One of the most significant Greek prose writers of the post-war generation, Antonis Samarakis, is credited with being the most widely translated Greek author after Nikos Kazantzakis, with his works being translated in over 30 languages. Often referred to as the Greek Kafka, he is one of the most widely read Greek writers, both in his native land and around the world.
Called “a real masterpiece” by novelist Graham Greene, and “a powerful work” by playwright Arthur Miller, Samarakis' novel To Lathos (The Flaw, 1965) was eerily prophetic of the military dictatorship that was shortly to be established in Greece. Translated into English by Peter Mansfield and Richard Burns in 1969, the novel deals with the fate of a suspect detained in an unspecified police state; a plan is devised to make him attempt to escape, thereby proving his guilt, or confess to his anti-state crimes under interrogation.The flaw is the plan's failure to allow for the human factor, the fellow-feeling that the interrogator develops for the suspect during their time together. Oppressed and oppressor come face to face with their deepest human feeling, locked in a game of psychological skill.
As the plot slowly unravels, so do its main players. Professor Roderick Beaton comments that "the flaw turns out to lie in innate human goodness, for which the "perfect" totalitaritan system had failed to allow [...] The reader comes away warmed by the imagination that could create these people, but not always convinced that the world can be so neatly divided between decent individuals and inhuman systems".
Part thriller and part political satire, The Flaw is as powerful today as it was when first published. It is the best-known work of Antonis Samarakis and has been translated into more than thirty languages. The novel was awarded the coveted prize of the Twelve in Greece in 1966 and the Grand Prix de la Littèrature Policière in France in 1970. It was also turned into a successful film by Peter Fleischmann in 1974.
Samarakis' themes, which found a receptive readership particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, were the helplessness of the ordinary person in the face of growing state power, the nuclear threat, the loss of ideals, public corruption and the alienation of the individual in an uncaring, consumer society. “Samarakisʼs writings are international,” Professor Andrew Horton comments, “because the serious problems of our times are general and universal and not limited to any particular nation.” Indeed, Samarakis’ work is characterized by the element of social denouncement and reflects his personal worries about the present and future of modern societies. He wrote in simple language and natural style and approached his issues from an intense anthropocentric point of view.
The protagonists of his stories are ordinary people facing crises in their lives and beliefs - a widow bringing up a consumptive child in slum conditions, a priest tending a dying man, a soldier unable to kill the enemy with whom he feels a common bond, a man who seeks to regain his childhood innocence by buying the house in which he spent his early years. Their situations lead to a shattering of hopes and ideals or to a new affirmation of human values. What is significant about Samarakis, says Horton, is that “he remains that rare writer who speaks for the average, simple person and who sees the dangers in a modern society for totalitarianism, dictatorships and such that eat away at allowing people to live simple lives."
As in much of Samarakis's work, the characters are anonymous, the style fragmented and plain, sparing in description, but racy, with unexpected twists and an often caustic humour. His protagonists' agonised states of mind are depicted with frequent repetitions of words and phrases, often tending to stream of consciousness.
Antonis Samarakis was born in Athens and studied law at Athens University. A civil servant in the labour ministry, he resigned in 1936, when General Metaxas imposed a fascist-style dictatorship on Greece, but resumed his post in 1945. During the German occupation, he joined National Solidarity, a precursor of the main leftwing resistance organisation, the National Liberation Front. In 1944, he was sentenced to death for his resistance activities, but managed to escape and go into hiding.
From an early age, he wrote poetry for literary magazines and anthologies. But in the 1950s, he made the decisive turn to prose fiction, publishing his first collection of short stories, Ziteitai Elpis (Hope Wanted) in 1954.
Samarakis' first novel, Sima Kindunou (Alarm Signal, 1959), and second collection of short stories, Arnoumai (I Refuse, 1961), which won the state literary prize for short stories, developed the same themes and further established his reputation, enabling him to resign from the civil service in 1963 and devote himself to fulltime writing.
His longest short story, The Passport, reflects his experiences under the military dictatorship of the 1960s, when he was denied a passport unless he wrote something favourable to the regime. The story is not merely autobiographical but generalises, in a manner reminiscent of Kafka, the plight of the innocent victim of a totalitarian regime.
Samarakis has had more critical attention and commercial success in continental Europe, especially Germany, Scandinavia and France, than in Britain. His work was held in high regard by other notables, as well, among them Arthur Koestler, George Simenon, Agatha Christie, and Luis Bunuel.Translations of his works into more than 30 languages, as well as the stage and screen adaptations, attest to his ability to address issues of common humanity. Formal recognition of his work as a whole came in 1982 with the award of the Europalia Prize and the Knight's Cross of Arts and Letters in 1995
Samarakis represented Greece at conferences of Unesco and the International Labour Organisation, whose missions he also took part in. He was a goodwill ambassador for Unicef, organised an annual youth parliament in Greece, and, in 1991, was designated as his country's cultural ambassador for Mèdecins sans Frontières. After his death in 2003, «"European Day of Languages 2006" was dedicated to Samarakis, "a global man".
Christiana Mygdali is a linguist and translator. She holds a DPhil from the University of Oxford on translation as a mechanism of cultural resistance under the Junta in Greece. Since 2006, she has been teaching language, literature, translation theory and adaptation at Universities and has collaborated with various private and public institutions, both in Greece and in the UK. She has also published a large number of translations. She works with reading as a form of therapy and is interested in cultural practices holding together human communities.
Christiana Mygdali spoke to Reading Greece* on the occasion of translating the recently published bilingual anthology I woke up in a country: Greek poetry at the present time, commenting on the main challenges she was confronted with. Asked about the current poetic production in Greece, she comment that "studying the network of poets - and intellectuals in general - at any given time in a certain country, can give us alternative insight into the history of ideas". She also discusses the role and responsibilities of a translator and whether translation can ever be unethical, and concludes that "translation, both as an act and as a gesture, can show everyone how important exchange of ideas can be in crucial times, recording, at the same time, one of the most interesting areas of Greek history as it goes".
You are the translator of the recently published bilingual anthology I woke up in a country: Greek poetry at the present time. Tell us a few things about the book and the experience of translating the poems included in the anthology.
As a translator with a background in cultural studies, I have always regarded anthologies as a form of translation per se. The very act of selecting texts in order to compose an anthology constitutes a powerful gesture from the part of the editors, who, according to both their intentions and their aesthetics, translate the vast literary production into a manageable corpus of texts that are representative of a genre, an era, a literary trend etc. The anthology I woke up in a country is a great example of such a gesture, as it is an anthology of poems written around the same time in Greece. The fact that it came out of a competition makes it even more timely. Moreover, being bilingual, the anthology provides a non-Greek speaking readership with an access to contemporary Greek poetry. Therefore, it has been an immense privilege to have been selected as its translator, no matter how challenging the project was.
Which were the main challenges you were faced with while translating the poems of fifty different poets? How did you deal with them?
I would like to thank you for bringing up this issue, as it was actually the core of the two main challenges that I was confronted with, as I was working towards the completion of this project. Firstly, the poems that I had to translate were short fragments of each poet’s work, previously unpublished. Therefore, there was no context for me to refer to when trying to grasp the subtle meanings of each poem. Secondly, these translations were intended to be the organic parts of a collective volume, and I had to make sure that the final version of my translations would both respect the individuality of each work and make sense as a new corpus.
In order to meet the first challenge, I tried to get accustomed with each poet’s style, by reading more of their works, and I gave as much time as possible between translating each individual’s work. Most importantly though, I decided to establish communication with each poet, making sure that they would have seen and approved of the final versions of their poems in translation. In some cases, this communication started quite early in the process, as I had specific questions to ask in order to make translation choices. Most of the translations though were only shared with their authors a few weeks before publication, just to make sure that they all had a final say on their work. All poets were willing to engage in a creative conversation about translation, even those who declared not to have a great command of the English language. Their comments proved extremely helpful at times; I would like to take this opportunity to thank them all, because they facilitated my role in every possible way.
For the second challenge, I had to primarily trust my instinct about what constitutes a solid collective work. Then, I revisited a number of anthologies, especially of Greek poetry, published at various times, by various institutions, serving different purposes each time. Finally, I had to turn to the editors of the anthology for advice when needed. Their feedback has been extremely valuable, as they offered me an overview of the selected material, the concept of the competition, and the actual purposes of the anthology. I believe that the final product is representative of everyone’s diligence, engagement and faith to the process, and I feel very honored to have collaborated in this collective project.
To use Karn Van Dyck’s words, “what most distinguishes the poetry of this new millennium from that which came before is, on the one hand, its diversity – there are no clear-cut schools or factions – and, on the other hand, the cultural conditions that it takes for granted”. How would you comment on current poetic expression in Greece?
Poetry as a genre is all about making, that is constructing things from scratch, using perhaps materials available and already used, but always aiming at new directions. In that sense, this is a very poetic moment for Greek creators. Greece has been deconstructed in all possible ways during the last ten years: very early on within the so-called socioeconomic crisis, a young generation of poets started gathering together in order to read their poems to each other, and understand collectively the major changes the country was going through. I can trace the beginnings of this tendency at the events organized at ‘Attis’ theatre, under the auspices of Thodoros Terzopoulos - representing the previous generation of intellectuals. Then, the phenomenon took various forms and a number of poetic groups were shaped within this first gathering and spread their activities, mainly poetry readings and sociopolitical discussions from houses in Athens to public venues, such as bookshops, café bars and institutions. In my opinion, even though this is not indicative of a certain trend, it certainly allows us to observe a visible gathering of young Greek poets, who are active under the specific sociopolitical circumstances Greece is undergoing right now.
