Cover of The Set-Up
The Set-Up
John Vasilakakos

like taking a hallucinogen
Marion Joy Hulme, Social Alternatives
 remarkable heights of realistic economy, humour, and clarity
George Kehagioclou, Outrider

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Book Description

If things were different, today too, Saturday, 25 March, celebrating the Annunciation, Lakis would wake up at 6.30 in the morning...

But things are not different. Lakis is under surveillance. Who is the Other, a fellow patient in his doctor’s waiting room? What is the secret meaning of his impossibly long surname? What will the Boss, his interrogators, psychologists and theologians make of Lakis’ underlinings in a magazine article on the insurance of Cheryl Ladd’s breasts? How will it effect his worker’s compensation claim? Who does the misprint in that article condemn?

It is 1978. This is the Sydney that refuses to know, Australia refuses to know. Lakis is caught up in the notorious Social Security Greek Prosecutions Scandal. John Vasilakakos’ remarkable novel takes us into that nightmare. The Set-Up is a psychological thriller that questions the assumptions of the migrant experience. It is like Peter Corris re-imagined by Kafka.

The Set-Up has the potential to become to Australian literature what J’Accuse is to French or 1984 to English writing.
Philip Grundy

Cover painting Colossal Boy by John Baird
ISBN 1876044071
Published 1996
173 pgs
The Set-Up book sample

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19 sections

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Set-Up by Vasilakakos
Michael Hanrahan
Overland, No. 147, Winter 1997

Reading the first few pages of The Set-Up gave me that sinking feeling usually saved for a Monday morning. With his story of the migrant experience in Australia, Vasilakakos has taken an interesting idea and beaten it to a slow and painful death.

Lakis lives in Sydney in 1978. He has become caught up in the Social Security Greek Prosecutions Scandal, which involves people fraudulently obtaining sickness and invalid pensions. It is suspected that Lakis, who is Greek-born, is exaggerating his various ailments in order to receive one of these pensions. Sent to investigate is ‘the Other’, a man who tries to win the confidence of Lakis in an effort to expose him. He makes his first appearance at Lakis’ doctor’s surgery, and later appears in Lakis’ hospital room. ‘The Other’ wants to find answers to such questions as what is the secret meaning of Lakis’ exceptionally long surname? What is the significance of his underlinings in an article about Cheryl Ladd’s breasts? Who is condemned by the misprint in that article? Vasilakakos has hidden any points of interest beneath his character’s idle ponderances. Lakis spends many paragraphs wondering about his feet and toenails, and giving such insights as ‘this woman’s either pulling my leg or telling the truth’.

To add to his flat characters, Vasilakakos has a tiresome style of writing. The story seems to have been run over with a steam roller. It is nice and smooth throughout. Nothing to get excited about, no tension, no drama. Rather strange for a book that purports to be a ‘hand-grenade’ thriller. There is really nothing going on at all, the lifeless feeling accentuated by the unchanging sentence lengths and long paragraphs. Originally written in Greek, there is no way this level of monotony could be the result of translation. Vasilakakos also seems to have an obsession with rambling, trivial dialogue. He doesn’t always identify which character is speaking, making the conversations even more difficult to follow.

The potential exists for an intriguing tale, but Vasilakakos began in a rut and refused to move out of it for 173 pages. The Set-Up is supposedly ‘like Peter Corris re-imagined by Dostoyevsky or Kafka’. Unfortunately it was then written by Vasilakakos.

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The Set-Up
Marion Joy Hulme
Social Alternatives, Vol. 17, No. 2, April 1998

Vasilakakos’ novel is set in 1978 when suspicion and intrigue were rife in Australia. This was the time of the infamous Social Security Greek Prosecutions Scandal. The scandal saw hundreds of Greek immigrants accused of illegally receiving invalid pensions and sickness benefits. Fuelled by speculation of fraud and opportunism, the department of Social Security set about proving that Greek migrants had an organised crime syndicate bent on taking advantage of Australia’s social welfare system. The department’s ‘conspiracy theory’ was thrown out of court, millions of dollars were lost and many lives were altered forever. The Set-Up is a story about one of those lives.

Lakis Papahadjimanolakopoulos is sent on a nightmare journey through an unknown labyrinth. He is arrested on conspiracy charges while preparing to be reunited with his wife and son in Greece. Lakis wants to leave Australia, a land that had initially promised him hope, because he cannot find his place here. He feels suffocated and believes that ‘in this country you don’t live, you merely exist... I’ve been transplanted into the wrong type of soil. No matter how much I’m watered, I don’t grow’ (pg. 69). The department has no compassion or understanding for Lakis’ plight, instead he is blamed for his own problems and put through humiliating and dehumanising rituals that serve to confuse and destabilise him.

By blaming poverty on the poor, helplessness on the helpless and madness on the mad, the DSS creates for itself an inescapable, ever-expanding and interconnecting puzzle. All through the story the reader must navigate a system of messages that never clearly lead to the book’s true meaning. Reading this story is like taking a hallucinogen, things come at you from out of nowhere, you never know if what you see [read] is real, and it is difficult to centre yourself.

