Sophia Nikoloidou’s The Scapegoat is a timely read. It goes far back and recent in the eras it captures in this thoughtful historical fiction novel. It takes a nuanced look at the 1948 murder of American journalist George Polk (the namesake of the prestigious Polk Awards) who was killed in Thessalonica while investigating the corruption in the right-wing Greek government. In order to cover up the state’s alleged complicity in his murder, the crime is pinned on Grigoris Staktopoulos, a journalist and former communist, despite the non-existence of believable proof. The plot of The Scapegoat is anchored on two planks of history; Polk’s murder in 1948 and the 2008 Greek Financial crisis. Both planks have the common thread of lack of trust in the political elite by the polity.
Soon after the 2008 financial crisis, with the Greek polity in despair and the people feeling let down by their politicians, the past is examined through the lens of the present as Minas Georgiou a high school senior is despondent, bored and gropes his way toward adulthood. His despondency reaches the point where he opts out of his final exams and is unwilling to go to university. The unwillingness is alarming for his intellectual parents – his mother and grandmother are teachers and his father is a journalist. From childhood, they have prepared him for a legal career and his current rebellion means their invested dreams in him are dying. Teta (Minas’ mother) approached Souk his History teacher to intervene. Souk is an eccentric and unusual character. Unlike most teachers, he has chosen to challenge his students to think critically. His idea of intervention is to ask Minas to write an investigative report on the Polk murder.
Alternating between 1948 and 2010, the story not only mirrors the past in the present, the cynicism, evasive tendency of the governing elite and the self-preserving tendency of the governments at all times to find scapegoats to pin its failure on reverberates across the time periods. Minas’ relationship with Evelina his classmate mirrors what happened between his grandmother and Evelina’s grandfather Dinopoulos in the 1940s. Dinopoulos was the lawyer of Gris (the character based on Grigoris Staktopoulos) and he is the major physical source of Minas’ research for the assignment that Souk has given him. In all of the back and forth, one thing remains constant, the loss of hope in the government by the people is palpable and constant. The hopelessness is captured in Dinopoulos recollection of the 1948 case and recycled in Minas’ loss of hope in the system in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. In both cases, the government works hard to absolve itself and find scapegoats to blame.
While The Scapegoat is a complex story that Xrays the Greek political system, it is timely because its application is certainly universal and current. While the first-person narrative for multiple characters across the two time periods was slightly distracting, the structure works in the end because Minas the main protagonist truly typifies the angst and despondency of the polity.