Another interesting characteristic of Greek poetry today is the fact that there is a significant corpus of poems written in Greek by poets whose native language is not Greek. However few they may be, I believe it is worth studying their works, looking at how they use the language, if they incorporate elements of their poetic tradition in their poetry, and how they actually position themselves within the Greek literary system.
In my opinion, studying the network of poets –and intellectuals in general- at any given time in a certain country, can give us alternative insight into the history of ideas, and this very moment of Greek history is very crucial and totally worth recording in all possible aspects.
Most scholars reckon that the content of a book cannot be separated from the particularities of the language that gave it shape. In this context, where does the role and responsibility of the translator lie?
Language is a universal code, and, despite the fact that there may be cultural or timely nuances that have only been expressed in one language, there is always a way for the translator who understands fairly well the cultures of both the source and the target language to communicate these subtle linguistic particularities to those readers of the translation who cannot access the original. Most of the times, there are ways to manage this in the translated text; however, there are a few occasions where the only way to explain what is meant in the original text is by adding notes.
Overall, what each and every translator needs to constantly keep in mind, is the fact that translation is a rewriting, and, as such it should be treated, i.e., with respect to the source, but also with a clear intention to mediate the ideas expressed in the original text, and to make sure that the message is conveyed intact to the readers of the translation. Language is part of the message, so, if a level of foreignization is necessary in order to indicate stylistic characteristics innate to the original text, the translator should meet this challenge and dare to offer a translation that does not just flow, but in which the ideas can run smoothly.
Renowned translator Karen Emmerich has claimed that when translating from a so-called “minor” to a so-called “major” language or literature, translators do sometimes hold remarkable power, including the power to produce what will in many cases become the only interpretation of a work of literature available in a given language. How do you respond to this power? Can translation ever be unethical?
The responsibility of the translator, in my opinion, is always huge, no matter how large or small number of native speakers the language from which he is translating holds. Not so much because this may be the only access available to those who do not read the original language –which is of course worth taking into account- but also because the translator is responsible for the destiny of the text version he proposes, and that is always unpredictable. To give you only an example from the anthology, I was asked last week whether my translation of a poem included in the volume can be used as lyrics for a song. I gladly accepted, and felt that this was the best reward I could have ever imagined for the effort I made in order to preserve the music and the inner rhythm of each poem.
I can see what you may be pointing at by using the word ‘unethical’ in the context of translation, but I would like to believe that in a world of instant communication, social media, and the internet, translation can be constantly evaluated and, possible mistakes, misunderstandings or even, deliberate misinterpretations cannot survive for a long time. I can actually argue that the readership of poetry may still be small in numbers, but has grown to be stronger in networking, and very critical of unethical behaviors with the community.
It seems that Greek writers who live in Greece have played little role in the so-called “world republic of letters”, with the exception maybe of Cavafy or the two Nobel Prizes for Literature awarded to Seferis and Elytis. Yet a promising development is that in recent years Greek poets and novelists have been circulating all over the world. Is there a way for the challenges of integrating Greek literature in the international field to be met? Can bilingual anthologies as yours contribute to this end?
I believe that travelling more and more within the world of ideas, both physically and virtually, is characteristic of the modern way of intellectual engagement. Acting as organic members of the global intellectual community is everyone’s responsibility, now more than ever.
However, organized promotion of intellectual activity by institutions such as the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, can help readers navigate through the uncharted landscape of a literary production they may not be familiar with, such as Greek poetry. We went –and probably are still going- through a phase during which the Greek case is more visible than it used to be, and there is an increasing interest by people abroad to understand issues such as the economic crisis, the refugees’ crisis, and the role young artists and intellectuals play in these matters. Translation, both as an act and as a gesture, can show everyone how important exchange of ideas can be in crucial times, recording, at the same time, one of the most interesting eras of Greek history as it goes.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Professor Roderick Beaton grew up in Edinburgh where he first studied Latin and ancient Greek before going on to Peterhouse, Cambridge, to graduate with a BA in English Literature and a PhD in Modern Greek. He came to King’s in 1981 as Lecturer in Modern Greek Language and Literature, and in 1988 was appointed to the Koraes Chair. For ten years he headed the Department of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies (whose functions since 2015 have been taken over by the Department of Classics), and from 2012 to 2016 was Director of the Centre for Hellenic Studies, part of the Arts & Humanities Research Institute.
From October 2009 to September 2012 he held a Major Leverhulme Fellowship, and during autumn 2010 the Visiting Fellowship of the British School at Athens (BSA), on whose Council he also serves. His book Byron’s War: Romantic Rebellion, Greek Revolution (2013) won the Runciman Award and the Elma Dangerfield Prize and was shortlisted for the Duff Cooper Prize. In 2013 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy (FBA).
Professor Beaton published his new book Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation, in March 2019.The book sets out to understand modern Greeks on their own terms, revealing how a modern nation was built on the ruins of a vanished ancient civilisation. Beaton chronicles the last 300 years of the Greek nation-state, covering its political conflict, financial crises and vibrant culture, to demonstrate Greece’s "evolving process of collective identity".
The Financial Times included the volume in their list for best history books of 2019, writing that it "deserves to be the standard general history of modern Greece in English for years to come" and it "captures the full dimensions of Greece’s recent troubles"; Professor Gonda Van Steen, Koraes Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature at King's College London and Director of the Centre for Hellenic Studies, also commended the publication as a "bold new look on an ever-evolving topic, modern Greek history, delivered by a scholar eminently qualified to address it".
On 9 September 2019, Professor Beaton was awarded the Medal of the Commander of the Order of Honour, bestowed by HE the President of the Hellenic Republic Prokopis Pavlopoulos, in a special award ceremony held at the presidential mansion, where Pavlopoulos praised Professor Beaton for his exceptional contributions to the study of the formation of Greek national consciousness. In November 2019 he was also included in the "Greece 2021" Committee, responsible for the celebration of the Bicentennial of the Greek War of Independence.
Professor Roderick Beaton spoke to the Press & Communications Office at the Embassy of Greece in London regarding his publications, his interest in Greece and its history and his recent his honorary proclamation as Commander of the Order of Honour.
What does the award of the Medal of the Commander of the Order of Honour by HE the President of the Hellenic Republic mean to you as a person and as an academic? What does this honorary distinction mean also for the Koraes Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature, Centre for Hellenic Studies, King's College, which you presided over for many years? How do you believe this honour may impact Modern Greek studies in UK’s universities?
It's the greatest honour of my life! The President was very generous in his citation when he conferred the award, and mentioned several of the books I’ve published over the years, about Greek literature, culture and history. But it never occurred to me that anything I was writing would merit such a response on behalf of the Greek state from its very head! And of course, everything I’ve written, all my lectures and my teaching going back 40 years – none of that I could ever have done on my own. So it’s also an honour for the Koraes Chair at King’s College London, for the College itself, as well as for other institutions that have helped me on my way: the universities where I studied (Cambridge) and gained my first experience as an academic (Birmingham) and the British School at Athens, with which I’ve been associated ever since my student days. As for Modern Greek studies in British universities – well, that’s a continuing story. Every support from Greece is welcome. But the future lies with the students (British, Greek, or from whatever country) who will engage with Modern Greek history, language and literature in years to come. And I wish there could be more enthusiastic, or visible, support for studies of this kind in the UK of tomorrow than there seems to be today.
What motivated you to engage with Greece and its history? Has it to do with British scholars’ long-standing deep admiration for the Greek antiquity and acclaimed British universities’ long tradition with classics or was it the result of a personal discovery from your unmediated contact with the country and its people?
You’re quite right – I did start out as an impressionable adolescent fascinated by the classical tradition. But what fascinated me most, right from the beginning, was the fact that I was starting out to learn a language had been spoken and written for the last 3000 years. I was just 13 years old when a family holiday took me to Greece for the very first time. I was bowled over by the sheer vitality of the place, the rugged lines of the landscape, the loudness of the voices, the brightness of the Greek sun. (You should know that I grew up in Edinburgh, sometimes called the "Athens of the North" – but a darker, greyer place, I assure you!) And I fell in love with Greek music, right from the start. I think it was on a jukebox on Mykonos that I first songs that I later realised must have been by Theodorakis. From that time, I was "hooked". I studied Ancient Greek for 4 years at school, and it was one of my favourite subjects. But I was not cut out to be a classicist. I always wanted to be a writer. I loved books and literature. For my first degree I chose not Classics but English Literature. When I came back to Greece at the end of my undergraduate degree, it was no longer the ancient world I wanted to study, but modern Greece. And I’ve been doing that ever since!
In your recent book Biography of a Modern Nation you suggest that the recent economic crisis, apart from a financial and economic phenomenon, was the result of a number of interconnected factors, including aspects of the nature of Greek identity, the role of the state and the nation’s place in the modern world. Are there recurrent patterns in Greek modern history that are likely to emerge again and generate fresh challenges in the future? Are there also cultural characteristics and social mentalities that play a role too?