Lakis is incarcerated in hospital. He is told he has a brain tumour. The hospital is itself a network of passageways, doors and stairwells. His orientation is challenged, his feeling of place is clouded, Lakis is in a void, people he has seen in his doctor’s waiting room appear around him, he feels his sanity come and go and does not know who to trust. It is never clear whether his condition is madness or drug induced. Is this a ploy by the author to confuse the reader, putting him/her in the same position as the unfortunate Lakis?

This confusion is reflected through his thought processes and experiences. During his time in hospital Lakis is beset by an alarming array of contradicting situations and suspicious people. Sharing his underground room with a questionable character puts Lakis on guard. He contemplates the ‘Other’, his room mate:

Looking now at the flowers, now at the Other out of the comer of my eye, I was trying to make out what sort of a person this man was, to guess his character. ‘He’s either great at pretending or very naive,’ I thought, without believing the latter too much. Besides, he didn’t look naive. ‘He’s playing the innocent, he’s playing this part as naturally as can be. Here he is now, telling me about the shower to cover up what he’s really up to, to draw information from me surreptitiously, as if I don’t know where it’s at...’

(pg. 61)

He suspects that all is not what it seems. He does not understand what is happening to him. The more he tries to understand his situation, the more confused he becomes. Unfortunately this is the position of the reader. There is no dramatic irony here, the reader is left, like Lakis, to navigate the labyrinth alone.

The DSS sets about trying to prove his guilt through a series of interviews, but are hindered by his madness, the very condition under which he is eligible for government assistance in the first place. The benign brain tumour causing Lakis’ condition is never fully revealed by the author. Does Lakis really have a tumour? Is he under the influence of drugs? Is the department deliberately manipulating him? Is the author deliberately manipulating the reader? The confusion experienced by Lakis is reflected throughout the prose, forging a psychological and political web. The Set-Up portrays an elaborate and extravagant array of tests and misguided psychological analysis used to gather evidence. This evidence does nothing to confirm the department’s theory, because a conspiracy does not exist. Investigators grasp anything that may vaguely incriminate Lakis, including making analysis of his social habits, speech, and idle drawings on a magazine page.

Even Lakis’ name is enough to make him a suspect, with a surname like Papahadjimanolakopoulos the department ‘can imagine how many alternative surnames or variations he may use officially or unofficially every time he comes in contact with and has dealings with the Australian bureaucracy and law, [such] names make it easy for him to slither and slide away like a snake’ (pg. 25). The DSS is the dark force in this novel, using character assassination, intimidation and dehumanisation to trap the alleged frauds. However, the ‘mad’ Lakis seems the most sane person among the delirious and suspicious arbitrators of the social security system trying to prove his guilt.

We are taken through the confused states experienced by Lakis and left where we started, in Lakis’ mind. There is no plot to this story, just a puzzle of experiences and imaginings. A work of fiction, The Set Up is an eerie echo of the increasingly racist climate immigrants fear in Australia today. Immigration is being blamed, by some, for the majority of Australia’s ills; ranging from high unemployment to decay in Christian morals.

Although set in 1978, Vasilakakos’ story was actually written in 1987 and translated from the Greek (by Mary Mylonas) in 1996. Eighteen years after its actual timeframe, and nine years after its penning, Lakis Papahadjimanolakopoulos’ story could well be written according to the theories of our most infamous politicians today in 1997. The Set-Up shows what can happen when deranged ideas are left unchecked until it is too late.

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The Weekend Australian, 26-27 April 1997

The notorious Social Security conspiracy case - a hideous blot on Australia’s ethnic affairs record - saw hundreds of Greek migrants labelled as crooks, allegedly receiving sickness benefits and invalid pensions illegally. When police swooped on Sydney homes and doctors’ surgeries in 1978 they set off a legal nightmare that produced 6.5 million words of transcript and cost taxpayers millions of dollars. The courts found no conspiracy existed - but migrant lives were left shattered. With a strong nod towards Kafka, Melbourne academic John Vasilakakos revisits the conspiracy scandal and delivers a rare thing in Australian writing: the socio-political novel. Lakis is crazy (‘pissing is a pleasure as significant as eating and making love,’ he claims) and manages to obtain an invalid pension. Preparing to return to Greece and his family, he’s arrested on conspiracy charges. Stalinist Russia no, but sunny Australia is where he’s hounded to an inevitable and tragic end. ‘After fulfilling this social duty,’ observes Lakis of his own actions, ‘he would certainly rest.’ Vasilakakos’s novel turns into a deliberate puzzle, reflecting Lakis’s confusion at the hypocritical stance of his adopted land.

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The Set Up
Lisa Kerrigan
Australian Book Review, No. 190, May 1997

Michel de Certeau identifies practices taken up by those outside the institutions of power as ‘tactical processes’. These tactics arc unintentional and quotidian but still effective and, in a wonderful moment, Vasilakakos gives us Lakis Papahadjimanolakopoulos, a Greek migrant who is being investigated by a xenophobic government department.

