon decide to get rid of their turbulent junior partner. In fact, whether one opts for Hemingway or Kafka, one thing is certain: the story does not end well.

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