Akis Papantonis (Athens, 1978) studied Biology at the University of Athens; he is an Assistant Professor at the University of Cologne. He has translated Miroslav Penkov’s stories and Raymond Carver’s poems into Greek. For his first book, the novella Karyotype, he was awarded the Anagnostis 2015 First Book Award.
Akis Papantonis spoke to Reading Greece* about his first novella Karyotype, a book tries to address “one’s genetic and familial roots”, noting that the choice of Oxford as the setting of the book was “far from incidental – and at the same time far from autobiographical”. He comments that molecular biology is “a way of looking into life’s intricacies at the highest-resolution possible”, and adds that he tends to “approach literature the same way, whether reading or trying to write some”.
He also comments on his translation fo Miroslav Penkov’s translation of East of the West, commenting that “the translation of literary texts into Greek (from English) is one of the few ways left for me to ‘sharpen’ my language skills”. He concludes that “although multigenerational and perhaps spread across Europe or even across the Atlantic, there are some striking points of convergence in this ‘new generation’ of Greek writers”, among which “a common social origin”, “the way by which they treat History, precedence, politics, and by which they all agonize about the present”.
I got (somewhat unexpectedly) involved in Intellectum editorial matters a few years ago – I had published a short story of mine there, and via that my friendship with the journal’s editor, Victor Tsilonis, began. In the three issues that I have seen take shape with my contribution until now, there has been a strongest “bias” towards fiction in the magazine’s pages than before. And, to be fair to the efforts of its editor and the rest of the people involved, that is the actual extent of my influence. Of course, I read all submissions and discussed them, but Intellectum’s participation in Eurozine, the actual collaboration with graphic designers, printing services, and distributors is all a doing of Victor’s. Nonetheless, this one issue per year (typically first circulated at the annual International Thessaloniki Book Fair) is something I am proud of, aesthetically as well as content-wise.
Your first novella Karyotype received quite favorable reviews upon publication. Tell us a few things about the book. What purpose does the title serve?
To be perfectly honest, the way the book was received by literary criticism in Greece, by readers, by writers that sent a kind email of letter, superseded all my expectations. In brief, it is the story of a Greek biologist who moves to Oxford in order to pursue a scientific project (much likes the novella’s writer did). In this “scientific migrants” path, though, the main obstacles are his past and the unconventional ties to his family. The reader eventually discovers that the biologist, named simply “N.” throughout the book, was actually one of Ceausescu’s orphans that got adopted by this Greek family. He spends his time either battling loneliness or using his experiments to address his past and his confusion. This way, he ends up being a guinea pig himself, a “hermit amongst hermits” to slightly paraphrase my own book. The novella’s plot is rudimentary, most of the action boils down to the protagonist’s thoughts and to the things he does not do. In the end, it is the connection to one’s genetic and familial roots that the book tries to address – it remains to be seen how well it does so.
Finally, as regards the (rather scientific) title: a karyotype is an old-fashioned cell biology technique whereby the 23 pairs of chromosomes of a given cell are visualized, ordered from largest (chromosome 1) to smallest (chromosome Y). This order lends my book the basic scaffold onto which the story unfolds: in 23 third-person chapters/chromosomes, from 1 to Y (since the protagonist is male), with two intervening first-person narrations. Think about it another way: what is a given chromosome, but a set of information about the organism that carries it?
In his review of the book, Iakovos Anyfantakis notes that the choice of Oxford as the setting of your book is far from incidental, given the things that Oxford stands or doesn’t stand for. How would you comment on that?
It goes without saying that I heavily drew from my own experience for this book. I started writing the book before I left Greece in 2008. Like N., the novella’s protagonist, I too moved to Oxford, where I stayed and worked as a researcher and lecturer for almost 5 years. I used to walk around the city with a little notebook, writing down snippets of scenes that unfolded in front of me (all the book’s scenes featuring homeless people came from such snippets) or random ideas on how the book should evolve. So, no, the choice was far from incidental – and at the same time far from autobiographical. Each scene, each chapter, was written and rewritten, and then rewritten once more, until I could recognize nothing in that book but the character of N. and his deep personal troubles and strange aspirations. Still, every narration is a story that is received by us second-hand, and that we passed on transfigured in as convincing a manner as possible, is it not?
"Each chapter constitutes a chromosome in the karyotype. And from chromosome to chromosome, these fragmentary narrations were transformed from snapshots of reality into a self-contained history”. Where does the biologist meet the writer in your writings?
Molecular biology, my “trade”, sort of speak, is a way of looking into life’s intricacies at the highest-resolution possible. This means that I would tend to approach literature the same way, whether reading or trying to write some. So, the biologist does influence my writings a lot – after all, I do introduce myself as a “biologist” rather than as a “writer”. Having said that, literature is integral to my scientific work, it constitutes a welcome break from everyday struggles at the lab, while also a connection to my native tongue and community. I guess the problems start once the writer in me tries to convince the biologist to write his manuscripts in a more “literary” manner.
You recently translated in Greek Miroslav Penkov’s East of the West. Given that Miroslav is a “literary migrant”, born in Bulgaria, whose first book was written in an Engish-speaking territory, are there parallels to be drawn between your writing and his in terms of narration and/or maybe theme?
My relationship to that collection of short stories is a very peculiar one. I bought the book after having read one of Penkov’s stories online. It was in late 2008, before I had finished my novella. I revisited the book in 2013, after Kichli (my book’s publisher) has agreed to print Karyotype. Re-reading those stories made me realize the commonalities between my work and that of Penkov’s. First, there was the “literary migrant” experience that transcended both narrations, albeit via very different angles. Then, there was the structure of phrases and paragraphs, and the underlying musicality of the narration – it was obvious to me that my “addiction” to short, staccato, sentences was in fact dictated by the theme the novella dealt with, and such was the case for most of Penkov’s stories. Thus, I translated the main story, Buying Lenin, hoping to entice a publisher into investing in the book’s translation. Antipodes, a new but highly-esteemed publishing house, stepped up and the book found its way to the Greek market. And even more so, I am now also translating Penkov’s recent novel, Stork Mountain, a 100,000-word narration following in the footsteps of East of the West, which should be out by next Christmas.
I think it is important to note here that I see the translation of literary texts into Greek (from English) as one of the few ways left for me to “sharpen” my language skills. Living permanently abroad (currently in Cologne, Germany), I find myself reading books not written in Greek more and more, while also speaking Greek less and less. Hence, after East of the West, I translated a broad selection of Raymond Carver’s poems (an exceptional body of work comparable only to his best short stories), which was the most challenging task for me thus far. And these poems should be in Greek bookstores by next fall, with the care of Kichli Publications.
It has been argued that the new generation of Greek writers is multicultural, multiethnic and multigenerational. How do they relate to world literature? How does the local/national interweave with the global?
I am of the opinion that, although multigenerational and perhaps spread across Europe or even across the Atlantic, there are some striking points of convergence in this “new generation” of Greek writers. Many people will not agree; they do not see a unified “generation of writers” (perhaps because of a comparison to the prominent and distinctive generation of the 30s). Still, I cannot see how one might overlook the fact that most of the people in this undefined group share a common social origin (i.e., being raised under aspirations that cannot be fulfilled anymore amidst this worldwide state of crisis). Then, this generation of writers also share—more or less—the way by which they treat History, precedence, politics, and by which they all agonize about the present. They also share a common hope for producing strong literature, and for contributing to how the narration of the transition into the 21st century is shaped.
Many of these new writers have lived and studied abroad, they have read world literature a bit more broadly, they have acquainted themselves with various other cultures. And this is exactly the point at which the local (coming from a “small” language like Greek) merges with the global; and this is exactly why I think (and hope) that eventually some of the writers of this very generation with find a vantage point in the global scene. But, regardless of any of this, the most important aspect for me remains the fact that their work hopefully comes to voice either collective or individual concerns and daydreams of a broad (young) demographic, be it directly or indirectly.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Katerina Iliopoulou is a poet, artist and translator, who lives and works in Athens. Her poetry books are Mister T., 2007 (first prize for a new author by the literary journal Diavazo), Asylum (2008), The Book of the soil (2011) Gestus, (poetry and photography, [frmk], 2014, with Yiannis Isidorou), Every place only once, and completely (2015), all published by Melani editions. She is also the author of several essays and reviews on poetry. Her translations into Greek include the work of Sylvia Plath (Ariel, the restored edition, Melani 2012), Mina Loy, Robert Hass, Ted Hughes, Walt Whitman.
Her poetry has been translated and published in literary reviews, journals and anthologies in many languages (English, French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Finnish, Turkish, Bulgarian) and she has participated in a number of international writing and translation programs, festivals and biennials. She is the editor of a bilingual anthology of contemporary Greek poetry (Karaoke Poetry Bar, 2007) and co-editor of greekpoetrynow.com. She is editor in chief of FRMK, (pharmako) a biannual journal on poetry, poetics and visual arts.
Katerina Iliopoulou spoke to Reading Greece* about what changed and what remained the same in her poetry over the years, noting that she often imagines her books “as installations, as having a life outside the written text, ideally becoming book-houses or landscape-books that can be read, inhabited and crossed”. She also comments on how the notion of space/place is imprinted on her writings, explaining that “the idea of space in my poetry relates to the question who am I?, it is a kind of ontology, if I may say so, which moves away from metaphysics and touches the material world in order to research and re-invent”.
She argues that “poetry is an active way to observe and feel the world which is perpetually incomplete, immense, contradictory, full of meanings and full of collapses”, and concludes that “we have to find new ways to talk about influences, beyond national, linear or historical connections. The work of art is a kind of passage and because of it we are able to pass through borders, genres, constructions, deconstructions and transformations”.
From Mister T. in 2007 to Every place only once, and completely in 2015. What has changed and what has remained the same in your poetry?