They become lost, give up straight after Pap, surrendering and saying ‘that’s enough’ finishing off with the abbreviation etc. And this is exactly what this cunning Greek exploits; his difficult surname... [E]very time he comes in contact... with the Australian bureaucracy... [his] name makes it easy for him to slither and slide away like a snake.

And Papahadjimanolakopoulos needs any small break he can get. Without any hard evidence the department convicts him, in absentia, on the opinion of various ‘experts’ who testify to Lakis’ membership in The Set Up, a group that the department paranoiacally believe exists solely of Greek migrants rorting the system. Their ‘evidence’ consists of an analysis of several words underlined in a Greek tabloid that Lakis was ‘caught’ reading and an analysis of the articles themselves. In pre-Hanson, pre-Howard times, the assumptions that these ‘experts’ make about the character, motivation and toilet habits of the accused might have been slightly comic. Now they just seem frightening. Vasilakakos has fashioned an inventive novel using multi-layered texts to talk about the migrant experience and the ways in which he/she is often caught in the Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucratic mentality. There’s just too much going on in this novel to cover in one short review. Anyone interested in fiction, multiculturalism, or postmodern narrative techniques should buy the book and find out for themselves.

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Weekend Books
Sorry Case
The Set-Up
Patricia Drivas
Herald Sun, 22 February 1997

It was the longest-running committal hearing in the English-speaking world and cost $7.5million - but all for nothing. The 1978 ‘social security conspiracy case’ started with a series of Commonwealth Police raids on members of the Greek community in Sydney. The Greeks allegedly were illegally obtaining sickness benefits and invalid pensions, but the case eventually was closed because there was no case to answer. Now, Deakin university lecturer John Vasilakakos has created a fictional version of the case in his novel The Set-Up. Much of the novel centres on the persecution of one of the accused migrants, referred to as ‘Lakis’, and through him traces the trauma inflicted on the 1,700 Australian Greeks allegedly involved.

The Set-Up is a well-written psychological thriller that closely questions the assumption of the persecutors - and their motives.

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Author exposes trauma of ’70s conspiracy case
Michael Coulter
Moreland Sentinel, 2 December 1996

John Vasilakakos’s novel The Set-Up looks at the psychological trauma suffered by those charged over the Greek social security conspiracy case.

The Greek social security conspiracy case is one of the uncomfortable episodes in Australia’s race relations history.

Like the white Australia policy and the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, it raises questions about how tolerant we have been.

It was April 1978 when federal police raided the homes of hundreds of Greek Australians in Sydney.

Police believed up to 1,700 Greeks were involved in a conspiracy to defraud the social security system through invalid pensions j and sickness benefits.

Nearly 200 people were charged but only five people were convicted, and these were for minor offences.

Media reports from the period indicate the case cost $7.5 million and became the longest committal hearing in the English-speaking world, with an estimated 6.5 million words entered in transcript.

Author and academic John Vasilakakos extensively studied the incident and reached this conclusion:

‘All this proved one thing - the whole thing was initiated by a bias against migrants.’

The case provided the raw material for Mr Vasilikakos’s novel The Set-Up, the first English translation of which was launched in Brunswick last week.

Mr Vasilakakos, who lived in Brunswick for nearly 20 years, said the novel was a fictionalised account of the psychological trauma suffered by those charged over the conspiracy.

‘Eventually one person committed suicide because he couldn’t take the insult and the degradation to his name,’ he said.

‘What my novel is trying to expose is the psychological trauma that the migrant faces.’

Mr Vasilakakos has published nine books, including plays and volumes of criticism in Greek and English.

He said The Set-Up attracted attention when it was first published in Greek seven years ago.

He believes this English translation could have a similar impact, particularly in light of the Pauline Hanson-inspired resurgence in the race debate.

‘The important thing I want to stress is my hook hopes to prove one thing: all these extremists who are around now can never lead to a harmonious society, they can only lead to destruction and social upheaval.

‘We’ll never be able to have a homogenous society. The whole world is heading towards multi-culturalism, not just Australia, and it’s stupid to try and stop migration. All those people who think they can live in a vacuum - it’s just absurd.’

Mr Vasilakakos has seen Australia become a more tolerant society since his arrival but said racism was a deeply ingrained part of the human psyche.

‘I came to Australia in 1965 and things have definitely changed since then, especially since the time of the Whitlam Government, which did a lot to create a multi-cultural society.

‘Australian society is more tolerant than it was, but racism has not been wiped out and a large percentage of the population is still against migration.

‘It’s a deep-rooted evil, not only in Australia but all around the world. I think it’s quite natural, especially in these days when we are going through tough financial times.

‘Once a person is unemployed, he tries to blame others for his bad state of affairs, and often he blames migrants, both for his own personal affairs and for the nation’s affairs.

‘On the one hand that’s not born out by evidence, which suggests that more migrants actually means more jobs, because there’s more people to feed, more services required.

