”Freedom is a precious, everlasting struggle for any decent human. There’s nothing more beautiful and real than the attempt to achieve the impossible. And when the impossible becomes possible, it’s just magic. The few who have lived, even only once, something as intense, know precisely what I tried to describe. The indescribable …”
A Normal Life is a love letter to freedom.
Sure it’s absolutely jam packed with thrilling tales of daring do, prison breaks, gun fights and car chases, but from the first page to the last the narrative here is a sweeping a love letter to freedom, not just from the authority of the state but the trappings we place ourselves. It’s understandable why some many Anarchists have some much affection for it’s author and his story.
Vassilis Palaiokostas is a bank robber, he is a kidnapper, he is an illegalist. He is also labelled terrorist or folk hero depending on who you ask. Vassilis is not a leftie liberal, he is an illegalist, a man of violence and to many, a working class hero. Alongside his brother Nikos, he spent thirty years living a life of crime against the backdrop of a Greece trapped in political turmoil and corruption. A Normal Life is is autobiography which recounts much of their stuggle against a totalitarian state, the evils of capitalism and the soul crushing mire of the Hellenic prison system. It opens with a succession of three prison breaks (one which ends in his arrest) and only heats up from there both inside and outside of the prison walls. Ultimately he runs us through a series of robberies, stretches in prison, two kidnappings and a handful of gunfights with charming ease all the more intoxicating because of his dry humour. and roguish charm.
Now when you see a book about a Greek bank robber’s exploits you’d be forgiven for half expecting the kind of obnoxious machismo found in the kind of books your racist uncle likes to live vicariously through “SAS: BORN TO FIGHT” type shit. There is none of that here,Vassilis isn’t writing to pat himself on the back or assure you how right he is with any of this, nor is he trying to prop himself up as the “Robin Hood” he is often described as. No, it’s simple and honest accounts of the shit that happened. Reading A Normal Life feels at like you’re sat in the backroom of your local chatting the shit with a mate. We’ve all exchanged our war stories over a few pints, laughing at our exploits, fuck ups and luck. Vassilis does this with sartorial workmanship, his stories are well formed and handed to you in digestabile chunks inbetween rounds. His politics are not trapped in theory and erudite rhetoric, they are the pure unadulterated love of freedom, distilled through experience. He does however takes tangents to explain a particular matter over a few paragraphs when he needs too mind. These sections come across as the tutelage of an older compatriot, wisdom being passed on between peers, there isn’t an ounce of patronising superiority. Vassilis doesn’t attempt to manipulate the reader into accepting his truth, he simply tells you how he sees it and moves on with the story.
It’s hard to ignore how romantic much of this is, his illegalist expoilts make me smile, an underdog facing an insurmountable enemy, takes them on and ultimately wins? Fuck yes. I am gripped by the accounts as much as any blockbuster movie. Vassilis is a renegade, a social bandit, a true outlaw. I read some to a friend and he tells me that he reminds him of The Wire’s Omar Little, a street level stick up man who makes a point of fucking over the drug dealers and powerful. Like Omar, Vassilis fills the the role of the fearless fighter, a criminal sure, but he’s sticking it to the bastards who commit crimes a thousand times worse. His prey are the heartless bankers and corrupt capitalists. After all what kind of bank robber gives the loot to the poor?
Hurrah for the rebel!
All of this makes it all the more suprising how he talks about the police and his kidnap victims. Vassilis sees people and talks about his enemies in a fair and even tone, humanising them without animosity except when they come to deserve it. Heck, when talking about Alexander Haitoglou, the capitalist they kidnapped and held for random over a period of days, he’s down right affectionate, tho this doesn’t dampen his observations of Haitoglou as an industrialist and all that entails.
A Normal Life is a love letter to freedom and to this day Vassilis has his freedom, having made his second escape via helicopter in February 2009. His biography first published in 2019 was an instant bestseller in Greece, while here in the UK, I dare say most of us knew very little if anything at all about the Palaiokostas brothers. I highly recommend you change this and pick up a copy, let Vassilis' stories terrify and inspire you accordingly, perhaps ultimately asking yourself about your own freedom, not just from the state but in your own life.
A Normal life is an action packed romp interspersed with deep dives into contempory history, socio-political analysis, exploration of freedom and the self against a consistant and intense love of the beauty offered up by the world and the people in it.
It’s a vital stab at the facade that is our economic jail, a powerful advocate for your own prison break. It’ll leave you questioning your own capacities, after all if not Vassilis, why not you? Be brave. ■
A Normal Life is available from Freedom Press