My first book Mister T. is a book of apprenticeship in which the main character Mister T. became both my creation and my guide to poetry. In a way he taught me how to be the poet I wanted to be. What we call inspiration is the power that draws you to something which is attempting to talk to you. It is a meeting. To find the language to conduct this meeting is the adventure of art. So every one of my books is a different country, so to speak and a different field of research. Poetry for me is a way to think, know and connect, it is like creating a mystery instead of solving it and somehow this mystery is also the answer. I often imagine my books as installations, as having a life outside the written text, ideally becoming book-houses or landscape-books that can be read, inhabited and crossed. Something you could experience with your whole body. The element of composition is very important to me, part instinct, part artistic decision. In my books there are autonomous poems, or specific sections which are connected through a narrative or conceptual stream. The composition is revealed to the reader by reading the book in a linear way from beginning to end, discovering the connections, the references and relationships between the texts.
“Not who I am but where I am”. How is the notion of space/place, in all its connotations, present in your writings?
I think that the idea of space in my poetry relates to the question who am I?, it is a kind of ontology, if I may say so, which moves away from metaphysics and touches the material world in order to research and re-invent. We are inside place and place is within us. It gives birth to us and we give birth to it, it dreams of us and we dream of it and so it remains always new, insofar as we are able to develop with it a dialectical relationship insofar as we discover it and simultaneously discover ourselves. The book of the soil, my third book, proposes poetry as a strategy for life. It is formulated around the idea that the world we live in is not a completed work, nor a landscape to be looked at, but a field of action. The book questions the nature of reality and imagination, wonders about the gaze which thinks and the senses which seek the non-existent. There are two characters in the book, a man and a woman: they read the landscape as if it were a text and at the same time they write it. They observe and inhabit it with their thoughts, their senses, their imagination and their memory.
In my last book, Every place only once, and completely, I tried to poetically conceive the idea of homeland, as mnemonic, historical, sensual, individual but also collective place and also as illusion, invention, memory, desire. The book is a journey in the heart of the country, which remains conspicuous, undefined, inconceivable. But here the journey, as passage (poros) and questioning (aporia), is not a destination but unraveling. And the place is nothing but the field of reception of a palimpsest of inscriptions and interpretations, without coinciding with any of them. It became clear to me in the process of writing the book that it would be impossible to deal with this subject if I myself as a writer was not prepared to be lost, did not risk to allow multiplicity or even vertigo to happen. Including narrative and poetic essay, lyrical poetry and autobiography and incorporating texts from other writers, Every place only once, and completely, is an archaeology of the present which uses different means in order to approach a center that remains uninhabited, a desire which is constantly moving fleetingly.
You are editor in chief of FRΜΚ, a literary magazine aiming to explore the poetic phenomenon in its entirety. What differentiates FRMK from similar ventures?
FRMK (pharmako) is a collective work. This collective between the poets who consist its editorial group was formed over time, through numerous common projects in the last decade and shared concerns, but mainly an intrinsic interest or passion for poetry matters beyond each one’s personal work. The magazine was created because of the need to establish a place where this dialogue could continue and become public. The discussion between the editors group, on matters of contemporary poetics and the relation between poetry and society, that we have been publishing in FRMK for the past 5 issues (more than two years), soon to become a book, is an important part of our activities. We tried to create a magazine that would not be a catalog of texts but a field for meeting, dialogue and research. FRMK aspires to bring forward specific aspects of contemporary Greek poetry and thus form a distinctive character, trying to detect and articulate some criteria of what is and what an active contemporary poetry can be. Extensive translations and presentations of the work of important poets from many different languages (mainly from the 1950s and forward), often for the first time in Greek, and the presence of theory with texts from important thinkers and philosophers form the main body of the magazine, while we have already created a corpus of book reviews for some of the most interesting poetry books written in the past four years. The ways that poetry participates and relates to other arts and the presentation of six Greek visual artists in each issue through a sixteen page art section, alongside the overall design of the magazine complement its course so far.
In recent years, there has been an extraordinary burgeoning of poetry in every form: graffiti, blogs, literary magazines, readings in public squares to mention just a few. How is this trend to be explained? Could poetry offer new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities?
I am a bit skeptical concerning this trend and it is a complex phenomenon. I don’t know what it means. What I do know is that there are powerful poetry voices in Greece who have emerged the past 15 years, some of them the recent years, and I think it is urgent to discuss, study and bring forward these voices. The poetry books by these poets create language which is a provocation and an invitation for critical thinking and self reflection. If we fail, as poets, philologists, critics, historians, readers, (and there is an incredible lack of serious and consistent criticism, or studying of the new Greek poetry) to recognize and acknowledge these signs, we will have lost the opportunity to know the art of our time and only observe the spectacle.
Poetry is an active way to observe and feel the world which is perpetually incomplete, immense, contradictory, full of meanings and full of collapses. In poetry, language is disrupted, is dislocated and this maybe brings forward the possibility for us to deny the world as it is. It seems nowadays that our world is described through a unique narrative, that is: economics. But we cannot accept our lives to be reduced in numbers. We need alternative narratives in order to live because if we accept our lives to be nothing but a useful juxtaposition of numbers we are ready to accept abyssal horror once again. Poetry is an alternative narrative of crucial importance. It deals with all the complex matters of humanity in its own poetic way, a way always of doubting and searching, which includes the body and its uprise, defends what is real and the uniqueness of the experience of every human being in a world dominated by the totalitarianism of commodities. By creating new metaphors, new vehicles of meaning, it regenerates our spirit, helps us develop critical thinking, describe ourselves, interpret our lives with more complexity and depth. It opens up a space of possibilities within what we consider as reality. More than that, it implies the fact that perhaps we need to think more carefully about the unrealistic or even the unattainable in order to preserve what is real.
“Poetry constitutes at the same time a question and a leap of faith to continuity. It maintains distrust against the “self-evident’, life as an act and not as mere survival, the thirst for meaning, the fight against the diffuse nihilism that surrounds us”. What role is poetry, and art in general, called to play in times of crisis?
Art works with its own laws. It constitutes a place of risk, imperilment, it is not easy to be inhabited, all the more when most people are not even given the chance, bombarded as they are with the propaganda of mass culture. The sociopolitical and economic crisis we are experiencing has brought forward the claim towards poetry to produce answers to urgent current matters of our society and in this way to become useful at last, to tell us something. Practically though this claim is asking to subordinate poetry (art) to the law of the market, turn it into a product. If I could think of a role, then I would think of it as a denial. A denial of defeat. Defeat presupposes that there could be a winning, a better whole which has been shattered, a paradise lost which is placed in the past or in the far future. And a denial of mourning, that is of the acceptance of a total dominion of the inescapable. We will never accept that they have won. That denial represents poetry for me, which insists to be saved within all that has already happened in the historical time, within disaster, the non-explicable past, within the transient and impermanent, within the secret, song, friendship and the erotic body.
Poetry is also the field where we can place, observe and experience the relationship of man with the non human elements, the animals, plants and inorganic world. In this realm, taking into account the falls, deaths, successive layers of interpretations and infliction, we continue in spite of it all, looking for companions against nothingness, against resignation from movement and possibility. Looking for a condition of togetherness. To look for a common language means I look for dialogue. The problem cannot be resolved, it does not “fit” in a specific place, but we insist to generate thought that is addressed to others, that creates narrative, therefore action, to memory as something active, we insist to desire the things that cannot be destroyed.
Photo Credits: Sofia Camplioni
What makes a national poetry appealing to a foreign audience? And, in turn, to what extent do Greek poets incorporate foreign influences in their work?
I am afraid the reasons that could make a national poetry appealing to a foreign audience, especially a poetry coming from a country of the periphery and a small language, lie outside poetry and have to do with circumstance. But circumstance can be an opportunity so that individual poets of a certain language can be heard. The poet is an observer whose testimony is both personal and cultural, but as an artist I try to move against the notion of a definitive tradition, or language or truth and towards a sense of homelessness, even exile. I think that most poets who write in Greek today are far from any notion of being representatives of a nation or tradition and this is one of the central characteristics of this phenomenon of new Greek poetry we are talking about. This stance however does not prevent many of them to deal with issues of national and historical identity.
The term national poetry though seems to look for a new circle of belonging, a new identity, terms of a specific community. Usually the ones who invoke a discourse of belonging are seeking for a discourse of sovereignty or they become its servants sooner or later. Greek and foreign do not exist as a duality anymore in contemporary art. Our influences are far more complex, shifting, diverse and constitute a place which is inhabited by a multitude of relatives, friends, brothers and sisters and companions, rather than parents (mainly fathers). We are exposed since our early youth in so much text, books in different languages, translated or read in the original. So many of the poets have studied abroad, they live and work abroad, the world we live in, digital or analog, is fluid, nomadic, porous in many ways (in other ways it is impenetrable but this is another discussion). And we are also in contact with the broader range of art in all its forms, which incorporates all genres. We have to find new ways to talk about influences, beyond national, linear or historical connections. The work of art is a kind of passage and because of it we are able to pass through borders, genres, constructions, deconstructions and transformations.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Nikos Mandis is the author of four novels, one book of stories and three poetry collections. He is also a translator of English language fiction. He lives and works in Athens. His latest novel is called The Blind Ones and has just come out.
Nikos Mandis spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest novel The Blind Ones, noting that his main goal was “to create a somewhat complex mix of interwoven stories, that would have Athens as the main protagonist, but also Greece as a whole, mingling versions from its current and older self, using the mythological archetype of the labyrinth and the Minotaur as a blueprint”.
He also comments on how violence, in its multiple connotations and manifestations, is dealt with in his books, as well as on how his language has evolved or become differentiated from one book to the next. He characterizes international acclaim as “a perpetually elusive goal for Greek writers”, and concludes that a problem in some parts of Greek fiction is that “traditionally, writers tended to use it not as a goal, as a way to enjoy storytelling per se, but as a means, as part of a wider agenda, be it political, national, social, etc. I think what we need are some really crazy and bold ‘servants of fiction’, writers whose true loyalty will be towards great stories and nothing else”.
Your latest novel The Blind Ones was just published and has already received rave reviews. Tell us a few things about the book.
It is a book of about 600 pages, with a lot of characters, plots and subplots, most of which revolve around the centre of Athens within a time span that goes from the current era back to the 1970s (the time of the junta) and back again, and also some seemingly random scenes that work as intermissions and take us as far as ancient Greece or even prehistoric Babylon. The central story, however, is about the quest of the main character (Isidoros) to find the girl he loves and has lost (Sophia) in the backstreets of downtown Athens, during a time of particular turmoil and unrest (the summer of 2011).
