George Psychoundakis – The Cretan Runner’s obituary from The Times

A second obituary of George who as a fit young man risked life and limb running messages for the Cretan resistance and then for the SOE operatives in Crete. Paddy helped to get George out of gaol (when he was mistakenly detained by the Greeks as a deserter) and then translated The Cretan runner into English.

Cretan partisan who wrote an unvarnished account of the wartime occupation

First published in The Times February 23, 2006

AS a runner for the Resistance in Crete during the German occupation, George Psychoundakis carried messages over vast distances across one of the most mountainous regions in Europe. It was a life of constant risk — runners captured by the Germans were often tortured and shot. Wearing worn-out boots and with a minimum of rations, Psychoundakis would cover up to 50 miles in only a few days. The threat from collaborators meant that he often had to avoid villages, thus depriving himself of comforts that would have eased the rigours of his journeys.

Psychoundakis approached his missions with a humour and a charm that made him a popular figure in the Resistance, as well as with the British officers serving under cover. One officer was the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, with whom Psychoundakis formed a lifelong friendship. It was Leigh Fermor who translated Psychoundakis’s account of life under the occupation, The Cretan Runner, republished in 1998.

In his foreword Leigh Fermor writes how he was captivated by the Cretan’s “gift for play on words, for funny repartee, light verse, improvisation, unpredictable flights of imagination and his instinct for teasing the great . . . which earned him a universal licence as a jester”.

More than merely fleet of foot, Psychoundakis was quick of mind. Before the war, as a shepherd boy, he was fascinated by literature. Among a barely literate population, he had to pester the village priest and the doctor for books, and even composed his own epic poems. Psychoundakis represented the Greek oral tradition: he had even composed a two-hour-long poem about the war. It ended with George firing Leigh Fermor’s pistol into the air, swearing vengeance on the German “ cuckolds”. At night and when the weather was awful, Psychoundakis would sit with his comrades in their caves, reciting the 10,000 lines of the 17th-century Cretan poem, the Erotokritos.

George Psychoundakis was born in 1920, the son of a shepherd from the village of Asi Gonia in Western Crete. The family was very poor — Psychoundakis, his two sisters and brother were raised in a one-room house — and owned only a handful of goats and sheep. After a few years at the village school Psychoundakis too became a shepherd until the German invasion in May 1941.

Had the invasion not happened, it is probable that he would have remained an unknown shepherd, eking out a tough existence on the craggy Cretan landscape. But the occupation allowed him to broaden his horizons, for the contacts he had made with scholarly warriors such as Leigh Fermor gave him the opportunity to make a name for himself as a man of letters.

But the transition from mountain boy to writer was not easy. Despite being awarded the British Empire Medal after the war, Psychoundakis was arrested as a deserter and imprisoned for several months, losing his thick head of hair through worry. Afterwards, he was forced to fight in the civil war, returning to Asi Gonia after two years to find his family poorer than ever.

It was then that he wrote The Cretan Runner. When he and Leigh Fermor met again in 1951, Fermor marvelled at the uniqueness of such a document. Most writing about the occupation had been by the English or the Germans, but here was a heartfelt testament to the horrors of being occupied. The book was published in 1955, and became a great success.

Written in a simplistic style, it is an episodic account of hardships and dangers, with moments of great humour set against a background of murder and torture.

“Nobody talked, but the Germans had positive information. They lined them all up, and, as they refused to speak, prepared to execute the lot. But, before they could press the trigger of their heavy machine-gun, ten Germans fell dead. For some of the village men — about ten — had taken up position along the top of a sheer cliff above the village, from where they could watch every detail, and, at just the right moment, had opened fire. Not a bullet went wide.”

Even after the publication of The Cretan Runner, Psychoundakis continued to live in Asi Gonia. There he translated the Iliad and the Odyssey into his Cretan dialect, and he was honoured by the Academy of Athens. He lived off the land and held a variety of jobs. That one of these was as the caretaker for the nearby German cemetery was a shining example of Psychoundakis’s sense of forgiveness.

He is survived by his wife, Sofia, their son and two daughters.

George Psychoundakis, BEM, shepherd, partisan and writer, was born on November 3, 1920. He died on January 29, 2006, aged 85.

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