Author Peter Papathanasiou explains how an undocumented migrant inspired his novel ‘The Invisible’

Lefteris didn’t own a car, didn’t have a driver’s license, and didn’t have a bank account, credit card, or social media account. He had an unregistered cell phone which he topped up with prepaid credit. He had no superannuation or pension and was telling more lies than truth. I wanted to touch it to make sure it was real.

An orphan with four different surnames

Growing up as an orphan, Lefteris was introduced to our family by a friend of my grandfather. He now used four different surnames depending on who he was talking to. My brother claimed he knew Lefteris’ real name but refused to share it with me. Lefteris said he was from Crete. He also claimed to have fathered four children by four different women from four different countries. My brother didn’t know if any of this was true.

We rode north in my brother’s laborious Romanian clunker. Our first stop was the border post. My brother left me in the car while he and Lefteris walked through the Republic of North Macedonia to buy cigarettes, whiskey and fake designer clothes.

They knew the border guards well, especially Lefteris. He presented them with offerings in a plastic bag: homemade preserves and thick blocks of cheese that he had either bartered, received as gifts or stolen. My brother told me the most you’ve ever seen Lefteris carrying was a plastic bag.

All Lefteris had in this life seemed to be his mind and his mouth. He carried his dirty clothes to the laundromat in a plastic bag. He had no appliances or furniture in his apartment and slept on a pile of old blankets.

His house was cold in winter, hot in summer. Lefteris never paid his first electricity bill, so the power went out. He kept a torch by the door he used to see around his apartment. He sometimes forgets the torch in his pocket, ends up with it in cafes, which his circle of friends finds hilarious.

It was the same with the water bills – he never paid them, so they were cut off. He has now filled old plastic bottles from the spring near his house, pure drinking water straight from the mountains, and brought them home. He had never let anyone into his apartment, not even my brother, who hadn’t rushed him.

Lefteris spoke to border guards in a combination of Greek and Yugoslav. He was fluent in Russian, Croatian and other assorted Baltic languages. He even spoke a little of the English he had learned watching American television in the kafenion (coffee). I watched them all laugh and wish each other good luck.

We drove back to Florina with the car’s muffler scraping the road surface and a trunk full of black market loot, and drove straight to the police station. With so many illegal items in our possession, I panicked for a moment, but my brother assured me that everything was fine. We sat in the station waiting room as Lefteris came out the back, clutching cartons of high-tar Marlboro cigarettes, bottles of French cognac and boxes of Italian shoes.

I could hear his voice echoing, arguing with the police, joking and gossiping, and laughter every few seconds. In one corner of the room was the Greek police’s handwritten map filing system; it reminded me of my elementary school library. Lefteris said it was an honor to help his best friend’s younger brother in such a meaningful way. I had asked my brother if I could buy Lefteris something as a sign of gratitude, but he said no, that would only insult him.

Like an elementary school library: the office’s outdated filing system. Pierre Papathanasiou

My brother said winter was the worst time of year for Lefteris. With knee-deep snow and temperatures dropping below zero, Lefteris stayed out all night in clubs and cafes. It was the only way for him to warm up and escape the freezing cold of his sparse apartment. He stayed until dawn, talking to whoever he could find.

Lefteris was regularly ill in the winter and rubbed his body with olive oil to keep warm. He was one of the first to contract COVID-19 in Florina and nearly died before paramedics dragged him to hospital for treatment.

No one knew where or if Lefteris had washed. He was known to try to pick up women just so he could use their showers. The younger girls laughed when they saw Lefteris hanging out in the clubs. To them it was a sad joke. But Lefteris knew he was following a rich tradition. My brother knew it too.

“People say if you took Lefteris to the mountain, to the woods, and killed him with an axe, there would be no crime,” my brother said. “How can you murder someone who doesn’t exist? For all intents and purposes, Lefteris does not exist. Yet he is larger than life and my most loyal friend.

The man of the hour suddenly appeared in the doorway, motioning me into a back room. I joined Lefteris and a young female officer who began to feel the full force of his charm. He kept asking about his family, promising to bring his lovely mother fresh mountain honey and batting his long eyelashes.

Her cheeks were rosy as she handed me my new taftotita. It looked legit. It was legit. Lefteris gave me a wink. He told me later that he had been to the police sergeant the night before, sharing cigars and a bottle of old whiskey, and solving the world’s problems.

Lefteris had done it. We returned to the car triumphant. My brother popped two cigarettes in his mouth, lit them, and gave one to his longtime friend who started to puff.

We went to kafenion to review the course of the day. I ordered espressos for everyone and a double shot of single malt for Lefteris. I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. He thanked me and raised his glass in encouragement.

the unseen by Peter Papathanasiou is published by Hachette.

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