In his review, Vangelis Hatzivasileiou notes that The Blind Ones is not just a political novel but a plunge into modern Greek political identity. How is the social interwoven with the existential in the book?
Well, I’m not sure I can answer that. I certainly wanted the book to transcend well-known categorizations such as ‘political novel’ or worse ‘Greek crisis novel’, as well as the more fashionable one of ‘postmodern novel’. My main goal was to create a somewhat complex mix of interwoven stories, that would have Athens as the main protagonist, but also Greece as a whole, mingling versions from its current and older self, using the mythological archetype of the labyrinth and the Minotaur as a blueprint. I also wanted to write a thriller that would combine elements of modern paranoia, especially the local brand of conspiracy theories and their political underpins, that I came to be fascinated with.
“I have always wanted to write a multi-layered novel, a story that would connect multiple persons and different readings of reality, which would however be centered in Athens…I had the feeling that the way Athens was depicted in the books was more or less incidental…I wanted the city to come to the fore through its history, unveiling the multiple levels that constitute its identity”. Tell us more.
Yeah, as I said earlier, that was what I had in mind. I always loved the way cities of the world became literary cities and were eternally mythologized in the works of great writers, be it Hugo’s Paris, Dickens’ London, Durrell’s Alexandria, Sabato’s Buenos Aires, Mahfouz’s Cairo, Auster’s New York, Pamuk’s Istanbul, the list is endless. I had the vain ambition that I could do something similar with Athens, as a kind of work-in-progress to mythologize the Greek main city, which, the way I saw it, did not have a similar literary treatment, at least its modern embodiment.
It has been argued that violence is the opium of the era. How is violence, in its multiple connotations and manifestations, dealt with in your books?
Violence -especially in its more understated, ‘muted’ version- is a great means for creating tension in fiction, so I really go for it, hoping to use it wisely and with restraint. On the other hand, in our everyday, ‘real’ lives, violence is something we tend to encounter and even suffer more and more often, either in the context of world news, or in the daily life of a crisis-stricken country. Moreover, violence can be also politicized, seen by various agents as a currency and a means for desired change. All these are recurring elements that one should take note of when writing fiction about Greece today, within a social environment that frequently asks writers to ‘take sides’ in an ongoing conflict, be it class struggle, or the need to modernize the country, depending on one’s ideological viewpoint. I tried to stay out of it, being aware, of course, that trying to stay out is also very political.
What about language? How has your language evolved or become differentiated since your first writings?
I think the use of language in my fiction tends to gravitate towards each book’s scope in terms of storytelling, so sometimes it is exceedingly lyrical (as in my first novel, Winter Snow) and sometimes quite sparse (as in my previous novel, Rock, Paper, Scissors). In this one, language tried to imitate the book’s structure, therefore it revolved around seemingly endless phrases, sentences and paragraphs, testing the reader’s patience, towards what -I hope- can be seen as a kind of esthetic reward and not total exasperation. I felt that if I was dealing with something ‘labyrinthine’, the novel’s language somehow had to follow suit.
It has been argued that Greek writers have a preference for short form and that short story collections have outweighed novels and longer narratives. How would you comment on this?
I think that this is a total fallacy, a notion that has next to zero credibility and truth. Short form is a very complex and demanding sort of prose writing, and it has produced excellent works in Greek literature, but the same can be said about novels, from Roidis to the world-renowned Kazantzakis, to Vassilikos and Tsirkas. I believe it is nonsensical to say that one sort of writing is more inherently ‘Greek’ compared to others and also quite defeatist to be honest.
“I consider that the novel is one of the means that will enable Greece to enter a broader map and communicate with people beyond its borders”. Does the new generation of Greek writes have the potential to attract foreign readers?
International acclaim seems to be a perpetually elusive goal for Greek writers. Frankly, I don’t have a fixed answer for that, i.e. whether it is a matter of sheer quality (or lack thereof) or of a more complex nature, like the limited use of the Greek language globally, the absence of a state-funded translations program, etc. I think that, if I had to pin down a problem in some parts of Greek fiction, it would be that, traditionally, writers tended to use it not as a goal, as a way to enjoy storytelling per se, but as a means, as part of a wider agenda, be it political, national, social, etc. I think what we need are some really crazy and bold ‘servants of fiction’, writers whose true loyalty will be towards great stories and nothing else.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Filippa Chatzistavrou is research fellow at Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), adjunct lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration of the University of Athens and research associate in the Institute of European Integration and Policy of the University of Athens. She has previously taught at the University including Paris VII Denis-Diderot and the Institute of Political Sciences in Paris. She has published widely in the area of theories of European integration, EU institutional governance, political sociology of EU actors and administrative integration in the EU. She is a columnist in Greek and foreign press.
Chatzistavrou talks to Greek News Agenda* about the Eurozone crisis affect on the European elites’ perception of the EU project and Europe’s position in the world, stressing that they pretend to ignore the fact that the deep internal coordination deficit of the euro area is the primary cause of the EU’s ineffieciency to absorb external and internal shocks. She stresses that, given the complexity of the post Brexit era it would be misleading to assume that a certain integration scenario will prevail in the EU. Chatzistavrou also explains what the dangers of differentiated integration for the European project and acquis might be and finally comments on the recent elections’ results in the UK, France and the Netherlands.
How does the Eurozone crisis affect the European elites’ perception of the EU project and Europe’s position in the world?
For more than four decades, the EU has been considered to be a driving force in Europe through the building of a market Union that was widely perceived as a stepping stone toward economic, social and political security. This narrative has lost its credibility and strength progressively since the mid-90s. Actually, the Eurozone crisis was not the triggering factor but the detonator of a process that was already well under way. In the early 21st century, European elites are reacting rather than acting to endogenous and exogenous pressures, i.e. the rise of neo-authoritarianism at European and international level, the continuing uncertainty from Brexit, deterioration of Eurozone public finances’ sustainability, increased competition with longstanding and emerging economic powers, ever-increasing security threats etc.
Facing all these challenges, European elites attempt to make the European project sustainable by introducing a new narrative that is based upon the idea that the EU needs to adapt to these changes in order to avoid geo-political and geo-economic declinism. The creation of a common defense pillar, the adoption of common strategic approaches to fight terrorismand the conclusion of bilateral trade agreements with a view to opening up more international markets are on the top of the new EU agenda.
Since Eurozone membership seems less attractive than before, European elites highlight the link between economic integration and security by placing at the centre of the discussions the idea that deeper integration can proceed to the field of defence and security policy. This will allow the EU to play a role as a global actor, give an impetus to political integration, thus enabling member states to move forward with Eurozone policies. In the meanwhile, it is pointed out that for those member states willing to participate in a later stage of enhanced cooperation within the EU, beyond the firm commitment to comply with pre-determined fiscal rules, it is of major importance to ‘get rid of the structural rigidities’ of their national economies and further to promote their flexibility and their coordinated opening to international markets. The idea conveyed by dominant European elites is that the euro-crisis is mainly due to the structural functioning of the European economy, pretending to ignore the fact that the primary weakness of the EU in absorbing external and internal shocks remains the deep internal coordination deficit of the euro area.
The White Paper on the Future of Europe, presented by the European Commission on March 1st 2017, sets out five scenarios regarding the future of Europe, which correspond to five integration models. Which of them seem more likely to prevail in the post Brexit era?
These scenarios presented by the European Commission are devised as ideal types to capture extremely homogeneous options of integration models, leaving the misleading impression that one of them will prevail. Reality might be more complex than theory. The eventual promotion of differentiated partnerships will probably promote the creation of different levels of integration and memberships (multi-level and multi-entry Europe) in an important number of thematic pillars: monetary stability policies and stabilization of fiscal and economic policy, migration, internal security and border management, defense cooperation and external security. Not to be excluded is the adoption of the majority decision-making rule through the conclusion of new ad hoc thematic treaties that will validate the planned regulatory framework for cooperation of a thematic pillar under the influence of the most powerful member states. The result could be a minimal Europe based on the elemental plan of the single market, beyond which groups of member states will pursue more advanced projects but without any common governance architecture. This will lead to a complex map of differentiated integrations involving different groups of different countries in different policy areas rather than one core group separating itself from the rest. This is a possible real-life scenario of spatially permanent differentiation where the goal of unified integration is abandoned in some (or all) areas, while only some groups of member states cooperate (in extent or/and in depth) together in variable and specific policy fields.
What would be the impact of a differentiated integration on the European project? What would be the perils for the EU’s acquis?
Differentiated integration occurs whenever EU law is not uniformly valid in at least one of the member states. A governance model with multispeed (an environment of cooperation in specific sectors) and multitier (an environment of cooperation with separate institutions) characteristics, involves different member states in different sectoral cooperation schemes. Traditionally-speaking, the concept of a multi-speed Europe is related to a purely temporal variance in levels of EU states’ participation in integration, which nevertheless shares the same goal, but a number of them will cooperate together at a faster pace than the others (instrumental differentiation). In the post-Brexit era, which model seems to be the most viable solution? Until the 2008 crisis, instrumental differentiation was the dominant pattern. Since then, this changed to a certain extent with the reinforcement of the intergovernmental governance of the Eurozone. If constitutional differentiation is going to be mainly privileged in the future, it will promote the pattern of stable exclusion of some member states and a stable variance in levels of EU member states’ participation in cooperation.
Given the Union’s increasing heterogeneity and major differences among EU countries, there are many who argue that the “willing and able member states should make a qualitative leap forward on their own, if others do not share the same expectations, aspirations and values”. A successful leap forward, where the dominant model of governance will be a multispeed Europe, is it only a matter of political willingness or is it also a matter of political convergence on specific public policy orientations?