I still have a lot to learn about the crisis of the last decade, its immediate causes – and of course it’s far too soon to begin to guess what its longer-term effects might prove to be. Talking with Greek friends, and with others who had the opportunity to spend more of the last ten years in Greece than I did, I’m reminded that the distance that enabled me to try to grasp the whole of the country’s modern history in a reasonably short book also has its downside. That said, I found plenty of evidence that the roots of the recent "crisis" can be traced far back into the events of the past and into mentalities that have developed or have been preserved over at least 200 hundred years. To take just a couple of examples, compare the attitudes to taxation at the end of the 1820s and the 1830s, at the time when Capodistrias was "Governor" of Greece and then when the Bavarian Otto was king, and during the PASOK years. Or consider the foreign loans made to Greece during the Revolution and while it was ending. The lifeblood of the fledgling state came in the form of loans, not gifts. The Greek state has struggled ever afterwards to repay those debts – while a different sort of debt, a cultural one this time, from modern Europe to ancient Greece, can surely never be repaid either!
A very famous Greek scholar wrote in one of the most read books in Greece "When a Greek talks about Europe, he automatically excludes Greece. When a foreigner talks about Europe, we [Greeks] consider it unthinkable that he may not include Greece.(…) Who are we? Are we the Europeans of the East or the Orientals of Europe?" Do you have an answer to his questions?
In my book I argue that Greece doesn’t belong to only the West or only the East, but actually to both. "Europe" as a name and as an idea begins with the Greeks, in the pages of Herodotus’ Histories of the 5th century BCE. Europe is unthinkable without Greece, where so much that we think of as European started. But Greece, as the modern country was created and sustained after the 1821 Revolution, in turn forms an integral part of Europe, and therefore of "the West". On the other hand, Greece is equally the inheritor of the thousand-year-long Byzantine tradition, in which Orthodoxy represents the "Eastern" form of Christianity, as opposed to the Catholic and (later) Protestant West. So there’s no single or simple answer to the question!
Your interest in Greece has been almost exclusively focussed on two main areas: Greece’s history/politics and its literature. Byron and Seferis engaged in both, as both were renowned poets with an active involvement in Greece’s politics. However they lived and acted in a completely different historic period and context and they have contributed in a completely different way to Greece’s modern history. Why have you singled out these historic figures for further study? How is each of them important in Greek history? Do they share common characteristics?
You’re right – I’ve increasingly been attracted to figures who bridge the gap between what we conventionally think of as "literature" or "culture" on the one hand and "history" or "politics" on the other. I think it goes back to my own university education and the earlier stages of my professional career, when these branches of study were rigorously separated (as they still are, at least formally, in Greek universities). I was taught to read poems and novels without much reference to the world in which they had been written or subsequently read. I think it was because I spent so much of my time in Greece during the 1970s that I began to rebel against this. You can’t teach British students about Solomos without also teaching them about the Greek Revolution of the 1820s. Once they begin to read poems by Seferis, there’s so much they also need to know about Greece’s history in the twentieth century. And so it goes on. I believe that studying history enriches the way we read literature. And I also believe that many "traditional" historians have missed out badly, because they’re reluctant to step "over the line" and examine the evidence that works of literature provide for us about the lives and mentalities of people who lived in the past. So yes, Seferis and Byron are completely different from one another – in the time that they lived, in nationality, in temperament. But they have this in common: they were both towering figures in the literature of their respective languages, who also crossed that line and played a part in events that did (even if only a little) changed the world in which they lived, and we do too.
In a recent interview with Kathimerini you said, "What I am particularly pleased about is that Greeks aren’t straying from the centre of the political spectrum: The previous government was centre-left and this one is centre-right. The pendulum swings both ways, but ends up in the centre, unlike in the UK, in the US and even in Italy, where it swings dangerously close to the extremes". How do you explain this centrism? Has it to do with historical experiences (civil war, junta) or has it to do with a deep rooted in Greek mentality philosophical principle drawn from Aristotle’s idea of "mesotita"?
I wouldn’t be too confident in attributing modern political attitudes to Aristotle or the ancient maxim about the "golden mean" (Παν μέτρον άριστον)! Greece has suffered from its share of political extremism in its modern history – and let’s not kid ourselves that the ancients were always able to avoid extreme politics either. Aristotle laid down an excellent principle, but historians like Thucydides and Xenophon tell us what actually happened, and it often wasn’t pretty! But my point was about the recent elections in Greece and the simultaneous turn in politics in my own country. Greeks have suffered vastly more than most British people as a consequence of the financial crash of 2007-8 and the possibly mistaken policies of austerity pursued by the European Union afterwards. But it seems to me that Greeks have also learnt from their experiences. Whereas in Britain a substantial minority, egged on by a partisan press, believe that they have been victimised by the European Union when they haven’t, and seek an extreme remedy in Brexit. British politics are more polarised in the last months of 2019 than they have been at any time since the English Civil War of the 1640s. Maybe, after all, more Brits should read Aristotle!
In your Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation you state, "I believe — indeed with a passion — that Greece and the modern history of the Greek nation matter far beyond the bounds of the worldwide Greek community", and in a recent interview with Kathimerini, you said, "Greece to me is the present and the future. It’s a work in progress". Could you please elaborate more on these comments? Do you believe that Greece will continue to attract the interest of next generations of historians and –in the affirmative - why?
I often quote Lord Byron, speaking at Missolonghi in 1824, shortly before he died there in the service of the Greek Revolution. He said: "those principles which are now in action in Greece will gradually produce their effect, both here and in other countries. … I cannot … calculate to what a height Greece may rise. Hitherto it has been a subject for the hymns and elegies of fanatics and enthusiasts; but now it will draw the attention of the politician." What Byron meant, I think, is that the Greek Revolution was to be a testing ground for a whole new kind of politics. The new country would not merely import a political system from somewhere else: European politicians need to learn from the example of Greece, not the other way round. It hasn’t always worked out quite like that. But the potential has always been there. And let’s not forget that Greece, when it was internationally recognised as independent in 1830, became the first of the new nation-states that would transform the European continent from that time to this.
You have argued that Greece represents the "paradigm nation", the one that, historically speaking, sets the example, because Greece was the first new nation-state to be established anywhere in Europe after the upheavals of the Napoleonic wars, recognised by an international protocol of 1830. All other modern nation-states have followed the example of Greece. Why, in your opinion, this aspect has never been emphasized by European and other historians? How do you believe this could change the perspective of Greece’s understanding and its positioning in the contemporary world? How do you believe Greece could capitalize on this?
To set the record straight, the phrase "paradigm nation" belongs to my colleague at the University of Athens, Emeritus Professor Paschalis Kitromilides. But I have indeed argued for greater recognition to be given to this simple fact of history. I suppose one of the problems is that when nation-states emerged later, elsewhere in Europe, their leaders were not necessarily thinking about what had happened in Greece in the 1820s and 1830s. It wasn’t that Italians, Germans and Poles (say) set out deliberately to do what the Greeks had done before them. But it’s a fact that the Greeks had done it before them, and in that sense they set in motion a process that has been going on ever since. Think of the great "national unifications" in Western Europe in the 1860s: of Germany and Italy. Later, after World War I, came the creation of a whole swathe of new nation-states to replace the Austrian and Ottoman empires. The collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989 had a very similar effect – most devastatingly in the Balkans, where the wars in the former Yugoslavia led to the creation of new independent nation-states, most recently Montenegro in 2006 and Kossovo in 2008. The other reason is down to the way Greeks themselves have told their story, from Zambelios and Paparrigopoulos in the 1850s and 1860s until very recently. By emphasising the revival or regeneration (παλιγγενεσία) of Ancient Greece in the achievement of the modern nation, these historians have detached that achievement from its immediate context in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe and presented the Greek case as unique and exceptional. In fact, most nations build and project their modern identity by drawing on aspects from a more-or-less distant past, so the Greek case isn’t unique at all. More remarkable than Greece’s legacy from antiquity is the achievement of modern Greeks in being the first to build the kind of modern state that is now the norm throughout Europe and much of the rest of the world.
Although classics still attract a considerable number of British and international students wishing to explore the Greek antiquity, Modern Greek studies seem to be in decline in the British Universities and elsewhere in Europe. What are, in your opinion, the causes for this decline and how do you think this could be reversed?
Part of the trouble, at least in Britain, has been the decline of interest in learning foreign languages. This goes back several decades and is the result of a mistaken belief that the rest of the world speaks English. And of course that decline has been made much worse by the rise of "Euroscepticism" and the aftermath of the 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union. It’s not just Modern Greek studies that are under threat in the UK – even German is going the same way, and most European languages, other than Spanish and French, have disappeared completely from the curriculum. Paradoxically, it may be that if Britain really does leave the EU and we find ourselves isolated from our nearest neighbours, we might find it useful to begin once again to learn their languages, if only so that we can buy our food from them!
You retired from the position of the Head of the Koraes Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature, Centre for Hellenic Studies, King's College London in 2018, but you are still nourishing a keen interest in Greece. What are you currently involved in and what are your plans for the future?