‘On the other hand I can understand it. I think all people are more or less racist but there are degrees of racism. Even I in some ways can be racist.

‘I think inside all of us there is somebody who doesn’t like some group or country but the difference is some people are more racist than others. It won’t be phased out easily but I believe if we try we can make progress. I think Australia is already one of the most cohesive societies in the world.’

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A Roman A Clef Greek-Australian Fiction
A Year of Australian Writing
[Review of the Greek language version of The Set-Up]
George Kehagioclou (academic, Greece)
Outrider, 1990

The Set-Up [This novel was first published in Greek as To Kolpo (which literally means ‘The Trick’) by Elikia Books, Melbourne, 1987. This publication was a literary event as it attracted unusual publicity from the mass media of Australia and Greece. To complete the writing of this novel, the author received a General Writing Grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council in 1984. The English translation of this novel will be published in Australia in 1990.], a novel, is John Vasilakakos’ seventh work of fiction, since 1973, and number four among his recent literary output which has migration aspects as its thematic core. [John Vasilakakos’ other works to date are: Adumbrations of the World (short stories, Petranis Press, Melbourne, 1973), The Shipwreck of the S.O.S. (novel, Serios, Athens, 1974), The Identity (play, Gutenberg, Athens, 1982), According to St. John (novel, Gutenberg, Athens, 1985), Psychology of a Greek Migrant (prose, Gutenberg, Athens, 1985), Profile of Tyranny (prose, published in the same volume of the English translation of The Shipwreck of the S.O.S. by Dezsery Publications, Adelaide, 1985), Attention: Fragile! (play, staged in Melbourne in 1985, unpublished). As well as the above works, John Vasilakakos has also published a collection of essays entitled Studies in Modern Greek Literature (criticism, Gutenberg, Athens, 1980) and numerous articles on literary, translating and cultural issues in Australia, America and Greece.] It is not by accident that John Vasilakakos, a noted and prolific writer of the Greek-speaking world, living in Australia for some time now (and established as a writer mainly after his first play The Identity, first staged in Melbourne in 1980 and published in Athens in 1982 by ‘Gutenberg’, became a theatrical and publishing success and was acclaimed by critics as ‘a classical work of migrant literature’), [Of the numerous reviews published on The Identity, the most important are those of Con Castan, AUMLA, No. 59, 1983, pgs 16-18 and Australasian Drama Studies, No. 10, 1987, C. Yiamiadakis, Antipodes, Vol. 9, No. 14, 1982, pgs 27-28, P. Bien, Manual to The Identity, Melbourne, 1988, Tachydromos, Athens, 22 October 1981, The Greek Times, Melbourne, 30 April 1981, and S. Walls, The Weekend Australian, 18 December 1982.] deals with issues arising out of the migration experience.

His latest novel, The Set-Up is the most recent and greatest achievement of this fruitful and remarkable literary career. [When an excerpt of The Set-Up was included in the bilingual (English-Greek) edition of Reflections - Selected Works from Greek-Australian Literature, Elikia Books, Melbourne, 1988, it was highly acclaimed in The Herald (‘Exiles in Residence’, by K. Kizilos, 22 July 1988), The Sydney Morning Herald (‘A Sunbaked Heritage’, by D. Johnson, 3 September 1988) and other newspapers and periodicals. (See also B. Farmer’s review ‘The ABA of Greek Literature’ in The Age, 8 October 1988).]

The story of The Set-Up revolves around the life and adventures of Lakis, a Greek migrant in Australia, who is the protagonist of the story, and has been inspired by an earlier, actual event in Australia, the well-known ‘Social Security Conspiracy Case’ or ‘The Greek Prosecutions Scandal’. [See The Age, 19, 20 and 21 July 1982.] After great hardships, Lakis, who has lived alone for the last four years and has become a nervous wreck, succeeds in obtaining an invalid pension. His psychiatrist advises him to return to Greece and be reunited with his family, which has left Australia and is now awaiting him. With the approval of his invalid pension, Lakis prepares to return to his home country. But before he can leave, he is arrested in his psychiatrist’s rooms on conspiracy charges. He is accused of being a member of the ‘Kolpo’, an allegedly Mafia-style gang which, using unorthodox means (bribes, false certificates and fraud) attempts to cheat financially the Australian Department of Social Security. This is the first ‘Kolpo’, that of the supposed defrauders. The Government, believing it can dismantle the network of the ‘Kolpo’ and save millions of dollars in pensions and allowances, unleashes a relentless prosecution against the Greeks it considers under suspicion by implementing at the same time a ‘Kolpo’ of its own, in order to fight that of the opponent. It assigns to a Greek agent the role of pretending to be in the same plight with Lakis, in order to pump Lakis during the time they are held in the same psychiatric ward and are watched through electronic devices. Eventually despite all the devices the mighty government machinery employs, it fails to locate the evidence it seeks and is forced to fabricate it. Lakis is questioned mercilessly and put in a psychiatric hospital where he is subjected to the trial of a relentless war of nerves. Finally he escapes. Realizing, however, that all links are broken and that the return to his homeland is no longer possible, he chooses to commit suicide by inhaling insecticide, as a protest and as the only way of escaping from his hell.