The use of policy tools of differentiated integration in various sectors risk challenging the very logic of integration in its classic definition, as well as the general principles and primary sources of EU law. Flexible integration now risks becoming an instrument for conducting sectoral policy schemes rather than a vector for positive integration. The only way to develop a multi-speed model of governance while maintaining EU’s systemic cohesion is to use the appropriate instruments provided for in the Treaties (enhanced cooperation, structured permanent cooperation), thus using the European Union's institutions and procedures. The acts adopted in the framework of institutionalized cooperation are implemented by the participating Member States, while the others are informed on a continuous basis about the evolution and can later on, if they want to, participate.
Privileging the accommodation of flexibility outside the EU’s institutional framework or further developing institutional intergovernmentalism may prejudice a competence, right or obligation of non-participating states, while excluding them permanently from a specific scheme of cooperation. A shift towards these forms of differentiated cooperation risks increasing disputes between diverging interests of EU member states. Furthermore, it risks rendering the EU captive to special interests, thereby further compromising the material and institutional acquis; a potentially aggravating factor should be kept in mind, namely the fact that the EU acquis will go through a test during the Brexit negotiations. In a domino effect scenario, some member states could demand for a special status (Austria, Poland or any other member state ruled by a hard or soft Eurosceptic leader, as it could be the case of Italy’s Five StarMovement), giving even more credit to the idea of ungovernability and delegitimation of the European project.
Would you like to comment on the results of the elections in the UK, France and the Netherlands?
What is striking is that it becomes more and more difficult to predict with consistency individual party preferences and voting behaviour in neoliberal meta-democracies. In the British general election, the Prime Minister's party won 42% of the vote, with 69% turnout. It's considered to be a seismic political shock. In France, the party of the President of the Republic won 32% of the vote, with 49% turnout. It is considered to be a triumph.
May’s strategy for calling the snap election two years ahead of schedule in order to secure a large majority to strengthen her position in negotiations with the European Union failed. Theresa May relied on UKIP voters; but around half of the UKIP vote went to Labour. In fact, the overwhelming issue of this election was hostility to Tory austerity measures. After bashing Corbyn for years, analysts now explain that it represents the rejection of traditional elites and of anti-Europeanism… No doubt, Corbyn made an electoral breakthrough amongst youth and in urban areaswith the most leftist manifesto since the 80s. But, in the case of an alternative parliamentary coalition involving Labour, the SNP, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party, he would be obliged to shift to the right…Anyway, that would only be possible in the unlikely case that Sinn Fein decides to take its seats accepting to recognize Westminster rule. As for now, in the British two-and-a-half party system, the Tories agreed to make a deal with Northern Ireland’s DUP, a British nationalist, conservative right-wing and anti-Corbyn party that supported the Leave vote but is in favour of a pro-EU market Brexit solution in order to avoid the restoration of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the south, while also opposing Tory social cuts.
In the case of France, Macron represents the biggest minority majority (majorité minoritaire) in the country. In the first round of the Presidential election, he gathered 24.1% of the vote, of which only 55% were positive votes supporting his political project. After years of political hypocrisy, Macron offers, after all, the French anti-state neoliberal right and the hidden neoliberal governing centre-left the opportunity to assume their ideas by proposing the ‘magic bullet’ solution: an uninhibited neoliberalism combined with a sophisticated socio-cultural liberalism. The legislative election result draws the picture of a ‘Chambre introuvable’, where a large part of the French population will not be represented in the parliament, reminding of the longstanding weakness of left forces to give convincing answers to neoliberal reformism.
The phenomenon of ‘pasokisation’ of establishtarian social democratic parties, in France or the Netherlands, reveals a double failure: their inability to track and trend (social stratification changes and declassification, effects of technical changes on the structure of employment and wages etc.) and their increasing remoteness from the primary materialist concerns of the vulnerable social layers of the populations. That is why in the first round of the French legislative election, popular categories stayed away from the polls, while 70% of French retirees that are among the wealthiest in Europe, voted. Paradoxically, this will enable Macron to have “unchecked powers” to impose his program.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
Read via Greek News Agenda (15.12.2016): ELIAMEP’s Filippa Chatzistavrou on the Stakes of EU Summit and the 3rd Bailout
Julia Gkanasou was born in Athens. She studied Computer Science in Athens and Information Security in London, Literature in Paris and Edinburgh and European Civilization in Hellenic Open University. She has published the following books: On Black Keys (novel, Govostis, 2006) – parts of the book were included in the collective edition “Universal Cities” (University of Edinburgh); Umbilical cord (novel, Govostis, 2011) – participation in: 4th Dasein International Literary Festival, 1st Young Writers’ Festival in Athens and 9th Young Artists’ Festival in Glasgow; Till the end (novella, Govostis, 2013) – shortlisted for the Young Writers’ Award 2013 of the literary magazine “Klepsydra” and the National Literary Award 2014; Down on my knees (novella, Govostis, 2017) – honorary distinction at the Mediterranean Short Stories Contest 2017, University of Exeter.
Julia Gkanasou spoke to Reading Greece* about her most recent book Down on my knees, noting that “the realization and management of our mortality, of our limits, and the impact on human existence” are some of her writing obsessions, while a recurrent theme in all her books is “the anguish for the passing of time, for decay, for the body as a vehicle for uttermost pleasure and supreme pain”.
She comments on “the extrovert character of the new generation of Greek writers, novelists and poets”, whose writing “incorporates influences of not just world literature but global artistic trends as a whole”, and concludes that in her case the bet was to depict something Greek and unique in a global way.
Your most recent novel, Down on my knees, was recently published. Tell us a few things about the book.
In Down on my knees, a woman on her knees starts her ascent in order to fulfill a promise, a vow. She envisions the miracle. She has no options left. And the same goes for all those on their knees alongside her. However, she is not out there for the usual reasons; not even for the reasons she cites in the beginning. What she remembers, what she experiences along the way and what she admits change things completely. ‘On their knees’ are all those with no options left to them. ‘On their knees’ are the mortals who are fervently faithful. ‘On their knees’ are those who believe that the unfeasible could be made feasible. ‘On their knees’ are those who continue to fight despite and beyond all odds, against the forces of degradation, loneliness and deprivation. ‘On our knees’ are all of us when we tread back anew to our beginning.
In her review of the book, Irene Stamatopoulou comments that “the primary question permeating your writing is what binds us to the world and how the awareness or even ‘negotiation’ of our limits, at every level, can transform our earthly experience”. What would you say are your ‘writing obsessions’?
The realization and management of our mortality, of our limits, and the impact on human existence, are some of my primary writing obsessions. This is the reason why a recurrent theme in all my books, expressed intensely and variably, is the anguish for the passing of time, for decay, for the body as a vehicle for uttermostpleasure and supreme pain.
At the same time, I am particularly interested in change, in how living organisms are transforming over time, as well as during historical and narrative conjunctures. My attention is usually turned not to the distant past, but to the potentially gloomy yet mostly promising future. This fact is connected in my books with the presence of science as a means of restructuring human reality, and quite often, as a means of controlling humanity’s course. The role of memory is added to this, which, along with the effects of the most ardent desire, acts as a point of self-reference or as a path to alteration, mobilization, catharsis and faith.
From On Black Keys in 2006 to Down on my knees in 2017 what has changed and what has remained the same in your writing?
I think that my writing has become more abstract, Spartan, unadorned and void of unnecessary embellishment, while it has gradually turned to shorter forms, towards a condensed multi-dimensional universe which starts from a specific juncture and then spreads to cover everything.
Even so, I believe that my literary style remains personal and particular, full of intense cinematic images and a narration open to multiple versions of being. Although narrative modes are incessantly enriched, I consider myself part of the immense tradition of European modernism, in terms of themes as well as on structural and functional levels, with however a touch of Greekness, which converses equally with the global and the universal. I still relish the poetic approach of intimate moments as well as the delirious which has the power to connect the realistic with the surrealistic, the grotesque with the cruelly objective and the idealistically imaginary.
In recent years, there has been an extraordinary burgeoning of both poetry and prose in every form: graffiti, blogs, literary magazines and readings in public squares, to mention just a few. How is this trend to be explained?
I believe that this phenomenon is explained by the fact that literature is like milk: it makes strong bones.
It has been argued that the new generation of Greek writers is multicultural, multiethnic and multigenerational. What is it that makes a national literature appealing to a foreign audience? And, in turn, to what extent do Greek writers incorporate foreign influences in their work?
I believe that current, and chiefly the younger generation of Greek writers, given that they have travelled more as well as lived abroad, have learned to view, read and write in a more “open” way that incorporates influences of not just world literature but global artistic trends as a whole. Taking also into account the fact that many of them read “major” literary works in the original, it’s easy to see the extrovert character of the new generation of Greek writers, novelists and poets.
Within this framework, Greek literature is changing. When I wrote On Black Keys, I lived in London. Literary circles there showed interest in the book, as it took place in a city, a so-called global city, and referred to the insecurity of our deepest secrets, the defeat of what is private, personal, and undisclosed. Thus the book was distinguished and excerpts were included in an edition on modern global cities published by the University of Edinburgh. It was then that I first realized that foreign readers were completely indifferent to the ‘greekness’ of the book, although the main female character bore distinct Greek traits. With the exception of our great Nobel laureates, classical writers and ancient Greek texts – and maybe some works on the subject of the crisis – neither folklore nor the contemporary version of Greece, as depicted in literature, actually interest foreign readers.
While participating in a European literature festival with my second book Umbilical cord, I realized that the challenge was huge. In Sorbonne, for instance, the book was distinguished for its originality: it referred to the sheer contrast between the reality of multinational companies trading the body and a circus of people with physical particularities glorifying the body in all its forms. At the festival, what attracted interest was not the “greekness” of the book but its atopic and timeless – with futuristic elements – global character. My concern about what could differentiate me as a Greek literary voice, so that my birthplace would be a point of reference, distinction and involvement, had reached its zenith.
Nonetheless, when I wrote Down on my knees, which refers to an exceptional happening that takes place exclusively on the Greek island of Tinos, I decided to submit the first part to a literary competition organized by the Department of Mediterranean Studies of the University of Exeter just to see what the reactions would be. The book is among the four shortlisted to receive an honorary scholarship funding their translation into English. The note accompanying the distinction wrote: “We would like to thank you for depicting something so Greek, Mediterranean and unique in such a ‘global’ way”.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Johanna Hanink is Associate Professor of Classics at Brown University, US. Her work focuses on ancient theater and performance, the cultural life of classical Athens, and the idea of the "Greek miracle." She is a regular columnist for the online magazine Eidolon: a modern way to write about the ancient world.
