- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 11, 2003

The title of a 1958 nonfiction book by British-born author Patrick Leigh Fermor, “Mani,” refers to a distinct region of the Peloponnesus in southern Greece characterized by mountainous terrain pierced through with stone towers. Forbidding land, to say the least. Normally, a person speaking about the area, would say he was “going to the Mani,” a singularly desolate but captivating part of the world. There probably is no better book ever written about the region and, in this writer’s biased opinion, no more affectionate and learned portrait ever drawn of a country and its people The author’s special personality and talent show through on every page.

“Mani” only hints at his gifts. Among other claims to fame, Mr. Leigh Fermor was — and is — a storyteller and traveler of first rank. To the Greeks, especially to the Cretans, he has achieved near mythic status for his derring-do as a major figure in underground resistance forces during World War II. For readers of his classic books about his adventures walking across Europe as a young man and then much later in wanderings around Greece, he is a model to read and possibly to envy. Better known among his works are “A Time of Gifts,” the 1977 account of his travels by foot between Rotterdam and Hungary in the 1930s, and its 1985 sequel, “Between the Woods and the Water,” about the journey on to Constantinople. With good reason, critics at the time were bowled over by both.

He is still working on the third of what once was a projected trilogy.

The original Harper & Brothers version of “Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese” contains black and white photographs by Joan Eyres Monsell, who became Mr. Leigh Fermor’s wife. Title page and frontispiece are drawn, as is a sketch map of the region. No traveler headed south of Kalamata or southwest of Sparta into the middle of the triangular promontory that makes up Greece’s southernmost boundary should neglect to read the vivid pages of description and reminiscence.

If nothing else, “Mani,” like all of Mr. Leigh Fermor’s nonfiction, provides a field day for an amateur etymologist. The vocabulary is a feast of language offered up by a man drunk on words, with a mind that works as fast as a bullet — except when he is recovering from frequent celebratory bouts of fun.

Worth the price of the book alone is his exposition in chapter 15, titled “Ikons,” of the intricate and arresting images of the Greek Orthodox Church and some of the digressions into liturgy and music. The appeal of his writing is his ability to make a reader feel he or she is part of the Greek tribe. If you weren’t born Greek, you soon will feel that way. He can produce pictures where mere photographs can’t do the job. It is the combination of the personal and professorial, alternating between the pious — but not worshipful — and the prosaic.

If, alas, the word “lost” applies to the contemporary public’s memories of the man, he himself might use it freely — for amusement’s sake — to describe the wanderings of his youth when, at one point, he took refuge in several monasteries in order to write. Retreat from worldly pursuits wasn’t exactly his style, however, since from the age of 18 when he took off on his wanderjahr he seemed to be everywhere in it and among some of the other most notably memorable characters of his day. He knew everyone of any literary or historic importance, it seems.

This lovingly crafted book was made the more so recently when its author agreed to autograph this writer’s copy. The inscription is wonderfully original. As well as being charming and scholarly to a fault, Mr. Leigh Fermor is an engagingly mirthful man full of the curiosity and spontaneity of a wise child. His written work reflects those qualities, doubtless the ones that attracted people to him wherever he went.

At age 88, he remains vigorous in mind and spirit in the small village in the Peloponnese on hilly land near the sea that he and his wife fixed upon for an extended annual sojourn nearly four decades ago. Most definitely, Mr. Leigh Fermor, or “Paddy,” as he is called by the locals, had made his own luck in life.

Total strangers making discreet inquiries about his ‘at home’ policy may feel somewhat intimidated when knocking on a blue door marked “Private” even though they find the door is ajar. A housekeeper coming out of the house calls to him across a wide stone courtyard. A hearty and welcoming person, he appears to have some trouble with his eyesight but his handshake is firm. Altogether, he lives up to the description of “an old oak” given him by a British acquaintance.

He leads the intruders into his book-strewn study, saying that company is expected from Rome any minute, that his wife is not feeling well; otherwise, he would love to offer up a drink. But no interview, alas. He had had his fill with a poet/interviewer Ben Downing from The Paris Review whose insightful report appears in the spring 2003 issue under the title “A Visit With Patrick Leigh Fermor.” ($12 for #165 in the Review’s 50th year, very likely the next-to- last issue helped to press by the late George Plimpton.) The anecdotes recounted there make real the accolade given him by Mr. Downing — a perfect hybrid, the man of action and the man of letters.

Ann Geracimos is a reporter on the features desk of The Washington Times.

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