The novel is complex, ambitious and demanding on the reader. The non-linear structure of narration demands that the reader exert some effort if he is to follow the development of the events of the plot. Right up to the end the writer deliberately insists on employing puzzling but well-aimed allusions in relation to the outcome of the plot. Thus, although the final paragraph of the novel does not leave any doubts as to the final exit of the protagonist, the questions about his innocence or guilt, his mental state etc., continue till the end to puzzle the reader. An example (pg. 144):

But perhaps I should get on with it. The truth - the bare truth - was that I did not simply feel guilty. I was guilty. Lately I was becoming more and more convinced of my guilt. I may not have lied, of course. But I had not told the whole truth either. I had left out a small detail, not out of fear, but because I had thought it irrelevant, insignificant. It was a plan of action, purely personal, I had made for that day, somewhat uncertain. An intention only. After posting my mail - which I would surely do if the prophecy of the Fool that had turned up did not come true - I thought I might show up for our now regular meeting of the 7. Last time everything had turned out wrong. I had left in great agitation. There I was, at the last moment, everything ready to go, and I missed my train. It was too much! And as if it were not enough that the Fool’s prophecy had not come true until that moment, I also wanted to make sure, on top of everything. So, then, more out of an obsessive curiosity than superstition, I thought I might try my luck again at the meeting of the 7. Oh yes, I forgot to say that all 7 of us were fellow sufferers. Nervous disorders, psychological problems and the like. The truly ‘philhellene’ doctor had unreservedly recommended to us this kind of group therapy. To get together. To busy ourselves with something interesting. To talk, to discuss freely amongst ourselves whatever was troubling us. So we often followed the doctor’s advice. We got together and dealt the tarot cards. We killed time, we enjoyed ourselves, we tried our luck. That’s right. About the meeting of the 7 I had not breathed a word at the Police Station. Besides I did not know that even intentions count as facts in a statement to the Police, that they might be interpreted as incriminating evidence. The lucky thing now was that, at last, I knew my guilt. Or at least, I suspected it.

The prose of the writer, innovative, exploring psychological states, reveals a complex and mature talent, attempting to deal with problems of technique and presentation of theme. And this is an aspect not to be dismissed lightly, when we take into consideration the fact that a great deal of the dominant realistic prose in Greek literature today does not seem to be concerned so much with such issues. Besides, the theme and its treatment in The Set-Up is free of the outdated and trite motifs of ‘the foreigner in the cursed foreign land’ which have traditionally characterized and may still characterize the works of the majority of Greek writers of the diaspora.

In this case the writer’s interest focuses on a realistic and convincing character and his personal problems - that are collective and social problems too. However, it should be stressed that the writer is not simply satisfied to utilize the current material - of a theme which was a social and political phenomenon of general interest - but endeavours to render this initially ‘journalistic’ material into life-like material through the fleshing out of true, vivid, fully rounded characters.

Such a successfully created, fully rounded character is, of course, the protagonist. The characters of the ‘agent’ and the ‘interrogator’ could also have been such ‘fully rounded’ ones if the writer were not in a hurry to describe them in their essential, psychological dimension, in only a few pages. Also, a greater development of the words or actions of other secondary characters (who are few, in any case) perhaps would have enriched the human ‘population’ of the ‘fully rounded’ characters of the novel. Nevertheless the fact is that the protagonist is already an achievement of narrative technique which owes much to the ‘breaking up’ of it, achieved by having alternating narrators and points of view in the narration (in the novel there are three narrators - an impersonal one, the protagonist and the agent - so that the point of view of the narration changes with the result that the narration attains a multidimensional character).

As well as this, the careful technique of the narrative structure, the dexterous exploitation of language and of the various figures of speech, the polysemic and numerous allusions and use of symbolism, the metaphoric language, the realistic detail and generally the word play constitute basic and positive characteristics of the novel. The rhythms of the language here are clear and direct and are tied organically with the exploration of the protagonist’s psychological world. These devices are not striving for effect, but play a functional role by constituting an inseparable part of the whole theme and by reinforcing, depending on the case, the whole strategy of the plot and what we might call ‘pervading atmosphere’.

The writing in the novel often reaches remarkable heights of realistic economy, humour, and clarity which can be seen, for example, in the description of the protagonist’s christening ceremony:

Air! He’s drowning! The servant of God Nikolaos... is baptized... He’s suffocating. In the name of the Father... The two hairy arms, like cables, plunge him to the bottom, bubbles escape from his mouth and nostrils, he’s going, suffocating, drowning... Around him laughter... the little brat... at last the surface, a breath, come on my darling... My lamb, he’s cold... just look at him, and of the Son... oil, snort, tears, water all suffocate him but the two cables plunging him into the water again relentlessly, mercilessly persist in annihilating him, irrespective of the fact that he’s screeching and writhing, and of the Holy Spirit... come on now, enough ... Congratulations! to the newly baptized... my baby... come, come to your godfather my little heart... the birdie, the birdie, there! the little brat, such stubbornness! Congratulations! Congratulations Godfather!... Well done, many more of the same... Amen. Air!...