In her latest book "The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity", recently published with Harvard University Press, she "investigates our abiding desire to view Greece through the lens of the ancient past" and “explores how Western fantasies of classical antiquity have created a particularly fraught relationship between the European West and the country of Greece, especially in the context of Greece's recent "tale of two crises."
Professor Hanink spoke to Rethinking Greece* about the notion of cultural indebtedness and its political character, classicists and their responsibility to dissuade people from “dwelling too much on Greek antiquity”, the imagined concept of the “original” Athenian democracy and the long history of recorded disappointment in “modern” Greeks.
She stresses that “fantasies of antiquity exerted such a strong influence on the formation and even the “branding” of the modern Greek state that Western media almost has no other way of understanding Greece at all,” concluding that she would like to see work on “narrative economics” to expain how has the narrative of Greek cultural/civilizational decline affected policy, and how has that narrative affected how the world has perceived Greece and its economy, and what further narratives (about the Greeks’ work ethic, spending habits and so on) about the economy have taken root:
You have noted that references in the international media to the classical Greek past are often deployed in a way that is misinformed, paternalistic, and condescending. Can classicists say anything meaningful about modern Greece and its economy?
Not particularly. As a classicist who’s just written a book mostly about modern Greece—and who can write about modern Greece these days without writing about the economy?—I realize that probably sounds hypocritical.
Let me clarify: I don’t think that classicists can say much that’s meaningful, or "expert", about the technicalities of the modern Greek economy. In Greece these days they say that everyone’s become an amateur economist. Given the delicate politics involved, though, I think classicists should not pretend that patchy knowledge about ancient Greece translates into real understanding of what’s happening in Greece today.
On the other hand, classicists who are aware of the history of their discipline—a history very much intertwined with the history of colonialism and of the modern Greek state—have useful second-order interventions to make. What I mean is that those classicists might have something to say about why the story of the Greek economy is so often portrayed as it is in Western media, as, say, a tragic (or even comic) plot from an ancient Athenian play. Classicists should be the ones who cry foul when calls are issued for Greeks to read up on Stoicism. If we are complicit in this kind of media coverage, it will only prove that the discipline is (still) out of touch and colonialist.
Ruins of the Jupiter Temple in Athens, 1904, by Tivadar Kosztka Csontvary
So when it comes to the Greek debt crisis classicists have a counter-intuitive responsibility: they should be dissuading people from dwelling too much on Greek antiquity. Ancient Greece in this context is a distraction that ranges from counter-productive to harmful.
In a recent “Europe Holidays “article in the FT (A short break in ancient Athens May 11, 2017) the author notes that “There is something epic about recent events that seems to encourage reflection on the classical past…” Would you like to comment?
A few months ago, Neville Morley wrote a great blog post called “Welcome to the Toga Party,” about all the media think pieces that have lately brought ancient Rome to bear on British and American politics. He made a very good point: these ancient analogies serve to “present our current historical predicament in more elevated terms”. By comparing Trump to Nero, or citing the course of Roman history as proof that the end of the American Republic is nigh, we make our own era seem more “epic” and momentous (or as Morley puts it, we imply that “We are living in a time of Great Men and Terrible Villainy and Heroic Deeds and Grand Gestures!”).
There’s certainly an element of that kind of thinking on view in the FT article (which I actually found very irritating). But there’s something more to the case of the Greek crisis and all the ancient analogies it’s inspired. Fantasies of antiquity exerted such a strong influence on the formation and even the “branding” of the modern Greek state that Western media almost has no other way of understanding Greece at all. Ancient Greece has been baked into the national cake. George Zarkadakis took an extreme view when he wrote, in a Washington Post op-ed, that “Modern Greece was thus invented as a backdrop to contemporary European art and imagination, a historical precursor of many Disneylands to come.” But I think there’s something to that observation, something that means that, in Greece, “recent events” will always seem “to encourage reflection on the classical past.”
In The Classical Debt, you note that the Greek crisis / Grexit discourse put forward key questions: “Can Europe claim the legacy of ancient Greece if the country of Greece is not part of Europe? To what extent do Greeks get to claim that legacy as their own? How much does the Western world continue to owe the Greek people for things their ancestors did thousands of years ago?” Can you give us brief answers to these questions?
These questions are the bread and butter of the book. I don’t think there’s any real answer to them, and I’ve been criticized for not showing my hand on issues such as the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles currently held in the British Museum. Everyone’s got an opinion about that kind of thing (and I do too), but very few people have a new opinion. What’s new about this book, I think, is its examination of how, when, and why all of these questions and controversies came to be formulated.
Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends, 1868, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema
I do nevertheless suggest that this notion of cultural indebtedness—a notion that is very prominent in the Anglo-American world— is unproductive. If we are especially indebted to Greece, are there then cultures to which we owe nothing—or worse, are there cultures who owe “us”?
To me, what’s most interesting about these questions is how political and polarizing they have been. They underpin even bigger questions about the nature and even the very existence of the West. When the West wants to talk about itself, after all, it often starts with Greece.
You also note that admiration of ancient Greece is a stronger bond among Western nations than “fragile political coalitions such as the EU and NATO.” Classics were once the foundation of a “gentleman’s education,” what is their relevance today? What brought you to the study of the Greek world?
The story of how I came to study classics is only interesting because it’s so typical. I started Latin when I was eleven, then took two semesters of university Greek in high school. When I got college, at the University of Michigan, I couldn’t decide between majoring in classics and economics. I remember sitting in the office of an extraordinary professor there—H.D. Cameron—who told me that classics departments (compared to economics ones) are small and close knit, and if I chose classics I’d always have an academic home.
I was lucky because at Michigan, Modern Greek Studies is a really integral part of the Department of Classics. During my last year, I took Modern Greek History course with Artemis Leontis. That was the course that first introduced me to, among other people and things, George Seferis and Melina Mercouri. I was completely gripped by concepts like Romaiosini and the Megali Idea. Professor Leontis was the one who inspired me to become curious about Hellenism in the longue durée. The first time I ever visited Athens, she was the one who took me to the top of the Acropolis—and she even helped me to get a SIM Card and a metro map!
In your book on Lycurgan Athens you underline that the 4th century BC city invented itself as the “cultural capital of Greece” promoting its theatre industry and heritage together with its imperialist past of the 5th century BC. In what way do you think there are parallels between ancient and modern cultural politics? And “what makes people think that classical Athens is so unique?”
There’s a long history behind the question “what makes people think that classical Athens is so unique,” and much of The Classical Debt is dedicated to tracing that story. But I’ll give two versions of short answers here. First, people think Athens was so unique because the Athenians said that they were unique (Pericles’ funeral oration, as reported by Thucydides, is a critical document here). But today we think Athens is unique also for the simple reasons that we’ve thought that for a long time.
Pericles’ Funeral Oration, 1877, by Philipp Foltz
Here I find a snippet of something written by museologist Peter Walsh very useful. Walsh has argued that the reproduction is what “confers status and importance on the original. The more reproduced an artwork is—and the more mechanical and impersonal the reproductions—the more important the original becomes.” Walsh here is talking about reproductions of material artifacts, but I’m very interested in extending these kinds of critical heritage debates—debates centered largely in materiality—to the world and history of ideas. The more that, say, Athenian democracy gets invoked as a model—gets, in a sense, “reproduced,”—the more prestige accrues to the imagined concept of the “original” Athenian democracy.
“The Classical Debt” traces the ongoing “negotiation” of the Hellenic nation in the present day world arena together with Greece’s attempts to remind the west of its ‘debt’ to the ancient Hellas. How does this translate into practical policy decisions?
To answer that question in this space, I want to consider the negative side of the coin: how is the idea that Greeks today are unworthy descendants of illustrious ancestors—or not really descendants at all—translate into practical policy decisions? This is hard to measure, of course, but I think it’s a very interesting question because it stands at a real intersection between humanities (intellectual history, media studies, even classics) and social sciences (economics, political science, policy).
Mark Blyth, a wonderful colleague of mine at Brown, has repeatedly emphasized that austerity policies do not solve economic crises such as the one in Greece, but turn them into “a morality tale of saints and sinners.” The place where the humanities can shed light here is in unpacking how the Greeks are so easily cast as sinners—while the Icelanders have emerged from their own tale of financial ruin seeming all the more virtuous.
There is a long history of recorded disappointment in “modern” Greeks, and that disappointment—and disdain—has had material effects. The historian Mark Mazower writes of how, during the brutal German occupation of Greece, a “sort of vague classicism was accompanied by considerable ambivalence towards Pericles’ modern descendants.”
“Hanink helps us see modern Greece through the eyes of a classicist, and ancient Greece through the eyes of a keen observer of modern Greece—a wonderful and winning combination. The Classical Debt is a clever meditation on if, and why, antiquity still matters.”—Professor Mary Beard, Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge
In my answer to your first question I said classicists should stay out of it when it comes to the finer points of economic analysis of the Greek crisis. So let me say what I wish an economist or political scientist would do: I’d be very interested to see work on Greece in light of economist Robert Shiller’s recent drive toward “Narrative Economics.” Shiller debuted some of that work in January, in his Presidential Address to the American Economics Association, a few months after my own book was “put to bed” (as they say in the newspaper business). He calls for economists to pay more attention to popular narratives—to stories and storytelling—and the influence they have in driving economic events and trends. One example, an example that suggests this kind of analysis might be fruitful in the case of Greece, is the narrative that came to see the stock market crash of 1929 as retribution for the decade’s loose morals. Sermons preached the Sunday after the crash cast it as “a narrative of a sort of day-of-judgment on the “Roaring Twenties.”
In the case of Greece, I’d like to see work on “narrative economics” from two interrelated angles: 1) how has the narrative of Greek cultural/civilizational decline affected policy, and 2) how has that narrative affected how the world has perceived Greece and its economy, and what further narratives (about, e.g., the Greeks’ work ethic, spending habits and so on) about the economy have taken root.