I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, and retirement from the university has given me the opportunity to devote myself to writing full-time. I once published a novel, and who knows, I might yet publish more! In the meantime, my next book will be not about Greece but… the Greeks.
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Roderick Beaton on the bicentenary of the Greek War of Independence; Rethinking Greece: Roderick Beaton on the study of Greece and modern Greek achievements; 100 years from the founding of the Koraes Chair at King’s College, London ; Reading Greece | Professor Gonda Van Steen on her lifelong fascination with all things Greek
Nikos Dimou, “On the Unhappiness of Being Greek”, 2013
Ellie Lambeti, Dimitris Horn "The Counterfeit Coin" (1955)
Revolving around a shiny counterfeit gold sovereign freshly milled from the clandestine workshop of an otherwise honest goldsmith, four brief vignettes of human imperfection, seduction, fate, desire and devotion inextricably interweave in the festive spirit of Christmas and the New Year in the film “The Counterfeit Coin” (I Kalpiki Lira) (1955).
As the film title suggests, a counterfeit coin goes from hand to hand telling its story in four independent episodes. The piece has been made by a goldsmith, Anargyros (Vasilis Logothetidis), who is captivated by the charming lady Fifi, (Ilya Livykou). He has, in fact, spent one-hundred gold sovereigns to make the coin in question. However, nobody buys the coin, which appears to be counterfeit. The coin falls into the hands of a beggar (Mimis Fotopoulos) who pretends to be blind and who is constantly arguing with a prostitute (Sperantsa Vrana), who works the street a little further away. It then falls into the hands of a poor orphan, Fanitsa, who is in danger of ending up on the street, but her miserly landlord, Mr. Vasilis (Orestis Makris), agrees to cash in the coin and help out the young girl. Following this, the coin ends up becoming the good-luck coin baked in a traditional holiday Vasilopita cake. The coin is found by a poor painter, Pavlos (Dimitris Horn), who has recently married a rich heiress, Aliki (Elli Lampeti), becoming a symbol of their powerful but short-lived love.
Maria Kalamioti, Orestis Makris "The Counterfeit Coin" (1955)
The film was screened at the Cannes and Karlovy Vary Film Festivals and was awarded in Venice, Bari and Moscow International FF. It was voted by the Hellenic Union of Film Critics as one of the ten best Greek films of all times in 2006. Eminent film historian Georges Sadoul included the “Counterfeit Coin” in his list of the 1000 best films internationally.
The film cast includes some of the most important Greek actors of that period and the film score was composed by Manos Hatzidakis. “The Counterfeit Coin” was written directed and produced by Yorgos Tzavellas, an important Greek filmmaker that formulated new ways of cinematic expression in post-war Greek cinema. Born in 1916, Tzavellas studied Law in Athens but never exercised the legal profession. A self-taught filmmaker, Tzavellas wrote and directed 12 films that left a strong imprint in Greek Cinema including “The Drunkard” (1942) “The Jinx” (1952), “We only have one life” (1958) and “And let the woman fear her husband” (1965). His first film, “Applause” (1944) re-imagined the representational codes that dominated Greek cinema with ingenious use of montage and editing. Although he was influenced by Italian neorealism, Tzavellas strived to express himself in a purely cinematic language and work with topics that reflect Greek reality making use of the beauty of the location. Social conventions and the struggle for survival are evident in most of his films as well as a humanistic approach towards his protagonists.
Ilia Livikou, Vassilis Logothetidis "The Counterfeit Coin" (1955)
The film is structured through four stories loosely connected and an omniscient narrator, and it was the first anthology film in Greek Cinema. The story revolves around the platitude that money can’t buy you love, the way each of the four stories in this film has influences from the Italian neorealism. It takes place in the 1950’s in Athens and examines the lives of people of different social strata; while most of the protagonists are poor and have to be inventive to make ends meet, the narrative flows playfully between comedy, social drama, and melodrama. The characters are developed, interesting and multifaceted, funny and tragic, generous and tender, stingy and cynical, representing post-war Greece in its strife for survival in a changing society.
As Vrassidas Karalis mentioned “the German Occupation and the Civil War raised new questions and defined new existential, political and stylistic quests which had more to do with class, status and power and less with history, memory or landscape. The new perception of the self emerged with Tzavellas, Gregoris Gregoriou and Cacoyannis who struggled to construct a new style for the new reality while using the underdeveloped infrastructure of small private studios”. There are several outdated elements in the film today such as its didactic tone, but there are also many ephemeral ones, such as the glimpse over neighborhoods of Athens and the harsh realities of life in Greece, that have become eternal.
Miltos Sachtouris (1919-2005), a native of Athens, Greece, was one of the leading Greek poets of the postwar era. When he was young, he aborted his law studies to follow his real passion, poetry, and adopted the pen name Miltos Chrysanthis, under which he wrote his first poem The Music of My Islands in 1941. In 1960, he began publishing When I Talk to you and The Spectres, or Joy on the Other Street. Two years later, he received the Second State Poet Prize for The Stigmata.
He later wrote The Seal, or The Eighth Moon (1964) and The Utensil (1971) from the publishings of Keimena. During the last years of his life he worked on Colorwounds (1980), Ectoplasms (1986), Sinking (1990), Since (1996) and The Clocks Turned Upside Down (1998). He received the Grand State Literature Prize in 2003 for the entirety of his work. His work has been translated and published in several languages including English, French, German, Russian, Polish, Italian, Spanish, Dutch.
Poems (1945–1971), first published in 1978 contains work from the nine volumes Miltos Sachtouris wrote during the most productive period of his poetic career. The first of these volumes was written during the Axis occupation of Greece, and the last was published thirty years later during the military junta of 1967–74. Part poetic auto-biography, part historical document, this collection thus chronicles the writer’s reaction to three decades of intense social and political upheaval in a nation experiencing the successive horrors of occupation, civil war, and military dictatorship.
The titles of his collections (The Forgotten One 1945, Fantastic Lays 1948, When I Speak to You 1956, The Spectres or Joy in the Next Street 1958, The Stroll 1960, Stigmata 1962, The Seal or The Eighth Moon 1964, The Receptacle 1971) could be categorised in multiple ways. The first two allude to our folk poetry; the fifth and eight collections denote a predilection for surrealism by their very title; the remainder seem to move neutrally between the two margins, albeit with a latent tendency towards a modernistic point of reference.
[Translated by Karen Emmerich]
How beautifully the flowers withered
how perfectly they withered
and this crazy man careens through the streets
with a frightened swallow's heart
winter came and the swallows all left
the streets filled with puddles
two black clouds in the sky
lokk one another angrily in the eye
and tomorrow the rain will come out
hopeless on the streets
the chestnuts will be jealous
and form yellow wrinkles
the other peddlers will come out too
the man selling ancient beds
the man selling hot sheeskins
the man selling steaming salep
and the man selling boxes of snow
for the poor hearts
Evocative and deeply moving, Sachtouris’s poetry builds up, block by linguistic block, an unforgettable vision that speaks even to those who inhabit worlds different and distant from his own. As translator Karen Emmerich suggests, "Miltos Sachtouris's rather nightmarish view of the world emerges from his response to a cruel contemporary history and his need to evoke its hidden reality". To use Vangelis Hatzivasileiou's words, "What Sachtouris sees in the Occupation, the Civil War and the social and political amoralism during the first couple of decades after the war is the inability of people as a collective body to prioritise certain moral values and solutions as an antidote to the crisis of the times. Nevertheless, although Sachtouris observes the same things that others of his generations also ponder on, he reaches rather different conclusions: the dead of the armed conflict and the civil strife are not unvindicated people fallen for a just cause, but tremulous heroes of an epic in which both victims and persecutors take equal part. History is not transformed into indelible memory but rather into a contemporary tragedy, which is being staged with the very same intensity to our own day".
As Dimitris Maronitis eloquently put it, "the poet’s poetic production is characterised by a complex frugality with regard to both quantity and content; his poetry forms a system of ultimate equilibrium, which is ensured thanks to the subtle weighing of minute differences. There are no feverish, external antitheses to be found; the fever burns the poem from within, whilst the surface usually remains untroubled, just like snow, or glistens like ice [...] I believe that he offered himself as a vessel of choice and expression for the post-war absurdity, and suddenly modern Greek surrealism rejected its ornamental opulence".
W. Mark Wilman originates from the Caribbean, grew up in London and spent much of his life in Milan, but holds a special place in his heart for the Greek islands. His photographic project Discovering the Beauty of the Cyclades has had its first public solo exhibition, promoted by the Department of Culture of the Milan Municipality, at the Aquarium of Milan (10 May – 5 June 2019), while more presentations of the work are being programmed for cities in China and other countries.
Originally from the Notting Hill area of London, with origins in the Caribbean, W. Mark Wilman spent many years in Milan following a teaching and consulting career with a client list that included the University of Milan -where he lectured for fifteen years to PhD students, researchers and professors- as well as national and multinational organisations in a variety of sectors, and other high level professionals. He also developed his experience in photography there, working as a photographer for the Milan Cricket Club.