The sharpness of images shows life-experience and a keen ability to observe, and make the text convincing:

When I arrived at my Doctor’s room I let the receptionist know, of course, that I was there. Then, although there was no one else in the waiting room, I sat at the empty seat in the corner. I always preferred corners. I felt greater security there just like a dog won’t piss unless there’s a wall there. Next to me was the wall. On it was a decorative wall plate depicting some ancient columns - they looked a bit like those of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus. The Doctor was a philhellene. Next to me was a wastepaper basket. In front of me the little table with the magazines. The columns were leaning. Leaning at a greater angle than the Tower of Pisa. A dull stain shaded the horizon. A cloud. It might be a cloud or smog. Or dirt due to the age of the place. It might be an antique, from the times of King Otto, or even from Monastiraki, who knows...

An interesting characteristic of John Vasilakakos’ writing, also testimony of his formal literary knowledge, is the well-used inclusion of other texts into his own, whose function it is to promote or support the action. Such passages, for example, are the incriminating text ‘Figure - Goldmine’, which becomes the starting point of a painstaking and interesting narrative and historical-social analysis by the ‘hellenist’ interrogators, as well as ‘The Prime Minister’s Message to the Greeks of the Diaspora’, ‘Coach States’, ‘Miraculous Tickling Directions’, ‘How Power Changes the Individual’, ‘Spring’, and ‘Arachne and the Goddess Athena’.

The evocation of a psychological atmosphere shows, also, a writer working creatively in the tradition of Samarakis and other significant post-war Greek prose writers.

Apart from some sections of the novel which are a bit heavy-going (such as pgs 21-33, the ‘Kafkaesque’ prolongation of atmosphere on pgs 47-50 and the words of the interrogators, pgs 87-89), the rest of the text is extremely well-handled, with climaxes pgs 101-105, where the writer proves himself a master of internal monologue as well as the dialogue form through the use of the device of the dream. In a second reprint of the Greek edition of the novel, some printing and spelling errors, which detract from the book, should be corrected. Here, however, one should take into account the fact that the Greek edition of this novel was published in a non-Greek-speaking country. Generally, ‘Elikia Books’, a significant Greek-Australian publishing house which has recently given us other interesting publications, amongst which the valuable anthology Reflections - Selected Works from Greek-Australian Literature (1988) stands out, was fortunate to be able to publish this work by John Vasilakakos. From the point of view of quality his novel is of a level exceptionally high compared to works by other Greek writers of the diaspora, who naturally live relatively cut off from the linguistic centre of their homeland and its literary developments. Nor does it lack anything significant when compared to many recent works of the literary output of Greece itself. John Vasilikakos’ novel is undoubtedly an unusually mature and complex work by a writer still young, who, we believe, may still have to offer great things to our literature.

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Neos Kosmos Article

John Vasilakakos’ The Set-Up

Philip Grundy (publisher and critic, deceased)
Neos Kosmos (forthcoming) 2008

A few years ago I was invited to Sydney to take part in a function in connection with a week of cultural activities in that city. I shared the platform with two other men – Gun Gencer, a distinguished playwright of Turkish origin, and the Greek-Australian John Vasilakakos, author of The Set-Up. That is the sort of mixture of people that is now accepted as normal in Australia, particularly in cultural circles. But it was not always so.

To understand the background to The Set-Up, it is necessary to know a little of Australia’s cultural and ethnic history. Most people are aware that the modern nation began as a colonial settlement to accommodate the overflow from Britain’s gaols in that part of the 18th century when petty crime was the inevitable response to desperate poverty and savage punishment the means adopted by authority to deal with it. The interests of the native inhabitants of Australia, the Aborigines, were disregarded for the next two hundred years.

The eventual success of the fledgling colony later attracted fresh arrivals from Britain who had come to increase their chances of prosperity – the so-called ‘free settlers.’ They, like the convicts and their gaolers, were a mixed bag. They came from all parts of the British Isles and spoke not only English but also Scots Gaelic, Irish, Welsh and Cornish and they were equally diverse in religion and customs. Tolerance was not a highly valued virtue in those days. The colony grew in an atmosphere of mutual distrust, division and even hatred. Later, the differences polarised: the well-to-do, Protestant Scottish and English establishment on the one hand and the working-class, poorly educated Irish Catholic on the other. Although by the 1950s that polarisation was diminishing, prejudice and distrust were still embedded in society and nowhere more so than in the bureaucracy and its agencies. Entry to such bodies as the police force or a number of government departments had become the means by which the Irish Catholic population had begun to escape from its inferior status and to rise in the social hierarchy. But they did not, on the whole, leave behind them the bitterness of former exclusion, nor the prejudices and resentments passed on to them by their parents and an education system that was separate from that of all other Australians and based on religious and ethnic distinctiveness.