The connection between ideas about Greek antiquity and modern economic policy might seem a bit tenuous. But I have heard that the cultural importance of ancient Greece has been raised by economics ministers at Eurogroup meetings!
*Interview by Nikolas Nenedakis
Read also: On Not Knowing (Modern) Greek
art by Mali Skotheim
Aris Fioretos is a Swedish writer. He was born in 1960 in Göteborg to Greek and Austrian parents - Fioretos’ father left Greece in the early 1950s, married an Austrian while in exile in Vienna and then moved to Sweden with her. He studied in Stockholm, Paris and at Yale University. Since 2010, he is a professor of Aesthetics at Södertörn University in Stockholm.
@Photo Credit: Heike Bogenberger
In 1991 he published his first book, a volume of lyrical prose entitled Delandets bok [The Book of Imparting], which has been followed by a series of novels, essays, and scholarly studies. His latest book in English is the illustrated biography Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis, which appeared in 2012. The main character in his novel The Last Greek (2009) is a Greek emigré in Sweden - the book came out in Germany in 2011 under the title Der letzte Grieche. His latest novel Mary (2015) has received prizes both in Sweden and Germany, and has been sold to several countries. In the spring of 2016, it was followed by a booklength essay on the art of the novel, entitled Vatten, gåshud [Water, Gooseflesh). His works have been translated into a dozen languages.
Between work on his own texts, Fioretos translates those of others — for example, the late poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, English-language novels by Vladimir Nabokov, and aphorisms by Walter Serner. He regurlarly writes for the culture section of Sweden’s largest daily, Dagens Nyheter, and has received numerous prizes and awards, most recently the Big Prize of the Swedish De Nio Foundation (2013) and Swedish Radio’s Novel Prize (2016). One of the vice presidents of the German Academy for Language and Literature, Fioretos lives and works in Berlin and Stockholm.
Aris Fioretos spoke to Reading Greece* about his novel Mary, which tells the story of a woman arrested during Greece’s military dictatorship, though the country is actually never mentioned by name, noting that as a writer, he was “not interested in the grand ideological schemes or heroic accounts” but rather in “what had happened to women on a social micro level”, “the small gestures, the confidences, the haptic evidentiality of life on a prison island”.
He comments on how the notions of identity, memory, loss and longing are imprinted on his work, pinpointing his interest in “how individual identities are formed and deformed by the experience of exile”, in the “ways collective experiences contain hidden fractures and complexities at odds with one another”.
Your novel Mary tells the story of a woman arrested in Greece in November 1973, the time of Greece’s military dictatorship, and her experiences with hunger, cold and torture in the secret police’s prisons. Tell us a few things about the book.
Actually, the country in which the main protagonist is living is never mentioned by name. But of course readers familiar with recent history will recognize the colonels’ Greece during those black three, four years on either side of 1970.
Mary is a 23-year old student of architecture. She has short hair, is considered “reserved” because she rarely smiles (the truth is she has poor teeth), and limps a little due to childhood polio. The novel begins in the afternoon of November 16, 1973, when Mary is waking up from her siesta. She is not with her boyfriend Dimos, who has built the radio with which the students are broadcasting their protests, because she had to see her doctor earlier in the day. Now, having had coffee and a cigarette, she wants to join her friend as quickly as possible in order to share the nervy but joyous news that she is six weeks pregnant. Before that happens, however, Mary is picked up by one of the false taxis that circulate in the area and brought to the headquarters of the secret police. What ensues are interrogations and torment. The police wants to know the names of her “comrades,” what affiliations she has and so forth.
Mary, who comes from a rightwing family she has managed to turn her back on, soon realizes there is only one way to survive under these dire circumstances: she must keep mum. Being pregnant, she cannot fight back physically: violence will only be met with worse violence, which may endanger “the tiny sun” she is carrying in her womb. Yet silence poses a problem. The longer she is in custody, the more obvious it will become that she is pregnant. If the police find out, they may use the pregnancy against her by threatening to let her give birth to the child while incarcerated and then have a childless couple faithful to the regime adopt it, as happened in so many dictatorships, in Argentina, Spain, Portugal … In short: the clock is ticking.
Eventually, together with five other women and a little boy, Mary is sent to one of the country’ infamous prison islands which had been closed following protests by the Red Cross and Amnesty International but which are now, with a new regime and worse repression, about to open again. She will spend several months on the island, partly in solitary confinement. On the very last pages of the book, Mary is forced to make a decision no person should be coerced into making: she must chose between boyfriend and unborn child. I do not wish to reveal her decision; suffice it to say that the last sentence of the book is “Slowly her body will learn its sad, new strength.”
Why, then, not mention Greece by name?
For readers such as you — much better versed in Greek history than I can ever hope to be — it is not difficult to recognize the lay of the land. Or the seven black years of dictatorship. Or the student uprising at the Athens Polytechnic that ended so tragically on the night of November 17, 1973. Clearly your question has merit. Indeed, why not mention the streets, the city, the country in which all this happened? There are several reasons, but none so vital to me as the importance the student uprising has had for an entire generation. I am thinking of the Greek 68 generation which was born, with jetlag, in 1973. The three heroic days and nights that the students held out at the Polytechnic, before a tank smashed the gates and the military stormed the buildings, has become the core DNA of this generation.
No matter whether your sympathies are on the left or right of the political spectrum — and I know how ideologically motivated historiography can be in Greece, still to this day — the uprising signalled the beginning of the end of the Junta. Yet, although the story usually told about is one of resistance and protest, it has also become a rather virile narrative, just as compatible with standard Hollywood narratives as with the ancient myths of heroic males. Even when you speak with women who participated, there is this masculine narrative.
I have nothing against it in principle. Who could? The revolt was, indeed, heroic. But as I began to gather my thoughts on the matter some seven or eight years ago, I suspected the standard account did not tell the whole story. I sensed there was more to it — a story untold, as it were, a narrative hidden within or beyond the one usually provided. This narrative had to be that of the many women during the uprising, but also during the dictatorship in general. Speaking with friends and acquaintances, people who had participated in the revolt and in some instances had also been sent to the islands, I realized that many crucial experiences were missing from the standard narrative. As a writer, I was not interested in the grand ideological schemes or heroic accounts, I was interested in what had happened to women on a social micro level. How did you survive on an island where there was no drinking water, only the salty sea? What did you do when you had your period? How did you keep warm during the malevolent winter months, in a place with barely any heating and only humid blankets? How did you build trust with people you had never met before and who might even be informers, when this was necessary in order to survive? Sadly there is also the sexualized violence that many women experienced, an aggression part and parcel of any patriarchal society and quite indifferent to political color.
All these details — the small gestures, the confidences, the haptic evidentiality of life on a prison island — was what I wished to get at. I feared that, if I were to mention Greece by name, the official narrative – or at any rate the usual story that the 68 generation tells in order to affirm its sense of self –, I was afraid that this account would conceal and possibly even suppress the particularity of what many women had experienced. In a sense, it would deprive them of their dignity.
Less important but not negligible: by not mentioning the geography or culture of the country in which the novel is set, I could depart from established facts and circumstances whenever the story seemed to require it — no small advantage for a half-Greek writer born and raised abroad.
This is not the first time you have written about Greek matters. In her review of the novel The Last Greek, which appeared in Swedish in 2009 and in Greek translation two years later, the English critic and translator Sarah Death comments: “All those Greeks who find their way abroad have to reinvent themselves to fit new circumstances.” Where is the meeting point between history and fiction in your writing? How are the notions of identity, memory, loss and longing imprinted on your work?
Your question is so wide and important I fear I can only address a small aspect of it. In my experience as a writer, certain themes and topics are of such a sensitive nature that you need time to find a way to articulate them which does justice to your particular sensibilities. I am the child of a Greek father and an Austrian mother who found themselves in a third country, Sweden, in the mid-1950s. My father had had to flee from his home country after the civil war; as a girl, my mother had experienced the Third Reich and its horrors at close hand. In such a family, how could memory, loss and longing not be vital? And how could the question of identity not be crucial to a boy born and raised in a third country, in a culture which had not formed his parents’ sense of self?
Still it took me many — perhaps too many — years to approach these issues. For a long time, I lacked the proper instruments, the adequate language. There were energies I could not tame, affects too volatile to touch upon. The German literary critic and television illuminatus Roger Willemsen, who died too early a few years ago, once coined the term der Knacks. This “crack” or “rupture,” he said, tends to occur in every person’s life, usually when we are between forty and fifty years old, after which we no longer look upon or lead our life in quite the same manner as before. It may be a case of illness, or a child being born, or you divorcing. Whatever the immediate reason, you realize, in the deeper parts of yourself, that you can no longer live in the way you used to. Indeed, your feeling of self, your view on life, your sense of what is just, proper or desirable, has changed elementally.
This phenomenon occurs in the lives of writers, too. If scrutinized closely, there is usually a book in an oeuvre after which the writer in question no longer writes in quite the same manner as earlier. With me, this Knacks, this fissure, began to show itself in The Last Greek. It widened with Half the Sun, the portrait of a Greek father that I published in 2012. And by the time it reached Mary in 2015, the rupture was complete. I had the strong physical sensation that I could no longer write the way I used to. My instincts were different, my interests, too. Gone was the desire to create mini miracles in every second sentence; gone was the delight I used to take in hiding Easter eggs in my texts. Today there is a sort of lyrical barrenness to what I manage to put on paper. I use fewer words, I am more attached to what remains unspoken.
Although I am unable to tell you in what ways this change may be related to the phenomena you mention — to memory, loss and longing, but also to ardor and affection — I am convinced it is.
You have moved from studying German romanticism and French deconstruction to writing novels about human beings as they circulated in Europe a hundred years ago (Stockholm Noir and The Truth about Sascha Knisch from 2000 and 2002 respectively, with Greek editions in 2002 and 2006) and more recently novels about Greece. Is there a binding thread to this itinerary?
An author is probably the last person one should ask to reflect upon his endeavors or artistic trajectory. Most likely, you will receive replies more akin to wishful thinking than sober assessment. So many of us are guided not by thought-out plans but by curiosity, not by visions but by affects and even irritations.
