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The Cat of Portovecchio

Maria Strani-Potts

Brandl & Schlesinger, 2007

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Maria Strani-Potts, The Cat of Portovecchio, extracts

‘Mr Theofillos was very good at his job and had an impeccable reputation. He had been in this line of business since the War ended. When he had returned from fighting the Italians and Germans he had several bullet wounds in his body and not many employment prospects. He had decided on this profession after successfully introducing his sister to an army mate.
    He conducted his business in a matter-of-fact way, approaching the marriage negotiations like an estate agent. He organised his files with photos taken in blooming gardens, from a distance. His commission was based on a percentage of the woman’s dowry, and his profit was always good, guaranteeing him a healthy income. Men never placed a penny on the bargaining table. The male contribution was no more than a hairy back made generously available to the bride, and an offer to take her on a one-way journey out of the paternal home and into an unknown future. Most of the time the journey was bumpy and uncomfortable, the ride of an inexperienced, overweight rider on a camel’s back.
   "That’s a very good idea," Mr Theofillos said to Tony when he declared to him in a loud, clear and confident voice that he wanted to marry. He looked round his drab office. He was aware and could see that, from a financial point of view, Tony hadn’t been doing well recently. Before he had visited him, he had done his homework. He knew that Tony had become a widower a few years before. He knew that he had a little daughter to care for. He knew that he didn’t own his house. He knew that he’d been selling his antiques for a pittance. He had also been told that Tony was always serious, humourless and grey, his best friend a bottle of ouzo.
    "You’re not young any more," the marriage-broker snapped after parting with his trench coat. He had rested it carefully next to him on the worn-out sofa where Tony had told him to sit. Each of them had lit a cigarette. They both knew that their discussion wouldn’t be concluded in a few minutes. These arrangements would take time. Tony had double-locked the door of the office, out of fear that they might be interrupted and that their secret meeting might be discovered.
    "Of course—I know that," Tony said, irritated.
    "And you have a child," the marriage-broker added.
    His technique was to list as many difficulties as possible at the outset, so that his fees could be justified.

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Reviews and responses to the book

‘In The Cat of Portovecchio Maria Strani-Potts has produced a genuinely charming book...The charm consists in the book's wholeness of view...the writer's generosity in letting everything in; her allowing a place for all sorts of ordinary human follies and indiscretions, for bad humour as well as good, but with a sense that what all this makes up is a picture of the way we are… She takes us inside a whole world, lovingly created, that is like no other we have been invited into, but with an eye that can be savage as well as loving. Just when we think we know some of these characters, and feel comfortable with them—too comfortable in fact—she catches them for us in a new and altogether less easy light...She has the writer's eye for detail: for the small, unnoticed aspect of a thing that makes it immediately alive to us; the writer's sense of pace, that makes time, and room in the writing, so that everything finds its place; and the writer's unsparingness that makes truth more important to her than any desire to please.’
David Malouf, 13 November 2007

‘Evocative and charming...her extensive knowledge of Greek culture informs these fictional tales featuring the widowed Tony, his daughter Louisa, the philandering island priest Father Anthony and the object of his longing, the beautiful Zoë. The cast of characters are thoughtfully created, but it is the author's understanding of the subtleties of village life—the rhythm of the sea, religious ceremonies and unspoken rules—that is most appealing.’
The Sun-Herald, 13 January 2008

‘When I read The Cat of Portovecchio, I was immediately drawn to the apparently laid-back way of life of the characters. But it is boiling under the surface in the little village! Every character has a story to tell, and very often their lives cross. You will find passion, lost love, a child missing her mother, grown-ups caught in their own sorrow, incapable of helping others, a priest with bad intentions and secrets ready to be unveiled…and a lot of strong women. It is a book full of warm and understanding people who take care of each other and who are doing the best they can with the life God has given them. There are many original recipes. Most of all, the cat Mamee gives an unusual and enjoyable angle to the story.

