Haris Vlavianos (Rome, 1957) studied Economics and Philosophy at the University of Bristol, as well as Politics and History at the University of Oxford. His doctoral thesis, entitled Greece 1941-1949: From Resistance to Civil War, was published by Macmillan in 1992.
He has published eleven collections of poetry, the most recent being Vacation in Reality (Patakis, 2009) [won the “Diavazo” Poetry Prize] and Sonnets of Despair (Patakis, 2011) [short-listed for the National Poetry Prize]. He has also published a collection of thoughts and aphorisms on poetry and poetics entitled The Other Place (Nefeli, 1994) and a book of essays entitled Does Poetry Matter?: Thoughts on the Uselessness of an Art (Polis, 2007), as well a book with Haikus, entitled The History of Western Philosophy in 100 Haikus: From the Presocratics to Derrida (Patakis, 2011). In 2013 he published an autobiography entitled Blood into Water (Patakis). His latest book, Hitler’s Secret Diary, was published in 2016 (Patakis). He has translated into Greek, the works of well-known writers such as Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, William Blake, Carlo Goldoni, Fernando Pessoa, E. E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot, Zbigniew Herbert, Michael Longley, Anne Carson, etc.
He is the editor of the literary Greek journal Ποιητική [Poetics], considered to be the most prestigious literary journal in Greece. His work has been translated into English, French, German, Dutch, Swedish, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Bulgarian, Albanian and Croatian, and has appeared in book form and in numerous European and American journals and anthologies. For his contribution in promoting Italian literature in Greece, through his translations and essays, the President of the Italian Republic bestowed upon him the title of “Cavaliere of the Arts and Letters”.
Haris Vlavianos spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest book Hitler’s Secret Diary explaining that he decided to “focus on those thirteen months that Hitler went to jail after the failed ‘Beer-Hall Putsch’”, because during this crucial period Hitler “was transformed from being the leader of a small party, to a political thinker that decided to put his ideas on paper and offer them to the German public as a ‘new credo’”. He notes that, “in studying Hitler, I also had to study the history and culture of Germany” as Hitler was a by-product of a specific era and a specific country, while he comments on the “rise of extreme ideologies and leaders in many countries” around the world.
As for his poetic work, he adds that “a central theme in many of my poems is History and how individual histories weave into the greater patterns of History”, and explains that he is always “between languages and cultures”, which forces him “not to take language for granted”. He concludes with the history and content of Poetics, while also commenting on the place of poetry and of young poets nowadays.
How was the idea to write a book on Hitler born? How demanding was it to write a book on such a notorious historical figure of global caliber?
The idea was born long ago when I was a studying History and Politics at the University of Oxford. I was very fortunate to be taught by some renowned professors whose expertise was the period between the two World Wars. I studied both the history of Nazism and Stalinism, so the “Hitler phenomenon” preoccupied me from those early days. In fact, when I was living in England, a great scandal broke out relating to some “Hitler’s diaries”, which proved of course to be fake. There was this German “art-dealer” called Konrad Kujau, who had sold these fake diaries to Stern magazine, which was about to publish them, when a chemical analysis of the paper and the ink used revealed the truth. This man went to jail but apparently became very famous in Germany after he came out from prison. He opened a shop in Stuttgart selling Hitler’s “authentic fakes” – pictures, letters, and diaries!
Being a Historian and teaching History all these years at the American College of Greece – one of the courses I teach is about Nazism – I felt that I should write a book about Hitler. But, being also a poet, I decided not to write a history book or a critical study of Nazism, but to attempt to penetrate Hitler’s mind and write a different kind of book - a diary, Hitler’s Secret Diary. I decided to focus on those thirteen months that Hitler went to jail after the failed “Beer-Hall Putsch”. As historians know, these thirteen months that Hitler stayed in jail were very important for his development as a “thinker”. It was in jail that he came up with his plan to present himself to the German public not just as a leader of a small party but also as a political thinker. He conceived the idea of writing the notorious Mein Kampf and by the time he came out in December 1924 he had already completed the first volume, which was published a few months later. So, in my book, I follow the development of Hitler’s ideas and the gradual process by which this man was transformed, as I said, from being the leader of a small nationalistic party, to a political thinker who decided to put his ideas on paper and offer them to the German public as a “new credo”.
I also thought that the diary form would allow me to use the first person singular, which is a more powerful way to present Hitler’s mind and character. The book is, therefore, a study of his personality, a kind of ‘ψυχογράφημα’, trying to understand the way this man came to be the monster we know. But of course, at the end of it, there is always a question mark. Whatever we say about Hitler, there is always something about his personality that will escape us. In fact, doing research on the book, I read many works written by psychoanalysts. I was very disappointed as many of these studies were very simplistic and one-sided and try to place Hitler in a preconceived frame.
