Friday, April 14, 2017

Gregorio by Percy Hemingway

Tragedy in Alexandria
Gregorio is a novella by English lawyer and author Percy Addleshaw, written under the pseudonym of Percy Hemingway. It was first published in 1895 in a collection of short fiction entitled Out of Egypt. Though the story takes place in Alexandria, Egypt, and features a Greek protagonist, it nevertheless is clearly written from a British point of view.

Gregorio is a poor man who struggles to find work and feed his family. Though he can’t scrape up enough coins to put bread into the mouths of his wife and son, all around him he sees  British tourists and sailors flaunting their wealth in the hotels, nightclubs, and bordellos of Alexandria, which inspires in him an intense hatred for the English. Gregorio has borrowed money from a Jewish moneylender named Amos, who will no longer offer him credit and demands prompt payment. Unable to pay back the loan, and fearing that his young son will starve to death, Gregorio orders his wife Xantippe to work as a prostitute to save the family.

This is an engaging story that keeps you guessing, but it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. At times it seems as if everything will wrap up neatly in the end like an O. Henry tale, imparting some moral lesson, but the plot never goes where you want it to go. At first it seems like Hemingway is writing a social justice novel that invites the reader to sympathize with Gregorio’s abject poverty, but eventually he steers you in the direction of viewing the Greek as a despicable human being. The tone of the story feels a bit like a romantic opera with its exotic locale and the way in which, at the convenient drop of a hat, characters fall in love or become intent on murder in order to move the plot forward. On the other hand, in its brutal depiction of the seamier side of life it resembles grittier naturalistic novels like Frank Norris’s McTeague or Emile Zola’s La Bête Humaine (though it’s nowhere near as good as either one of those great works).

What you end up with is a book that’s depressing as hell and pretty racist. Amos is very much the stereotype of the “filthy Jew,” a baby-stealing usurer. The Arab and Greek characters are similarly portrayed in an unflattering light. I don’t expect political correctness from 19th-century European literature, so I wasn’t so much shocked or offended by the racial slurs as I just found them lazy from a literary standpoint. Even more galling is the lofty attitude Hemingway displays toward his own countrymen. Though none of the main characters are English, the author still manages to turn the story into a white savior narrative. If there’s a lesson to be learned from Gregorio, it’s that only an Englishmen can truly satisfy a woman, because there is something about the English nature that makes them unilaterally chivalrous, righteous, and gentlemanly.

Gregorio comes across as the product of an author who exhibits indications of talent but approaches his story from a naive and misguided perspective. This certainly isn’t a terrible piece of literature for its time, but it does inspire mixed emotions today.
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