A frequent visitor to the Cyclades since age ten, Wilman has enjoyed numerous experiences on the islands, freediving, rock climbing and trekking to discover their abundant beauty in detail, using a camera to capture his impressions along the way. He began work on the project in 2014 and remains highly focused on it until today. His exhibition was dedicated to the memory of the late Professor Angelos Delivorrias, eminent Greek archeologist, director of the Benaki Museum from 1973 to 2014 and member of the Academy of Athens, who passed away in 2018.
The islands included in the photographic project so far are Anafi, Santorini, Ios, Sikinos, Folegandros, Poliegos, Kimolos, Milos, Sifnos, Serifos and Kythnos. Greek News Agenda interviewed* W. Mark Wilman on the reasons behind his interest in these islands, his artistic approach and his thoughts on beauty.
W. Mark Wilman
You have roots in the Caribbean, and yet you chose the Greek islands for your first extensive photography project. What is it that, in your opinion, particularly attracts you to wild and rugged landscapes?
I’m particularly fascinated by the shapes and colours of the rocky landscapes so typical of the Cyclades affected throughout the year as they are by sunlight of varying intensity, from extremely bright to subtly gentle. The hypnotic perfumes of golden grass, oregano, thyme and junipers relax my senses as I explore, causing frequent stops to inspire their heavenly fragrances.
Clusters of trees set firmly in ancient riverbeds challenge me physically, often hidden by the labyrinthine formations of tortuous hillsides and mountains, their trunks thick enough and plentiful to slow my progress of photographic research down to a worrying pace when confronting them unexpectedly, relying on the daylight remaining to reach my final destination laden heavily with camera gear; the birds I’ve disturbed without intention circle above watching as I progress. There’s no choice but to edge forward with care inside the silence, adapting my cumbersome form to the extensive natural obstacles while observing every plant, stone and pottery shard as evening advances. Seeing something that indicates where I stand stood someone else long before, a thousand years perhaps, amazes me, the location unchanged ever since.
The electric blue of the Aegean in June is incredible, the mists inside far-off valleys in November enigmatic. I climb the peaks with intense enthusiasm looking down at my feet frequently for safety and also upwards or across for ideas about how best to reach the summits. Once at the top and after the panoramic views have been studied, memorised for their sensations and photographed, I invariably choose an alternative way down, more difficult, steeper, at times forcing me to remain immobilised on a solitary protruding rock circled by extensions of thick, ageing thorns waiting to engage, unless the intricate conundrum of how to avoid them can be solved. The majestic scenery stretching outwards to the vast blue horizon offers welcome distraction, encouraging the desire in me to step no further.
I love the involvement, the way my mind and body readily focus on yet another challenge, like the solitary medieval lookout tower with its narrow underground passageway which includes marble segments from what was there before built by the ancients. Its strategic positioning on a remote hilltop overlooks an area of vast open water where lie Santorini, Anafi and even Crete distant 178km though rarely visible from this spot because of year-round complex atmospheric conditions.
Rocky bay, Vathy, Folegandros
In your introduction to Discovering the Beauty of the Cyclades, you place emphasis on the physical demands of your explorative approach; freediving, rock climbing and trekking form an integral part of your Cyclades experience. Do you believe that those who choose a less strenuous approach miss out on the opportunities provided by these terrains?
I’ve been exploring the archipelago since the age of ten in 1974, the year I learned to freedive at the British Sub Aqua Club in London, and continue to prepare year-round for future encounters. On several occasions, people have accompanied me on diving experiences, or climbs to the tops of steep hills and mountains but never has anyone attempted to explore both environments, except Roxana, the model in the project. Rarely do I come across someone while exploring, though this doesn’t mean there aren’t numbers of highly fit individuals enjoying the mesmerising views of the Cyclades from impressive vantage points.
On one occasion, two couples in their forties asked for suggestions about how they might spend a special day. They later explained how they’d followed my suggestion of climbing a nearby hillside to reach an inlet of exceptional beauty an hour and a half away. During the return, one of the men had apparently come close to suffering a heart attack, while his female companion’s sandals had collapsed forcing her to walk bare footed over the decidedly rough terrain. They loved the experience nonetheless, still laughing about the drama last time we met.
So in answer to your question, an awesome view is certainly not worth the risk of injury, and in case strenuous activity is contemplated, the right equipment should be considered.
That said, freediving is quite phenomenal, a challenge many swimmers might enjoy. Unique because the diver holds his/her breath during immersions performed mostly in the sea, it doesn’t require the heavy gear necessary for scuba diving. The sport tests an individual’s true capacities, both physical and psychological, in surroundings which favour sensations of calm and self awareness. There’s no requirement to descend to great depths to best enjoy it, but without proper training it can be risky, so a preparatory course is essential. The exhibition at the Aquarium of Milan brought me into contact with the former Italian world champion and present day trainer Umberto Pelizzari, who I’ve admired for many years. It was wonderful to communicate with an expert of such excellence.
Bay view from high, Ios
A part of your project is dedicated to the concept Wild, Natural Beauty Blended with 'Beauty of the Female Kind'. Why did you choose a fashionable, urban clothing style for you model, creating a contrast with the mainly rough, rocky landscape?
As you’ve noted, a contrast is created between the model and the rocky landscapes. To my mind, when brought together, both can be admired for their unique characteristics, blending but also differing. I’m attracted by the concept of woman in harmony with mother nature, each enabling the continuation of life as we know it.
My choice of elegance stems from a particular experience from the many years I spent in Milan lecturing to PhDs of Natural Sciences at Università degli Studi di Milano and working as a consultant to a wide variety of Italian professionals in a number of sectors. One of these was an internationally famous fashion designer whose offices were close to the Duomo of Milan.
The impressive laboratory where the stylist and I would meet to discuss his work was filled with elegant female garments for the upcoming season displayed over most of the extensive wall space. It was another universe, a place I’d never imagined, highly attentive to detail and perfection. Its impact has remained with me ever since.
Once, while I waited in the reception area to meet him, a female voice began talking into a mobile phone close by; it was Helena Christensen, a leading top model. I couldn’t believe it!
Roxana and I discussed the use of elegance in black the second year of the project and agreed to proceed this way. The theme compliments her graceful form, expressions and gestures while following the tradition of widows in the Cyclades, whom I’ve always felt particular respect for since their husbands often died during the war or from accidents while working on the land or at sea.
The 'Church at the Top' gallery is an example of what we wanted to achieve. It’s set on a hill with superb views over the islands to the north and west of Ios, i.e. Iraklia, Naxos, Paros, Milos, Folegandros and Sikinos. Almost 500m above sea level with no road leading up to it from the unpaved track far below; the rough, almost vertical slope separating the bottom from the top makes access to the church complicated, so reaching it with model intact and unscratched was challenging.
Church at the Top: Profile
Your exhibition is dedicated to the late Professor Delivorias. How did you come to know him and how has he influenced your work?
I came to know the late Professor Angelos Delivorias, director of the Benaki Museum in Athens for over forty years and a prominent archeologist, when my son, now 24, was still very young. It was the same summer and location that I (with son in arms) met a former U.S. President, who introduced me to a future Secretary of State, on a small beach in a magnificent bay that is part of an island not far from Santorini. This encounter has played a great role in my efforts to achieve the highest level of success for the project; the President had been the world’s most important leader during his time in office due to political upheaval elsewhere and to see him step out of a boat just metres away was just quite unbelievable.
On another occasion, my wife, son and I shared that same beach with PM Kostas Karamanlis and his family; the two ladies discussed children, I remember.
I told the Professor about my explorations and sightings of amphorae, shipwrecks, foundations of buildings built with large sculpted stones, etc. He responded with explanations I could only have dreamt of hearing till then, causing my frustrations from ignorance about the subject to vanish.
We met many other times over the years, forming a friendship that lasted two decades. He admired my level of fitness and wished I would always give importance to it. He encouraged my interest in antiquity, inspiring me to explore with greater understanding, perception, use of imagination and passion. Last time we saw each other was in September 2017 when he’d already retired. I described a group of ancient Roman buildings hidden under foliage high on a hillside in a remote part of a less visited island, which he found fascinating. An exhibition of my work, focused on panoramic views of the island we were on, had impressed him; the details in the images were so sharp, he said, that in all his years at the Benaki, he’d never seen anything quite like them, concluding by emphatically encouraging me to try for an exhibition in Athens.
Parting company with a bear-like hug was customary though who knew this would be the last? When I discovered he’d passed away, I didn’t sleep for an entire week. My eyes had become his concerning research of the archipelago.
Though he and his wife had met Roxana and recognised her as the model, they hadn’t seen the unpublished photos of her wearing a classical white costume outside Episkopi church in Sikinos in 2016, two years before the discovery of the tomb of Neiko under the floor of this remote monumental structure dating back to the 3rd century A.D., unique in the Hellenic world. The tomb is regarded as one of the most significant finds in recent Greek archeological history.
Lost Lady of Sikinos, Neiko
For this reason, a photo from the 'Lost Lady of Sikinos, Neiko' set, seen by the director of the Ephorate of Antiquities of the Cyclades, who found them 'very interesting', permitting me to quote him publicly, became the centrepiece of the Discovering the Beauty of the Cyclades exhibition at the Aquarium of Milan last May - June, officially approved and promoted by the Department of Culture of the Milan Municipality, or Comune di Milano, and presented by embassies of Greece and U.K., as well as leading journals. The Professor’s family agreed to my request to dedicate the event to his memory.