The two novels you mention belong to a “biological trilogy” which has, at its core, the ideas and phantasies surrounding what was termed, around the penultimate turn of the century, the “new man.” I wanted to understand how disciplines such as neurology, physiology and sexual research influenced peoples’ understanding of human agency at the time. I got the perhaps fanciful idea of telling the volatile stories of three young persons, independent but interconnected, in Dresden, Berlin and Stockholm during the years before the Nazi seizure of power in January 1933. Using the trinity of freedom, equality and fraternity as my template, I wished to investigate how these principles could be related to three central forms of human agency: reflection, instinct and emotion. Since all the books related to the discipline of medicine in one way or another, I decided to put human organs at the respective center of the stories, which by and large all are stories of love, friendship and deceit. The first book is about freedom, then, especially of thought; hence it deals with the brain (which, evidently, stands for reflection). Investigating what instinct might mean, the second novel treats fraternity — or brotherhood, if you will. Hence the attention paid to the male sexual organ, especially the testicles, which have a tendency to appear in pairs — or as twin brothers, as it were. The last volume is a straightforward love story, and thus about emotive equality, so it has a particular interest in the affairs of the heart, with its two balancing chambers.
Then that Knacks occurred which I mentioned, and I began to write about the diaspora and how individual identities are formed and deformed by the experience of exile. I found myself asking what role memories play in families who change country and culture and often also language. Is there a sense of continuity? May rupture be its own form of existence? I wished to discern in what ways collective experiences contain hidden fractures and complexities at odds with one another. Topics such as trust, weakness, pain and perseverance began to matter to me. In short: I found myself knee deep in things Greek …
It seems that Greek and Swedish society differ in terms of their experience of modernity, their conception of family values and personal mentality. Yet a critic would argue that values are liquid and unsettled in both societies. Would you like to comment?
I am certain values are, to some extent, fluid in every society. Still, there are core beliefs that, if not laid down properly in laws, nonetheless tend to be more peculiar to one culture than another. Usually, and somewhat comically, it is often argued that these values or norms or principles are impossible to translate properly into another language. For example, there are the central notions of kléos and xenophilía in ancient Greece. But are they really, really untranslatable? Surely “glory” and “hospitality” covers much of the same ground? Or take the Swedish word lagom. It is the dative case of lag, meaning “team” or “group,” and describes a particular sentiment best instanced by a scene. In earlier times, there was only one mug of beer for a whole group of men. Each one of them was allowed a sip or two, but already the first person to drink knew that he could not take as much as his thirst wanted him to, because then there would be no beer left for the last person in the line. This is the principle of lagom: neither too much nor too little, just enough. I wonder if modern Sweden, built by farmers and engineers, would be possible without a strong sense of this lagom. Or without beer, for that matter.
You are right, there are differences of social and historical nature between our two societies. Sweden has had a strong central state for almost 400 years, ever since Axel Oxenstierna was appointed chancellor in 1612. He created the state’s administrative body, replete with the precursors of today’s ruling bodies and quasi-governmental organizations. He also divided the kingdom into counties. Furthermore, our country has not been involved in war since the campaign against Norway in 1814. Four hundred-plus years of a centralized state, and half that many years of peace and neutrality, have a significant effect on a society. For example, as a citizen you develop a faith in the state and tend to consider it not harmful but helpful, especially when this state, as happened in the 1930s through the 1960s, modernizes the country and brings prosperity to a large majority regardless of creed and class. This grand undertaking can only succeed, I suspect, if lagom remains a guiding principle. In a country with limited means, as was the case with Sweden, which lost more inhabitants than it gained well into the 1880s, you must always think of your other; there has to be something left for the last person in line. What clearer proof is there of such relative solidarity than that, as a citizen, you pay your taxes?
As you know much better than I, Greece has not experienced the same societal development since the 1600s. Instead, the history of the country is also the history of occupation. There have been Ottomans, Germans and even home-grown colonels ruling and leaving their mark on the culture. In such a society, the state is not trusted. Put unfairly harshly, you either resist and fight it — or, as has also happened, you exploit its resources for your own benefit. Whatever you do, you do not necessarily pay your taxes.
Obviously I am making the contrast between our countries starker than reality merits. Also, would it not be possible to translate the Swedish lagom into the ancient notion of métron? There are differences nonetheless, because of a social and political history that forms and deforms every nation’s sense of national or cultural identity. Among many other things, the fraught undertaking known as the European Union is an attempt to bring such differences — this host of nations, with their varying histories and experiences — together under the same umbrella. How could there not be skirmishes and fights for the best place, to avoid getting unduly wet on the fringes? And who should hold the umbrella? Can there really be 28 – or, after the pending Brexit, 27 – hands keeping it up?
What’s the current crisis’ impact on individuality and self-consciousness? Are new narratives underway?
I keep my fingers crossed.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou and Nikolas Nenedakis
Thomas Symeonidis (Thessaloniki, 1977) is a Greek writer living in Paris. He studied architecture, political sciences and philosophy. He works as a lecturer and researcher in the domains of literature theory, aesthetics and philosophy of art. He is the author of a novel (Be my hero!, 2015) and a theatrical play (There also exists, 2017). He translated in Greek Samuel Beckett’s Last Trilogy (2016).
Thomas Symeonidis spoke to Reading Greece* about his most recent book There also exist, a play based on the contradictory relationship between poet Paul Celan and the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, noting that he wanted to “approach the boundaries and differences that exist between poetry and philosophy, between the Poet and the Philosopher”. He explains that, as a writer, he tries to “investigate on a first level, the question of survival in terms of personal integrity and sanity of thought, on a second level, the question regarding the basis for a meaningful life”, and adds that what is of great interest to him is “a pathology of thought, that is, all these forms with which thought can be derailed when it fails to manage reality”.
Your new book There also exists is a theatrical play based on the life and work of poet Paul Celan. Tell us a few things about the book.
The play There also exists is based on the contradictory relationship between Paul Celan and the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, to whom belongs one of the most famous aphorisms of the 20th century: "Every poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." The dramatic idea of the play is an arranged meeting between them, which never took place due to Celan. Writing this play, I wanted to approach the boundaries and differences that exist between poetry and philosophy, between the Poet and the Philosopher. I also wanted to end up with a voice that would be informed by Celan's life and work: a life marked by the worst moments of history, but also a work on poetry that can be seen as an attempt to confront this specific historical experience. The depth at which Celan dives is unprecedented. The things that haunted him and led him to commit suicide continue to exist as a threat and danger, continue to feed on the most negative aspects of everyday life, thought, action. That's why, beyond my great interest in Celan's life and my admiration for his work, I think that today, especially today, Celan's voice, the voice of the Poet, is a vital vehicle of communication and self-understanding.
“If there is something common in my main characters that they are constantly in a state of confrontation, struggling not to be crashed by life itself”. What are the themes your writings touch upon?
What I understand as a basic condition of everyday life is a merciless flow of events, information, requests, thoughts, a flow that we are confronted with, every day. And at the same time, we are specified by relations, belongings, origins, in other words, we are defined by a multitude of people and frameworks of reference. Against all these, I try, as a writer, to investigate on a first level, the question of survival in terms of personal integrity and sanity of thought, on a second level, the question regarding the basis for a meaningful life. In my first project, Be My Hero!, through the plot and a highly idiosyncratic narrative, I tried to explore the formulation of new references and by extension the articulation of a rule of life, but more specifically, a rule that would be open and self-conscious In terms of its ideological and subjective origins.
“The pathology of thought in all its various forms, what precedes a foolish action, is precisely where I focus when I write”. Tell us more.
I can see in a daily and interpersonal level how easy the misunderstandings are, how mistaken may be what one believes, how easily we can be guided by the wrong thoughts toward actions, how can we ultimately cause pain, get to the point of depriving one’s life, without even realizing that this is the case. We are witnessing every day that political and social demands continue to be supported through violence, we see the ease with which a multifaceted radicalism is cultivated and channeled into action. In my case, I could say that in my first novel, Be My Hero!, I confronted the questions of illusion, self-deception, as well as, the conflict of different voices and different ways of interpreting thoughts and situations. But more generally, what I see to be of great interest, is what I understand as a pathology of thought, that is, all these forms with which thought can be derailed when it fails to manage reality.
Literary critic Yiorgos Perantonakis argues that during the last few years, novels and short stories written especially by young writers are characterized by a Kafkaesque atmosphere of mystery and danger that edges on dystopia. How do you comment on that?
I believe that the view of Yorgos Perantonakis is correct, given that, in the case of Kafka, we have a particular condition defined by the interrelation of structure, responsibility and guilt. In today's conjuncture, what we can testify, is the failure to define responsibility, both individually and collectively, the feeling of a suffocating subordination, the existence of a debt that is not only defined in economic terms, the inability to integrate oneself and contribute according to her own specific features and abilities. But also, we can testify a situation of permanent fear, as well as, of anxiety. We are confronted with a problematic context of communication (too many technicalities, too many simplifications, too many channels of information), with a generalized insecurity and loss of confidence. Apparently, all these, tied together, contribute to the formation of an atmosphere of mystery and danger. The point at which I feel that I could differentiate myself from Mr. Perantonakis, is the extent to which all these works to which he refers, uphold the view that this situation is permanent, without any positive openings regarding the future.
You have mentioned Samuel Becket and Theodore Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory as a source of inspiration. What’s the relevance of these readings with Greek modernity? And to what extent does the new generation of Greek poets and writers incorporate foreign influences in their work?
I was led to Adorno's Aesthetic Theory and the work of Samuel Beckett, after a long journey. As a writer, I consider literature more in relation to philosophy and thought, than language. I perceive myself as a Greek writer, and this is not only defined by my distinct reference to a particular tradition, but first and foremost, by the fact that I am Greek, the fact that I am defined by a certain history, specific places and people, the fact that I am perceived as a Greek abroad. More generally, my point is that we should not be concerned whether there are Greek or foreign influences on modern prose and poetic production, but rather with the following questions: do we have works that can sustain over time? Do we have works with a reason of existence today?
