The Greeks have a word for it...

August 4, 2006

..but the locals may think it's your poor grasp of language, says Joanna Bourke, who reveals how she plans to spend the long, hot summer months

Summer starts the moment I see olive and fig trees planted in an earth bleached by the sun. It is always good to be away from London and its relentless demands. I have been coming to Greece every summer for more than a decade yet still struggle to be understood in Greek.

The enforced silence is a relief. This is my time for writing.

Each year, I begin summer slumped over a large paper-strewn table in the kitchen of our flat on the Acropolis hill. In reclusion, I devote all my energies to writing my new book - a history of rapists over the past 150 years.

In front of my balcony, the Parthenon rises gracefully, but my thoughts are elsewhere. Has the behaviour of sexually violent individuals changed over time? How have philosophers, psychologists and jurists conceptualised their abuses? Can we forge a world of sexual desire outside of structures of domination? The juxtaposition of the beauty of the landscape and the brutality of my research topic can be jarring.

After a few weeks, I leave Athens for a whitewashed Greek house in a tiny village on the island of Paros. There, reclusion requires struggle. Friends drop in, reporting on which local taverna has the freshest fish and the coolest beer. Close by is Bar Resalto, perched at the edge of an ancient boatyard and famous for its dazzling views, cocktails and dance-inspiring music. In the afternoons, if I manage to resist temptation, I lug my computer to my favourite taverna and order a bittersweet coffee. I can write there, undisturbed while the locals have their siesta and a cool breeze sweeps in from the sea.

Two or three times a week one of the locals will pass by and, to test if my Greek has improved, ask me what I am writing. In excessively formal Greek, I will tell them I am writing about rapists (biastez). They will shrug and smile politely, thinking I have must have made a mistake in pronunciation.

My routine is the same every year. By the summer of 2007, however, the book on rapists will be in the shops. When I am asked what I am writing, perhaps I will be cowardly and use a simpler Greek word: this year, I am writing a history of agapi, I might say - a history of love.

Joanna Bourke is professor of history, Birkbeck, University of London. Her book Fear: A Cultural History of the Twentieth Century was published this year.

Next week: Deian Hopkin

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