It has that little extra. I immediately visualised it as a film. This is a story that will attract many readers. I also think that the timing is right. We need well-written stories with a universal message.’
Gunilla Sandin, Head of the International Seminar Program, Gothenburg International Book Fair

‘In Portovecchio, the small fishing village in Corfu, with its slaughterhouse by the sea, its old stone church, vile priest, sexy women, wild weather, fascinating food and wondering children, the cat goes everywhere, sees everything.

Gerald Durrell used to be my eyes on Corfu, my only information about one of the legendary places of the world.

I think I see it better now. Australians who come from Greece will recognise their roots, their ancient life, in this Corfu of fifty years ago. Readers who know Greece from afar will see it close here.

I thank the cat, who moves through these very Greek joys and dramas, for opening my eyes.’
The Newcastle Herald, February 2008

'Maria Strani-Potts is incisive in her observations of her locale seen through the lenses of a young girl and her cat– perhaps the child’s only friend. We follow the small cast through the 1950s, as the author meditates on the effect of language, cuisine and seasonal change on inner psychology and outward behaviour. She is resolute in pursuing the usually taboo topic of the civil war and its aftermath (which remain a vivid and divisive force in Corfu today). Other areas where she commands attention include the role of the marriage broker, and the arrogance of the priesthood: "the priest was very local indeed" is Strani-Potts' way of saying that human character is composed of passions, beliefs, exaltations and, perhaps most of all, fears. A new wife "brought an extra dimension of misery into the household".

Seen through village eyes, the fissure in modern Greek society (which underlay the 2008 riots) can be recognised as the core of the debate about Greek identity since the Megali Idea [great idea]. "Two sides of the same coin can never face one another, yet they are as close as can be." Strani-Potts' writing is characterised by a relentless and seductive intelligence which can be cruel, compassionate and ironically amusing– often all at the same time. She is never less than provocative. A pleasure to read and, even for Corfiots, an education.'
Richard Pine, The Anglo-Hellenic Review 39, Spring 2009

‘Tales of sun-drenched life in Corfu are blended with authentic recipes in Maria Strani-Potts' novel, The Cat of Portovecchio...each of the 10 chapters has a recipe blended into the narrative. "I wanted to give people a sense of what it was like in the 1950s and 1960s...when everything was easy and beautiful," she said. Wherever she is in the world, Corfu is always with Strani-Potts.’  
The Wentworth Courier, 19 December 2007

‘Maria Strani-Potts takes readers directly into the lives of the inhabitants of a bustling Corfu fishing village. Every character has a story to tell. Easter and Christmas, saints’ days and name days, marriages and funerals, are celebrated with feasts and through these stalks the Cat of Portovecchio, imperious and opportunistic, both loved and reviled.’
Gleebooks Gleaner, November 2007

‘It has everything—it’s like eating a full thirty-course dinner. Maria Strani-Potts is like a river that has burst its banks. Everything is included in her work, and she’s not afraid to put it down—no matter whose toes she steps on. Brilliant!’
D. Katsaros, Greek-American critic, writer and philosopher

‘"It’s a book about the landscape of the place, about its history, its food and the way of thinking of its people,"[Strani-Potts] said. "It describes how things were done then." [She] said it was important because deep in the souls of Corfiots lay three primary concerns: the sea, olive trees and their very long and complicated history.’
The Manly Daily, 2 November 2007

‘It’s about a Corfu fishing village…Read it, it’ll change your life and the way you love (and live) the Corfu idyll. Grab it soon because it’ll sell out fast and you don’t want to be left out of the fashionable chit-chat. Also, get yourself copies for the spitaki, for the London townhouse— and, hey, one for your posh QueasyJet visitors to ease the tedium of rubbing shoulders with us proles.’
Island, Corfu’s Lifestyle Magazine, March-April 2008

‘Nourished by, and full to the marrow with delicious Corfiot spirit, but also with caustic humour and satire, in The Cat of Portovecchio Maria Strani-Potts reveals her intimate knowledge of the Corfiot mentality, customs, idiosyncrasies and ways of thinking. At first glance it's a tragic story enriched with comic elements, but Maria Strani-Potts also offers us a philosophical framework for the tragic social events which have an immediate impact on the inhabitants of the island.’
Sophia Ralli-Kathariou, Kosmos, 7 December 2007
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