What about the role of literature, and art in general, in times of crisis? Can art offer new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities?
I consider literature and art in general, as privileged domains for reflection. From this point of view, and if we are to define crisis as a general situation of loss of references and orientation, art and literature can in particular direct our gaze and senses to what is spiritually important today. But obviously this is not enough and any connection between imagination and practical politics has its limits. Having said that, I just want to emphasize that there is a lot of work to be done in many different fields, a work that literature and art cannot under any circumstances substitute, but, indeed, can support, and is vital to do so, with their own ways.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Being part of the EU’s "Projects of Common Interest", the Eastern Mediterranean natural gas pipeline project relates to an offshore/onshore natural gas pipeline, directly connecting East Mediterranean resources to Greece and Italy via Cyprus and Crete that could: enhance Europe’s gas security of supply via diversification of counterparts, routes and sources; develop EU indigenous resources such as the offshore gas reserves around Cyprus and Greece; and promote the development of a South Mediterranean Gas Hub. It constitutes an important element in Greece’s endeavors to take advantage of its geostrategic position, as PM Alexis Tsipras has recently underlined. A noteworthy step towards the promotion of the construction of East Med was recorded on April 3rd, following a joint Greece-Italy-Cyprus-Israel declaration.
With an estimated length of 1,700 kilometers, East Med pipeline, promoted by IGI Poseidon SA, is expected to become the world’s longest subsea natural-gas pipeline. The proposed pipeline aspires to connect the East Mediterranean gas resources to the European gas system, with a transport capacity of up to 16 billion cubic meters.
In the context of shedding light into the significant geostrategic and geopolitical aspects of this project, Greek News Agenda interviewed* Constantinos Filis, an expert on energy issues, Research Director of the Institute of International Relations and Head of its Russia-Eurasia & SE Europe Centre:
Given the magnitude and the high estimated cost of East-Med, do you believe that the current volumes of natural gas found in Israel and Cyprus suffice for this project?
Certainly yes. Based on current finds, Israel can export up to 16 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas for a period of 20-25 years. Given that East Med’s capacity does not exceed 10-12 bcm annually, it is obvious that two if not three projects can be supported at the same time. As Israel has expressed its willingness to feed regional markets, we are expecting – despite political difficulties – an attempt to supply the big and thirsty Turkish market. The needs of Southern Turkey, which are estimated at 8 bcm can be met by Israel, leaving ample natural gas to be exported to Europe through Greece. If we include Cyprus in the equation, there is even greater potential.
The East Med project got a boost with the recent support it secured at a European level, but it still has to persuade involved parties that it is worth looking at it as a priority. It is a matter not only of feasibility (a number of studies prove it can be done), but also of whether East Med can be considered a project that offers geopolitical and geoeconomic advantages, putting aside any complications/risks that other alternatives have. Its obvious comparative advantage is that it involves two EU member-states and the most stable and prosperous state in the region, Israel.
In terms of financial viability, can the East-Med pipeline coexist with a natural gas pipeline linking Israeli gas fields to Turkey or are these pipelines mutually exclusive?
As we’ve already said, East Med can definitely coexist with a pipeline linking Israel with the Turkish market. The picture becomes blurred, however, if Tel Aviv decides to transport its natural gas to Europe through Turkey. In that case, East Med will be left out of the game. But, there are given doubts. The creation of a new inland pipeline system entails a significant cost, while rendering Turkey an important link in the EU energy security supply chain would give Ankara a negotiating advantage over Brussels. This would of course not only embed Turkey's uncertainties in the project, but would also be geopolitically one-sided, as it would increase Ankara's strength exclusively and increase its sway with producers (its having the additional role of transit country rather than being merely a customer), multiplying the potential risks deriving from its management of this advantage.
How does Egypt affect the overall natural gas landscape in the Eastern Mediterranean area?
One very likely scenario is the utilization of liquefaction facilities in Egypt. Here, Israel and Cyprus could more economically send a portion of their production to Egypt, where their gas will be liquefied and be exported as LNG, probably to Europe, as competition and distance make the prospect of exporting to Asia unlikely. The riskiness of dealing with Egypt as long as the situation is not fully stabilized is understandably being taken into account by Cyprus and, in particular, Israel. As said, the advantage here is the lower cost, although there are two potential disadvantages: the possibility that the Zohr field will have the necessary quantities to cover both LNG facilities and the de facto downgrading of Israeli and Cypriot natgas – which would, in this case, have only a minor role (in the final mix) in supplying Europe. Egypt can, of course, export from the Zohr field, once it has satisfied its domestic market of 90+ million consumers.
Can Turkey’s policy constitute a threat for East-Med pipeline?
Most of the project concerns the laying of an undersea pipeline in Israeli and/or Cypriot territorial waters initially, and then in international waters before it reaches Greece. Turkey has no legal argument for hindering the construction of this project.
It is significant that, although Ankara disputes Nicosia’s right to carry out tenders for concessions of energy parcels, major companies, including Total, ENI and Exxon-Mobil, have defied Turkey’s threats and obtained the relevant permits.
So the only thing Ankara can do is continue to threaten to use military force, not so much as a real likelihood, but more as a tool for influencing the decisions of involved parties (states and companies) by adding – on top of the technical difficulties and costliness of the project – the issue of the geopolitical complications Ankara can cause, so that the risk involved in the East Med makes the whole endeavour less attractive.
The next move (should the project move ahead) is the harassment, in various ways, of the vessels that lay the pipeline. Although this is not a highly probable eventuality either, even if it does happen, it cannot be carried on for very long, due to the lack of legal grounding.
Thus, diplomatic actions and initiatives are required. Such actions and initiatives are not favored by the domestic state of affairs in Turkey (flare-up of nationalism, close result in the referendum, need for sensationalist posturing to strengthen national morale), but if Ankara fails to seek normalization at some point, it will find itself in a very difficult position.
*Interview by George Kalyvas
George-Icaros Babassakis (April 1960) is a poet, translator, writer and keen student of the avant-garde (Futurism, Dada, Hyperrealism), the Beat Generation, and of the movements for “transcending and realizing art" (CoBrA, Lettristes, Situationistes). He founded and directed the Propaganda Review (1997-2002). He has written books on William Burroughs and Guy Debord. He directs the KOREKT magazine/project (Nefeli editons) and the series Sudden Documentaries (Gavrielides editions).
George-Icaros Babassakis spoke to GrèceHebdo and Reading Greece* about his relationship with Athens and urban wandering, the "sacred" places where friends gather and make plans, the fascination of revisting familiar places and faces, and why "life is both beautiful and easy, as long as you stick to your obsessions, remain determined in your beliefs and honour what you love."
Aesthetics, the art of living, poetry as a daily practice and as a continuous attempt to create Debordian "situations" appear to be constant preoccupations of yours. How do you look for the magic of things in the cracks and niches of Athens?
I am constantly wandering through the urban landscape, with my eyes open, as well as with my eyes and nostrils on alert, like a hound, so as to recognize the small miracle when it appears: in a stranger's gaze, on a beautiful old door at Thiras Street (Kypseli), or for instance, in an unexpected combination of an ashtray, a glass of wine, and a flower on the table of a cafeteria where the regulars are over seventy years old. Also, in encounters with friends, over long discussions at our hangouts, we discover things hidden in the streets and alleys of Athens.
You have written books titled after two of your favorite bars (Enoikos, Au Revoir) and an ouzeri (Ouzomafsoleion Kapetan Michalis). What do hangouts mean to you?
Hangouts are the air that I breathe, and the extension of my lab / office. We meet there, my friends and I, in these holy places, consecrated by time, by the decades and countless hours of encounters in them. At these hangouts we have rested from the daily grind, we’ve made plans for books and films and records and anything you can imagine. At Enoikos, our group of friends included the late Kostis Papaygiorgis, Christos Vakalopoulos and Ilias Lagios, the poet Evgenios Aranitsis and others. We always listened to jazz, and we’ve broken some fine records in whiskey-drinking. At Kapetan Michalis, we still meet today, now, some writers, poets, painters, photographers, and philosophers, under the presidency of Tasos Goudelis.
You have said: "The city is the factory that produces memories." Why is memory possible only in the city and not in nature as well?
Memory is possible everywhere: in the city and in the country as well. Thoreau’s renowned Walden is the memory of nature. Thomas Bernhard's novels are the memory of the city. As Maria Mitsora says, openness to the enigma befits the city, and for decades now I personally enjoy the city's mysteries, the successive surprises, the catalytic meetings.
Although you are a lover of urban wandering and the situtationist dérive, beyond that you do not seem to be interested in travelling. Why?
I used to be interested. Itravelled to Paris frequently, and I used to wander around the city of André Breton, Jacques Prevert and Guy Debord for hours, using, instead of a map, certain beloved literary works, like Hemingway's Moveable Feast and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer - so I got lost many times, but it was welcome. For the past ten years, travelling, over and over, again around Athens fascinates me more, I really feel at home, like Athens is an extension of my living room or my kitchen. It appeals more to me seeing familiar places and familiar, beloved faces, and deepening my relationship with them, discovering other of their aspects.
In the end, «La vie est belle, et facile»?
Everything we’ve said in the past is valid; and yes indeed, life is both beautiful and easy. As long as you stick to your obsessions, remain determined in your beliefs and honour what you love.
Which books (yours or others’) would you suggest to someone who would like to know, to feel what Athens is today?
I would suggest the books of Evgenios Aranitsis and Christos Vakalopoulos, especially the Details about the End of the World (Nefeli Editions) and New Athenian Histories (Hestia). Of my own, I would especially suggest Denigration (Hestia) and Through our Eyelids (Bibliothèque), where one can enjoy an oblique glance at the Athenian landscape.
Which musical piece and images would you suggest best accompany reading this interview?
Musical Piece: San Michele, by Thanassis Papankonstantinou. Images: Marili Zarkou’s photographs from her book Hidden Track/City Niches (Gavielides).
* Interview given to Ioulia Livaditi (Greek News Agenda) and Magdalini Varoucha (GrèceHebdo). Translation from Greek: Ioulia Livaditi