On your website, you state your belief that "beauty invariably triumphs over ugliness and evil"; can we however remain optimistic when faced with the results of climate change and with severe environmental disasters (such as the recent Amazon rainforest wildfires)? Does a flower always "grow in the place of destruction"?
I think of nuclear devastation and how nature reclaims its place, how it flourishes again given time. Landscapes burnt expressionless by terrible fires I’ve documented in the Cyclades have had impressive regrowth after only a year or two.
What to say about the extreme weather conditions occurring around the world from the Amazon to Australia, California to Europe, etc? It’s awful. I’ve been in a car in the Caribbean that got caught in a flash flood from a river whose banks had broken. Without warning, the powerful onslaught hit the vehicle well above roof level with water encapsulating it for several minutes. Death Valley National Park in Eastern California is the hottest place I’ve ever known with temperatures well into the mid 50s before noon; feeling the heat by touching the driver’s window was seriously shocking. Imagine a car breaking down in such a place. Could these examples become the new normal in more places around the world in the not so distant future? It would seem so.
Technology will surely advance to where humankind’s aggressive output of CO2 is considerably reduced, but how many will be made to suffer, even fatally, before real solutions are found?
In answer to your question, does a flower always grow in the place of destruction? I say, yes, even if it’s a single water lily floating on top of a vast ocean covering what was once the world we inhabited.
Poulati Bay, Sifnos
Your project is now in its sixth year. What would it take for you to feel it is "completed"?
I’m open minded about the project’s continuation. My focus from the start has been on beauty, which takes time to capture in its variety of physical forms and expressions above and below the water line. For this reason, I haven’t moved around the Cyclades hastily searching for new material.
The islands considered in the project are: Anafi, Santorini -volcano and caldera-, Ios, Sikinos, Folegandros, Poliegos, Kimolos, Milos, Sifnos, Serifos and Kythnos. This year has seen sponsorship for further research from ANEK Lines, the historical maritime company and a leader in the Mediterranean. Perhaps 2020 will bring more opportunities for exploration from other businesses interested in promoting themselves through my work.
Film directors and producers have contacted me with enthusiasm. I’m hoping there’ll be progress in this respect since there’s so much to say about the Cyclades, especially from a historical perspective.
Do you have plans for future projects in other parts of Greece?
Greece has genuinely fascinated me since I was a child. I’ve travelled extensively throughout the nation over many years also visiting Crete, the Dodecanese, the Northeastern Aegean islands, the Sporades, the Ionian Islands and the Peloponnese, as well as other mainland areas all of which I’d be more than pleased to rediscover and explore photographically in potential future projects.
Byzantine church at Kastro, Kythnos
*Interview by Nefeli Mosaidi. (Intro photo: Rock pattern, Milos. All photos courtesy of W. Mark Wilman)
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Greek Seas: A photographic journey in time; Photography in Greece | Yiorgis Yerolymbos on the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center and the Greek urban landscape; “111 Places in Athens That You Shouldn't Miss”: The stories that make up a city; Hilary Roberts on German and British Photography in Greece 1940-1945; Visual designer Charis Tsevis: “Education is our only weapon and best hope for the future”
What a better way to feel the Greek Christmas magic than by reading Greek literature. The Christmas Short Stories written by Alexandros Papadiamantis will transport you to bygone times through the writer’s remarkable imagination and matchless colourful expression. The Christmas Loaf, The Gleaner, The American, Christ at the Castle, An Idler’s Christmas are among the most tender and famous of his tales, with which many generations of Greek children grew up.
Papadiamantis’ short stories do a masterful job of recounting the traditional Greek Orthodox ethos putting him on par Dickens when it comes to extolling the virtues of Christmas. As for the characters featured in his works, there are no good and bad ones, but rather people with virtues and weaknesses, which the author nonetheless approaches with the same love. In Papadiamantis’ world – a world that is lit with the light of Christ – there is room for everyone. Each one of the characters behaves and reacts in their own unique way, not trampling upon the personality of the other, irrespective of right and wrong, good and bad.
Revered as "the Dostoyevsky of Greece" and the "Saint of Greek literature", Alexandros Papadiamantis was born on 4 March 1851 on the small island of Skiathos. His first novel, The Migrant, was printed in instalments in the Constantinopolitan newspaper Neologos, in 1879, and a further three novels were similarly published in Athens in the following years. It was also during this period that he started working as a translator for various Athenian newspapers.
It wasn’t, however, until Christmas of 1887 that Papadiamandis’s first short story, The Christmas Loaf, was to appear, marking the feast and setting a pattern for his writing. The metier of the short story subsequently became his favoured form, written in his own version of the then official language of Greece “katharevousa”. Except for two years when he returned to Skiathos, 1902–4, during which time he wrote his perhaps most powerful tale, The Murderess, he continued to live in Athens, writing and translating, until 1908. His longest works were the serialized novels The Gypsy Girl, The Migrant, and The Merchants of Nations. These were adventures set around the Mediterranean, with rich plots involving captivity, war, pirates, the plague, etc.
Papadiamantis' stories provide lucid and lyrical portraits of country life in Skiathos, or urban life in the poorer neighborhoods of Athens, with frequent flashes of deep psychological insight. The nostalgia for a lost island childhood is palpable in most of them; the stories with an urban setting often deal with alienation. Characters are sketched with a deft hand, and they speak in the authentic "demotic" spoken language of the people; island characters lapse into dialect. Papadiamantis' deep Christian faith, complete with the mystical feeling associated with the Orthodox Christian liturgy, suffuses many stories. Most of his work is tinged with melancholy, and resonates with empathy with people's suffering, regardless of whether they are saints or sinners, innocent or conflicted.
His work is considered seminal in Modern Greek literature: he is for Greek prose what Dionysios Solomos is for poetry. As Odysseus Elytis wrote, "commemorate Dionysios Solomos, commemorate Alexandros Papadiamantis". It is a body of work, however, that is virtually impossible to translate, due to the magic mixture of his language: elaborately crafted, high "katharevousa” for the narrative, interspersed with authentic local dialect for the dialogue, and with all dialectical elements used in the narrative formulated in strict “katharevousa”, and therefore in forms that had never actually existed.
“In 2011 an explosion at a naval base on the divided island of Cyprus killed 13 servicemen and destroyed Cyprus’ main power station, precipitating a looming economic crisis. The crisis reached its apex in 2013 when a raid on bank deposits saved the banks from collapse, but billions in not serviced housing loans were kept in the books. In 2016, a law was passed allowing banks to sell those loans to foreign investment funds”*... Due to a series of events Cyprus was frequently the focus of international media attention in recent years. What was the imprint of these events on the lives of individuals? Stavros Pamballis’ feature film “Siege on Liperti Street” examines this question. The film, a Western related to the crisis that is set beside the UN Buffer Zone dividing the city of Nicosia, tells the story of one family's struggle to hold on to their home, no matter the price.
A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Cypriot Stavros Pamballis began his career as a screenwriter, with the multi-award winning Shirley Adams, (directed by Oliver Hermanus), an official selection at major international film festivals including Locarno, Toronto, London, and Dubai. “Siege on Liperti Street”, a Greek and Cypriot production, his debut as a writer-director, had its national premiere at the 2019 Thessaloniki International Film Festival where it won 5 awards including the Greek Film Critics Association award (PEKK), the International Federation of Film Critics Award (FIPRESCI) and the Hellenic Broadcasting award (ERT).
Interviewed by Greek News Agenda**, Pamballis explains that although the story of the “Siege on Liperti Street” is marked by events in recent Cypriot history, it is a story that could take place in any part of the world because its core, the struggle for survival, is universal. Pamballis also underlines the dystopic realities of the Nicosia buffer zone that led him to the stylistic choice of the Western genre narration and iconography for his film.
Konstantine Markoulakis, Daphne Alexander "Siege on Liperti Street" (2019)
Your film is about a truly stressful experience of a family that intertwines with a period of intense negotiations on the Cypriot issue. What prompted you to tell this story?
In 2013, when the Cypriot economy “bailed in” and the country entered the Troika-mandated programme of austerity, I was reading about Spanish homeowners leaping to their deaths from their balconies as the bailiffs were standing at their front door, waiting to hand them their foreclosure notice. I wondered what would happen if a family in Cyprus faced something similar, on the buffer zone of the last divided capital in Europe, a place where there are armies within a few feet of each other, and UN peacekeepers in the middle.
Anastasia Fassoulioti, "Siege on Liperti Street" (2019)
Who is this family? Is it a family closely connected with Cyprus or could it be a struggling family in any part of the world?
Though the family in the film is specifically Cypriot, which has invested in renovating their beautiful ancestral home right on the buffer zone in the belief that there would one day be peace and reunification, it could be any family, anywhere. I believe that the more specific you make something, the more global its resonance. At the end of the day, they are dealing with the same issues of survival, duty, and self-respect that families in crisis are dealing with all over the world.
Konstantine Markoulakis, Daphne Alexander "Siege on Liperti Street" (2019)
Women in “Liperti” Street” have a decisive role to play in the plot. Has the economic crisis influenced gender roles in Cyprus?