Into this imperfectly assimilated society, thousands of new migrants arrived in the 1950s and 1960s to help in the government’s aim of converting postwar Australia into an industrialised nation. At first the migrants were entirely from Europe and the Middle East, and predominantly British or Irish. Only later did the immigration policies change to allow the entry of people from Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The history of how a narrow and historically prejudiced society, divided in itself, learned to cope with this massive influx of ‘foreigners’ is fascinating, but not capable of being summarised satisfactorily here. Suffice it to say that eventually there emerged an official and largely accepted policy of ‘multiculturalism’ which has proven remarkably successful. (The Australian word ‘multiculturalism’ emphatically does not mean what it means in the USA or is coming to mean in Europe). But in 1978 the policy was still in its infancy. There were still plenty of ill-educated Australians who viewed all newcomers with deep suspicion and saw them as a threat to what they supposed to be ‘the Australian way of life.’ Above all, the people of Irish-Catholic background, who dominated working-class institutions such as the Australian Labor Party and who were over-represented in the police forces and lower echelons of the public service, transferred their suspicion of ‘otherness’ from the established social order to the new immigrants. In the depression years, it was not unknown for the ‘bosses’ to bring in unwitting migrants to break strikes. Bitter memories of that kind inevitably led many working-class Australians to suspect the new influx of migrants as a plot by the employers to rob the Australian working man of his right to a job.

So much for the social mise-en-scene. To summarise the more concrete historical situation that obtained in 1978, it should be noted that a conservative government, which was becoming increasingly unpopular under a prime minister who was widely perceived to be out of touch with the bulk of the electorate, was facing an election. The government had taken a position of cutting expenditure, especially on welfare which it regarded as a wild extravagance on the part of its predecessors, intended to buy votes by handing out public money to the undeserving. This was never a theme that went down well with the Australian public, and government propagandists were always compelled to bolster their arguments by pointing to examples of the abuse of government welfare programs. For example, people were alleged to be collecting unemployment benefits or disability pensions when they were perfectly well and capable of work. Idlers and fakes were ‘ripping off’ the welfare contributed by honest taxpayers.

It was unquestionably true that some people were abusing the system. It is always true in any country in the world, for no system can be so perfectly designed as to be immune to the ingenuity of those who would pervert it for their own profit. But in 1978, the government felt obliged to turn the searchlight on such cases in order to prove how vigilant they were and how justified in reducing the extent of welfare generally.

This political imperative happened to coincide with another. The national police force of Australia was being subjected to reform and reconstruction and its members were fearful of their future. They desperately needed some way to prove that they were efficient watchdogs of the public interest – and it so happened that the abuse of social welfare was one area that fell within their responsibility, rather than that of the State police forces.

What happened next was complex and in many particulars still unclear. The results, however, are undoubted. These two political urges combined, took advantage of the latent xenophobia of the Australian working classes, and found themselves, a cause célèbre. It was alleged that as many as a thousand Greek-Australian workers were receiving disability pay from the government although they were perfectly fit. Worse still, many of them had retired to Greece with disability pensions that allowed them to live there ‘like kings.’ This had all been made possible by a group of dishonest doctors in Sydney, most of them of Greek origin, who could be paid to supply false certificates of disability. The complicity of doctors and fake patients was known in Greek, it was said, as ‘To Kolpo.’

Years later it turned out that the whole matter of ‘To Kolpo’ was fictitious. It had been invented by a Greek with a criminal record, who was mentally unbalanced, and who offered to ‘tell all’ to the police if they would give him a reward big enough to allow him to return to Greece and live in comfort for the rest of his life. (In fact he achieved this aim and does now live very well in Greece). He presented this ingenious invention to a detective inspector of the Commonwealth Police, who saw the prospects of personal glory and the salvation of his threatened police force, to say nothing of providing the government with an electoral advantage which could do his career no harm.

One morning, at dawn hundreds of Greek-Australian homes in Sydney were entered by force; the accused doctors were arrested and their record of patients taken away. The media had a field day with what quickly became known as the ‘Greek Conspiracy,’ and the police officer promised that they had found the names of a thousand offenders among the files of the Department of Social Security (DSS), and that all these people would be arrested and brought to trial.

In the event, the number arrested was only 180 – the police and court system could not cope with more – and the names proved to have been discovered by the simple process of telling the clerks in DSS to extract any files they could find with what looked like Greek names.

From this point on, the whole matter quickly descended into farce as far as the Australian public was concerned. The government and the police had miscalculated. Australian xenophobia was not so ingrained as to condone what many saw as fascist activities by the police against innocent citizens, nor did most people believe that a conspiracy to defraud the welfare system could have involved more than a handful of people. The check for ‘Greek’ names revealed gross ignorance: many of the names picked proved not to be Greek at all and the searchers totally failed to find the files of Greek-Australians who had anglicised their surnames! But the police would not let go. Ultimately, the case in the magistrates’ court dragged on for eight years and was estimated to have cost the Australian taxpayer over $100 million – the most costly prosecution in the history of the English-speaking world. At the end of it all, the police and their accomplices were exposed, all the accused were acquitted, apart from a handful who were fined small amounts for minor offences, and the Australian taxpayer had to find another $10 million in compensation payments to those who had been falsely accused. There had indeed been a Greek Conspiracy – it was a conspiracy against the Greeks!