Moreover, being a poet, the diary form allowed me to be very careful with the writing of the book; the diary is just a sequence of entries and therefore I could focus on each entry separately. The narrative is broken down by these entries; in every entry I had to solve different problems. The diary, as a literary genre, is very close to my writing and I chose it because I thought that through that medium, through that genre, I could actually serve the subject of my book in a better way.
“It can be said with certainty: without Hitler, history would have been completely different” to use Ian Kershaw’s words. To what extent was Hitler a by-product of a specific era and a specific country? And, in turn, how could one man manage to seduce a whole nation?
Hitler’s Secret Diary is also a study of evil because Hitler was an evil person. As Kershaw said, without Hitler, the course of history in the 20th century would have been completely different. This man is responsible for starting World War II and he is also responsible for the Holocaust, which is one of the greatest horrors in European civilization. What makes Hitler such an evil person is the Holocaust. Very few people, except historians, study today the doings of the German Chancellor of World War I, Bethmann-Hollweg. People are used to accept war as a natural phenomenon in international relations, given the anarchic character of the system. What makes Hitler the personification of evil is his decision to exterminate the Jews.
Studying the Holocaust and Hitler’s ideas about the Jews, what comes out in my book is that anti-semitism in Germany had very deep roots, roots that can be traced back to the 19th century, or even further back, as back as Luther who called upon the Germans to burn the synagogues and get rid of the Jews. So Hitler was a product of a specific country and a specific culture and one has to wonder how Germany that gave birth to philosophers like Kant and Hegel, to composers like Bach and Beethoven, to writers like Goethe and Thomas Mann, was the country that perpetrated such a crime. Germany was one of the most cultured countries in Europe and at the same time it was responsible for one of the worse crimes in the history of humanity. So, in studying Hitler, I also had to study the history and culture of Germany.
One of the great heroes of Hitler was of course Wagner, who was an extreme anti-semite. His daughter married an Englishman called Chamberlain, who became German and wrote one of the most fanatic anti-semitic books entitled, The Foundations of the 19th Century. He was also one of those persons who, just before he died, designated Hitler as the future leader of Germany. The Wagner family – the son of Wagner and his wife – were Hitler’s supporters in the period that he was in jail. It was Wagner’s son that procured the typewriter on which Mein Kampf was written. The Wagner family and other admirers of Hitler supported him all these thirteen months that he was in prison.
It is of course a big question how this man who was born in a small Austrian village, had little education, was a complete failure as an artist – he tried twice and failed to enter the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, who arrived in Munich in 1919, after the end of WWI, with no money, no connections, no friends, managed in very few years to become the leader of the Nazi Party and come to believe that he could actually be able to bring down the government in Berlin, He failed of course in his first attempt, but he succeeded ten years later. The “Beer-Hall Putsch” was in a way a kind of rehearsal for Hitler, and although he went to jail, he used the time to “educate” himself (in the way of course an obsessive person educates himself) and to write Mein Kampf. There was the trial in March 1924 and Hitler used the trial to appeal to the German people and to present himself as a hero, who wanted to undo the Versailles Treaty. He accused the German government of treason, of stabbing the German nation in the back, and the English and the French for all the suffering of the German people. And because in the Putsch, the second man in command was General Ludendorff, the hero of WWI, and no judge would dare put Ludendorff in jail, in the trial Hitler accepted the responsibility of the whole affair, becoming overnight the hero of all nationalistic circles in Germany.
He was very fortunate because the judge at the trial was very sympathetic and he allowed Hitler to talk for hours at an end, thus turning the trial to his advantage. All German newspapers covered the trial, and so despite the fact that the Putsch was a Munich event, suddenly the whole affair took some kind of national importance. As an indication of the status that Hitler now enjoyed, a month later on April 20th, when Hitler had his birthday – he was thirty five years old – he received so many presents that the warden of the prison had to allow Hitler to use four empty cells to put there the presents he received. So, I think this period, those thirteen months that Hitler spent in Landsberg prison, was very crucial for him, for his development and for what happened later in Germany and Europe of course.
Was it a coincidence that you decided to write a book on Hitler now that there is noted a revival of fascism both in Greece and throughout Europe? Are there parallels to be drawn between that era and today?