We still have a long way to go before we achieve full gender parity in Cyprus, but throughout my life, I have been surrounded by dynamic, courageous women, and as a result, going all the way back to my first screenplay (Shirley Adams, which was the portrait of a single mother raising her disabled teenage son in Cape-Town, South Africa), to the present day, women tend to have decisive roles to play in my work.
Konstantine Markoulakis, Daphne Alexander "Siege on Liperti Street" (2019)
Your film has been characterized as a Mediterranean Western. Is it?
This was a conscious decision on our part when we were setting up the film. The Nicosia Buffer Zone is a modern no-man’s land, an area where the laws of the state cease to exist, much like the American wild-west. It is also an area trapped in time, for almost half a century. In staging the siege in this environment, we were mirroring tropes of the classic western (the white hat barricaded inside the saloon, the black hats circling outside), to tell a story about a country that itself feels trapped in time. This decision then informed the look of the film, the music, the costumes, and the set design. It’s subtle (I hope) but there in the final product.
"Siege on Liperti Street" (2019)
What are the difficulties that filmmakers face in Cyprus?
Filmmakers all over the world are facing the same problems to a greater or lesser degree: Lack of funds, lack of interest in their home markets, and the challenges of setting up a feature film while maintaining separate, and sometimes unrelated day-jobs. In Cyprus, we have the added problem of the lack of international visibility, which means films are often flying completely under the radar of international festival programmers.
"Siege on Liperti Street" (2019)
What are your next plans?
The next few months will be dedicated to making sure Siege on Liperti Street is seen by as many people as possible and securing broad theatrical distribution in our home markets of Greece and Cyprus. In parallel, I’ll be setting up my next feature as a writer-director, a film called "The First Cypriot Astronaut", in the hope of starting production in the fall of 2020.
* “Siege on Liperti Street” intertitles
** Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
On the occasion of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the General Secretariat for Public Diplomacy, Religious and Consular Affairs of the Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Athens Tactual Museum of the Lighthouse for the Blind of Greece held on December 3rd the event "Getting in touch with our cultural heritage" in order to promote the Museum’s work. The event, held under the auspices of the Deputy Foreign Minister for Diaspora Greeks, Antonis Diamataris, was also attended by the Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Diplomacy and Openness, Kostas Fragogiannis, the Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Domna Michailidou, members of the diplomatic community and international media representatives.
(front row, left to right) Lighthouse for the Blind of Greece Chairman, Emmanuel Bassias, Dimitra Asideri, Secretary-General of Public Diplomacy, Constantinos Alexandris, Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Domna Michailidou, Deputy Foreign Minister for Diaspora Greeks, Antonis Diamataris and Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Diplomacy and Openness, Kostas Fragogiannis
Addressing the event, the Secretary-General of Public Diplomacy, Constantinos Alexandris, said that it was a conscious choice to launch the public activities of the newly established General Secretariat for Public Diplomacy on that very day, at that very place. The Athens Tactual Museum grants the opportunity to the visually impaired to literally get in touch with Greek culture. He added that Athens is a pioneer in this field, as it is privileged to host one of the very few museums of this kind, sending out to the world the resonant message that culture is indeed our common heritage, to be shared and cherished by everyone. In this context, the Sec-Gen concluded, “the Tactual Museum also embodies the core values of Greek culture: creativity, inclusiveness, and what our ancestors used to say: πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον άνθρωπος, meaning that human beings lie at the center of everything, human beings are the measure for everything and that everything is designed to serve human needs and the human spirit”.
The event was brought to a conclusion with a brief guided tour to the museum and a performance by the Lighthouse of the Blind Theatre and Traditional Dance groups.
Monika Frank, political counselor in the German Embassy in Athens taking a museum tour
Interview with the Chairman of the Board of the Lighthouse for the Blind of Greece, Emmanuel Bassias
The Chairman of the Board of the Lighthouse for the Blind of Greece, Emmanuel Bassias shared his thoughts with Greek News Agenda* on the event impact as well as the present and the future of the Lighthouse.
Would you like to tell us a few things about the “Getting in touch with our cultural heritage” event?
We organized this event with the General Secretariat for Public Diplomacy, Religious and Consular Affairs because we wanted to promote the work of the Tactual Museum and the Lighthouse for the Blind. This event offered the opportunity to invite more people with visual impairments to come to the Lighthouse and the Tactual Museum. There are only five Tactual Museums in the whole world that offer blind people the opportunity to touch and familiarize themselves with works of art. I was very moved by this initiative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Lighthouse for the Blind Theatre Group Performance
What does it mean to be blind in Greece?
There are at least 20.000 blind people in Greece. There also many visually impaired. Blindness used to be connected to war injuries, but today the most common causes of blindness are medical, such as diabetes, glaucoma, etc. Think about those people who suddenly lose their eyesight. We are here to support them, help them cope with the feelings of despair they may initially experience and teach them how to make use or their other abilities so that they understand that life goes on. Thus in this context, the Lighthouse offers social service, supports multiple activities and develops the skills of people with visual impairments to succeed in their private, professional and social lives.
Since our establishment in 1946, our goal has been to enhance the employment of people with visual impairments and we have created 3 Production Units: The Laboratory of cleaning supplies, the Metal processing unit and the Linen Laboratory. The production units are certified with ELOT EN ISO 9001: 2015 Quality Management System, ensuring excellent quality levels. The above Units employ blind and partially sighted workers, men and women, but also persons with other disabilities, who are paid and insured in accordance with the law.
All of the Lighthouse social activities are offered free of charge including social services, computer lessons, pottery lessons, foreign language courses, the braille and audiobook library, computer and Braille classes, the gym and the Tactual Museum, while there are many leisure and socializing activities such as knitting, macrame, drama groups, traditional Greek and Latin dance classes.
Lighthouse for the Blind Dance Group Performance
What are the Lighthouse’s future prospects?
Blind people’s problems are easy to solve. They need work, medical insurance and pensions so as to be able to move on with their lives. We need State support. We employ many blind people in our Labs and if the law allows, we will have the ability to employ more. It is also important to inform the public, which is why the “Getting in touch with our cultural heritage” event was important in spreading the news.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
I woke up in a country: Greek poetry at the present time is a recently published bilingual poetry anthology featuring fifty Greek poets, half men half women, up to the age of forty five. A joint effort of Mania Meziti, Eirini Margariti and Fanis Papageorgiou, the anthology “attempts to chart the area of personal experience of people living and writing poetry in a crucial era. A bilingual anthology that tries to describe personal experience through the power of verbal journeys, by imprinting aesthetical, stylistic and thematic tendencies – provided that they exist, seeking a community within speech, provided that it exists as well”. The poems were written in Greek and have been translated in English by Christiana Mygdali in the expectation of them travelling farther away.
The editorial team spoke Reading Greece* about how the idea of the anthology came up, the criteria upon which the selection of the poems was based, as well as about the main themes the poems delve into. They also discuss the relationship of poetry to the world it inhabits, while they comment on the challenges of integrating Greek literature in the international field and whether bilingual anthologies can contribute to this end.
I woke up in a country Greek poetry at the present time was recently published and presented to the Greek audience. Tell us a few things about the book.
M. We made the proposal to Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (Office in Greece), which has a long history of notable social and political publications, hoping that poetry could also fit in its publishing program. Our proposal was accepted, so we started working on choosing, translating and putting the anthology together. The book was the result of an open call announced in various sites and addressed to poets up to forty five years of age. Our aim was to record the experiences of people in their most productive age, during a historically crucial period; to put on paper what interests them, what became their focus of attention, the way they perceive the world around them. The anthology comprises fifty poems, half written by men and half by women, since we strongly believe in equal chances.
EI. For me, the anthology constitutes a meeting point. A common ground, which comprises our wish for creative co-existence. It is a collective attempt to answer the crucial question: which is the common ground that we all share and which are the new ways of expression we can explore at this specific time.
F. Every anthology when published gives substance to the anthologized poets by a common denominator which is spatial, temporal, ancestral, and finally, intersubjective and intertextual. It is a chance to seek for universal categories of “homology” between the anthologized, instead of an obsessive confirmation of the “uniqueness” of the poetic subject. Thus, the primary processes of reduction produce universal categories on the basis of which the poets who reveal similar or identical characteristics are classified (Jameson 2002, p. 64). This anthology is born as an attempt to retain all the contradictory elements and the intrinsic radical tensions into the context of unity of unified thought or language. Under that vein, the anthology becomes common vehicle, meeting point and unifying project for an age category.
How did the idea of the anthology come up? On which criteria was the selection of the poems in the book based? Which are the main themes these poems delve into?
F. The idea of the anthology came up in terms of contemporary practice; there have been numerous events of reading, either extrovert or introvert among this age category and also the issue at stake - that of a common denominator of this age category - has been heavily discussed among the three of us and among these events. Criteria for the selection of the poems were their aesthetic power and the contextual closeness to the substance of the Modern Greek era, i.e. the crisis. For that reason, the call for submission included a summary of what is to be found as inspiration of the poems. The main themes of the poems are the references to a more “vivid” past that referred to society or to social movements, an idealized past that appears as a loss; the references to social movements, notions as social struggle and imaginary or actual subordination to working classes. Also, at times, the poem can take gender characteristics in search of identity, against the gender violence and oppression or it can encounter with notions such as motherland or migration under the general question “who am I and where do I belong to.”