The whole sordid affair eventually faded from the headlines, but terrible harm had been done to a great many innocent people, whose only crime was to have suffered an incapacitating injury and to have a Greek name. Several of the victims committed suicide. Others were mentally scarred for life. Numerous families had to move to other cities – mainly because their fellow Greek-Australian citizens refused to believe they were innocent and shunned or insulted them as people who had brought shame on the Greek name.

Most Australians are still aware of these shameful events, so they do not have to be explained to Australian readers of John Vasilakakos’s book. They are an important part of the background, but the novel is not a roman à clef, or a piece of ‘faction’ like, say, Schindler’s Ark. What Vasilakakos does is to assume the knowledge of that background and then write a novel which explores the mentality of the people involved.

It would be unfair to potential readers of the book to reveal too much about the plot, but a brief summary of its scope and nature may encourage people to read it for themselves. He main character is one of the men accused of complicity in ‘To Kolpo,’ and much of the book explores the inner workings of his mind, as the author adopts his persona. But this is interwoven with the thoughts of the chief investigator and of other characters in the plot, together with the presentation of ‘dossiers’ and the lengthy explanation by the ‘Boss’ of exactly why these investigations must be pursued.

The result is a powerful and compelling book. Vasilakakos is expert at changing his ‘voices’ so that the reader feels himself inside the mind of the various characters. Not only is the psychology of each persona revealed, but their political and social assumptions, their prejudices and their fears. At times the writing is Kafka-esque in its nightmarish quality, for instance as the accused wanders lost and bewildered around the endless corridors of a mental institution where nobody wants to know him and where most of the rooms seem to be deserted. At other times, I was reminded of the internal dialogues that characterise Samarakis’s To Lathos, with their obsessive determination to find guilt and punish it. And at times, too, the author strikes a note of humour that serves only to throw into stark relief the horror of the victim’s helplessness before an enemy who is both relentless and inscrutable. The inscrutability derives from the fact that there is no reason why this particular victim should have been chosen – although he begins to wonder whether he has in fact committed some offence, for how else can he reconcile what he is suffering with reality? – and the relentlessness from the fact that the System demands victims. In the end, we know that all the characters are, whether or not they realise it more than dimly, equally victims of the System and of the forces of prejudice and self-interest that drive it.

But Vasilakakos is not the disciple of either Kafka or Samarakis. He is his own man. Much of the non-English writing in Australia since the war has been of the genre known as ‘the migrant experience.’ It consists of personal accounts, sometimes fictionalised, of the heartbreak of leaving the home country and settling in an alien land and culture. A huge amount of this has been produced by the Greek-Australian writers, drawing on the long tradition of threnody over «μαύρη ξενητειά»; but Vasilakakos does not fall into that trap. Although his background combines the concrete events of ‘To Kolpo’ with the experience of alienation and exclusion in a specific foreign country, this is a book of universal significance. It is not anti-Australian, nor is it yet another complaint about exile; rather it takes the reality of historical events, selects a typical set of characters and weaves from them a complex psycho-social drama which speaks volumes about the relationship between the individual and society.

This could have been very heavy going, but it is a tribute to the author’s skill that it keeps the reader glued to the pages. There is no turgid theorising, no lecturing by the author about the events that form the core of the story. Instead he lets the voices of the characters carry the story. The events are described as they see them, and in the telling their own psyches are revealed. The tale is sometimes humorous, often painful, always perceptive and written with the artistry of an author who has obviously thought about his characters and his plot in great depth before venturing on the writing.

Australia today is a very different place from what it was in the 1970s. The growth of religious ecumenism in earlier decades undermined the old prejudices and was followed by what might be described as social or ethnic ecumenism. Migrants and the children of migrants from a huge variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds have come to take their right place at all levels of society, and it no longer evokes comment if, say, the violinist at a concert is an Australian with obviously Asian features or the medical specialist we consult proves to have an Arabic name. But the one awkward piece in the cultural mosaic remains that of literature.

The reason is simply one of language. While English is of course the essential language of Australia, there are always likely to be people of a non-English speaking background who find they can best write creatively in some other language. Naturally, that limits their audience and hence the effectiveness of what they have to say. This applies, too, to the work of John Vasilakakos. Now that The Set-Up has been translated into English and is accessible to all Australians, I have every hope that this book will take its place among the classics of Australian literature as a work which does what all great literature does for the human race: it sounds the depths of our inner being and reveals it, as in a mirror, for us to see our own true selves and what we have made of our society.

Philip Grundy was a well known philhellene, publisher, translator and critic. Before he died in August 2007, he completed the English translation of John Vasilakakos’ collection of short stories In Chloe’s secret parts and other portents and monsters, published in Greece by ‘Logosofia,’ Athens 2007.

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