Μ. The idea of the anthology came out of our belief that poetry holds the power to conceive and, through language, depict, interpret and judge the spirit and the atmosphere of an era without appearing outmoded. The results may not be immediately discernible, yet, in the long run, poetry has the power to intervene and maybe to cause shifts. The criteria based on which we chose the poems are obviously subjective and were dictated by the material we had in our hands as well as our taste as anthologists. As Elliot eloquently put it, if you ask ten different people to tell you who, in their opinion, are the best poets, you would receive ten different lists. The poems revolve around various themes: historical developments, social exclusion, identity, gender, love, norms, diversity. There are also numerous poems referring to silence as an inability towards the sorrow of the other.
EI. I reckon that the idea for the anthology came up mainly as the natural continuity of the mapping of the poetic network undertaken by Mania Meziti in poets.gr, which by following the literary production of the last crucial years, could also detect its existential core. As for the criteria and the themes, I agree with Fanis and Mania, adding the dimension of personal as political, as well as a pervading sense of awkwardness towards the present and the future, which seems to permeate almost all the poems that were chosen.
“In a world that idolizes the unique and the individual, the coexistence of fifty poets in an anthology could be considered as a political act… A bilingual anthology, that tries to describe personal experience through the power of verbal journeys, by imprinting aesthetical, stylistic and thematic tendencies – provided that they exist, seeking a community within speech, provided that it exists as well”. Tell us more.
ΕΙ. The contemporary self-centered individual is more exposed and vulnerable than ever. In contrast, a sense of belonging and social acceptance constitute the only conditions conducive to happiness. An anthology, even at a symbolic level, can offer just that: a safe framework of existence and creation against our insecure and lonely present. And this, in my opinion, constitutes its political nature, since it prompts us to share, co-exist and put together a common substantial discourse.
F. As already mentioned, putting together fifty male and female poets is an act of resistance against the search for the “uniqueness” of the poetic subject. And of course it constitutes a political act, a question, since we should first address the notion of political. As far as I am concerned, everything that stands against the bourgeois post-modern notion of “uniqueness” is highly political. Thus, I consider the search for “community” of pivotal importance.
What is the relationship of poetry to the world it inhabits? What does it mean for poetry to be political or a-political in times of crisis? Can poetry actually offer new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities?
F. For Marcuse, Art is a phenomenon deeply rooted in society, while an artistic work forms part of a social entirety (Marcuse 1973, p. 108); In addition, Burger (1984, p. 33) considers that every individual work is conceived and intertwined to social reality, to which it owes its creation as part of a dialectical relationship, while for Calas, the social, historical and moral dimensions of being, inevitably leave their mark on art. Everyday life and biotic practice make up the compulsion of the situation to which the artist is subjected. Of course, this function is not a linear relation of cause and effect but comes up as a vector sum of forces such as the situation and the intention. During periods of crisis, this dialectical relation tends to sharpen the political spirit and propensity of poetry. In any case, among the aims of the anthology was to find the traces of the crisis into the community, and in that sense someone could accuse us for biasness. On the other hand, poetry can be part of a “project for hegemony”. In that spirit, poetry can work towards the building of a subject who can understand, signify and act not-rationally, in the ultra positivistic way. At the same time, it can work towards the enlargement of the world’s conceptualization. However artistic “activity, for him indeed who has chosen it, proves insufficient at the decisive hours -- those hours that ring every hour -- when "the poet must complete his message by renouncing himself” (Blanchot 2017, p. 213). Given that art encounters action, direct and urgent action can only disserve it and art can only disserve itself (Blanchot 2017, p. 213).
M. As already said, poetry’s contribution seems to be a long-term one. As with dreams, in a symbolic and undecipherable language, within a secure and emotionally genuine environment, it helps us delve into memory and experiences. Without opposing a militant poetry and social realism, I believe that whoever wishes to write in order to dictate or form consciences, should be more than cautious. History has proven that a poetry who tried – explicitly rather than implicitly – to make us imagine of different realities, was strongly derided, maybe because it availed of an ideological sufficiency but not of the necessary depth. Poetry should have nothing to prove, except to its own self. In it manages to do something more than that, then it’s really remarkable.
ΕΙ. In my opinion, there are two distinct paths for poetry: either to face the world it describes in a confrontational way or to inhabit the world in a conciliatory way. I reckon that in this specific point in time, it’s the latter that could feature its political character. There is a confrontational discourse at all levels, yet the true need of our era is to reconcile the contradictions of our time so that a new landscape may arise. Only in this framework can poetry offer an open proposal to the world, regardless of how utopian this proposal would be.
How do you respond to those that talk about a “Greek poetry of the crisis” and “a new generation of Greek poets” that in a way resembles the generation of the 1930s?
F. I would answer in the terms offered by Lambropoulos, who argues that this age category constitutes a “memorable literal phenomenon” and more precisely an “endeavor of cultural autonomy” autonomy from the institutions (Lambropoulos 2017, p. 6). The script of that age category is articulated through “paradoxes” such as irregular rhythm, speech tempo, miscellaneous vocabulary, labyrinth-like syntax, internal rhyme, unrestrained intertextuality, aggregate lists that break sharply, undermining of stylistic features (Lambropoulos 2017, p. 5).
Μ. Although I reckon it’s too early to draw any secure scientific conclusions (in my opinion the evaluation and study of such parameters belong to literary historians, who certainly need time to evaluate what is happening – if this is indeed the case), I believe that a potential resemblance to the 30s generation lies in the intense presence of poetry in contemporary literature. If we are indeed witnessing the creation of ‘a new generation of Greek poets’, it has all started with the millennials, that is the first generation which is quite familiar with the digital world and the social media. That’s where I would integrate the poets of the crisis.
As Vassilis Lambropoulos notes “of all the arts, poetry has been identified as the most representative of the current national crisis. It constitutes the major cultural domain where the Greek emergency and/or exception are being negotiated”. Does poetry constitute a way to talk about the present?
Μ. In case we agree with Hegel the man is merely an instrument of an era’s zeitgeist, and that the work of the individual man is prepared and determined independently of his will, then yes, poetry is nothing but a means in which the spirit of the era is expressed.
It seems that Greek writers who live in Greece have played no role in the so-called “world republic of letters”. Yet a promising development is that in recent years Greek poets and novelists have been circulating all over the world. Is there a way for the challenges of integrating Greek literature in the international field to be met? Can bilingual anthologies as yours contribute to this end?
M. Of course, Greek writers don’t play a major role in world literature. Greek poets write in Greek, and Greek is not English. English literature has the advantage of lingua franca. I believe that in a world where the English language is predominant, our domestic literature owes to be translated in English. It is the only means to be known. It doesn’t matter what you write, it matters in which language you write it. In this sense, I believe that the bilingual anthology I woke up in a country will help Greek poetry to travel. Greek writers struggle for a position in Letters in their own country. They do so many things without money, without asking for payment. They are not be paid for writing, on the contrary, they pay to write, they pay to publish their books, they pay to travel and take part in the poetry scene. Maybe not the whole number of contemporary poems introduce literature, but the production of poetry nowadays in Greece is huge. So long as this happens, Greek contemporary poetry deserves a position in world literature.
ΕΙ. I fully agree with Mania both as regards the pivotal contribution of translation as well as the role that each poet’s self-acting plays in the promotion of Greek poetry abroad. Yet, initiatives as the one undertaken by Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung prove that what we need right now is the support of institutions and cultural partners in order to form a concrete framework for the promotion of contemporary Greek poetic production at an international level. As long as this effort is cohesive, it will indeed further boost the already rekindled interest of the global community for Greek and will point to its cultural product. Maybe then we won’t simply use restrictive terms such as "the Greek poetry of the crisis", but we will talk about modern Greek poetry.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Eirini Margariti was born in 1979. She studied theater and is working as an actress and director. In 2014 her first poetry collection was published by Melani editions under the title Flamingo, which won the Giannis Varveris award for Debuting Author by the Hellenic Authors’ Society. She has also published the short stories collection Selected Items (Melani editions, 2017). She lives in Athens.
Mania Meziti was born in 1965 in Athens. She studied nursing at the Technological Educational Institute of Athens, literature at The Open University UK (BA, Honours Degree in Literature), and translation from English into Greek at European Center for the Translation of Literature and Human Science. She lives in Athens and works as a translator. She has translated books, poems and articles for literary journals, newspapers and online magazines. From 2007 until 2010 she collaborated with Ellinika Grammata editions as a professional reader of English-speaking literature. She is the editor of the online anthology poets.gr. Her first poetry collection is Black she amongst (Kyma editions, 2018).
Fanis Papageorgiou was born in Athens in 1986. He studied economics and is a Dr of Political Economy of the National Polytechnic School. He works as a researcher, and he has taught at a number of Greek university institutions. He has published three poetry collections: Star washing machine (Logotechnon editions, 2013 – short-listed for the Giannis Varveris Award for Debuting Author, The sea of 150 levels (Koukoutsi editions, 2016), and Canal between clouds (Thraca editions, 2018). In 2016 he participated in the 3rd Festival of Young Authors at the International Thessaloniki Book Fair. His poems have been translated into English, Spanish and Catalan.