One of the reasons I wrote the book was of course the rise of fascism in Greece in the last years, the rise of fascism in Europe, the return to times when people begin developing again stupid conspiracy theories, targeting specific groups of people for their misfortunes, especially refugees and immigrants. When I wrote the book I could not have predicted the recent developments in the USA, but I was already witnessing the rise of extreme ideologies and leaders in many countries: Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, Marie Le Pen in France, Golden Dawn in Greece; we have seen the erecting of walls against the refugees in Hungary, in Poland; in the Austrian elections the candidate from the extreme right party almost won, which means that one out of two Austrians is a fascist-sympathizer. These are very worrying developments and I think somehow Europe is sliding back to darker times and the election of Trump in America doesn’t help at all. In fact, it is an indication that things are going to get worse.
From Somnambulations in 1983 to Hitler's Secret Diary in 2016, what has changed and what has remained intact?
I suppose this book surprised some of my readers. I am known as a poet and a translator of poetry but if one looks carefully at my work, a central theme in many of my poems is History and how individual histories weave into the greater patterns of History. I am a poet but I have studied history and politics and I teach these subjects at the University, so obviously all my interests are reflected in what I write. My latest two books, although they are in prose, are very close to poetry. Blood into Water, a kind of autobiography, is broken down into 45 small pieces, which are very dense. In Hitler’s Secret Diary again, though a long book of 500 pages, I had to work, as I have already mentioned, every entry by itself, something that gave me a better control of language. I suppose somebody who knows my work, would identify the style of my writing in my latest two books.
“I would say that the only and most impetuous thing that permeates my entire life is the fact that I'm always in and out of things”. Tell us more.
I studied in Oxford and those who have read Blood into Water, know that I was born in Rome and raised in Italy until I was ten. My first language was Italian. My parents divorced when I was four and my father went to Brazil so my second language was Portuguese. Then I came to Greece when I was ten, and my third language became Greek - the language that I write my poetry. And then, at the age of eighteen, I went to England, where I lived for eleven years. I studied at Bristol first, three years for my bachelor degree and then eight more years at Oxford for my Master’s degree and my Doctorate. So I am always between languages and cultures. That’s why I said I am in and out of things. I have somehow to deal with three identities. I used to think that this was a disadvantage, especially when I returned to Greece and I decided to become a Greek writer. But now I think it is a source of strength. Not taking language for granted. This is especially important when you write poetry. Not to use words easily but try to be as precise and clear as you can.
You are the editor of the Greek literary journal Ποιητική (Poetics), which is regarded as one of the most prestigious literary journals in Greece. What is the place of Poetics in an anti-poetic era? What about the new generation of Greek poets? Would you agree that there are more poets than there are poetry readers?
Poetics is a journal that was born out of a previous journal called Ποίηση [Poetry], which I published for fifteen years at “Nefeli”. It was not really a journal as such; it came out twice a year, it was 350 pages long, more like a book really. When I came back from England, there were many journals in Greece publishing literature but there was not one that published poetry exclusively and there was none that would publish long essays on poetry. I thought that there was a real need for that. I decided to create a journal that would focus only on poetry, Greek poetry (especially the poetry of the new generation), poetry in translation, essays written by poets, academics or literary theorists. So, in 1993 I started Poetry. It introduced many of the great foreign poets, critics and theorists that were unknown to Greece, such as Ashbery, Merrill, Herbert, Holub, Duffy, Saïd, Derrida, Kristeva, Todorov, Hillis Miller, Bloom, etc.
The publisher of “Nefeli” suddenly died when I had just published the 30th issue of Ποίηση, so I decided then to move to “Patakis”, and continue the project, under a slightly different name (Ποιητική) and a different layout; but the philosophy of the journal is exactly the same. The aim is to create a journal that young poets and translators feel proud to publish their work.
As to whether we have more poets than poetry readers, this is absolutely true. It is easier now to publish if you have money because you just pay the publisher and you have your book out. It’s also easier to have your poems published on the internet; anybody can create a blog and have his/her poetry uploaded there. You can put poems on facebook and you get 200-300 “likes” and then people think that this makes them a poet. Of course this is not the case. What they don’t realize is that poetry is an art. It’s not what you write or “confess”, it’s the way you write it, the way you formalize your feelings and thoughts. Therefore you have to train yourself in that. The only training you get is by reading and practicing. You have to read a lot; not only poetry but also philosophy, history, psychoanalysis, sociology, politics, economics, etc. A good writer, whether he writes poetry or fiction, is giving us a unique perspective of how he sees the world. Reading is the starting point. In a way you can paraphrase and say ‘tell me what you read and I can tell you what you are going to write’. Those who have read very few poets, will write like these poets. They don’t know other forms, other ways of shaping their material.
I think it’s because we live in times when people feel very lonely. In the old days when I started writing poetry, you could meet poets, there were places where poets met, coffee places where young poets would go and listen to what the older poets had to say. And this was the way a young person would initiate himself into writing, where the initiation ritual would actually take place. But today people are just behind screens, they are alone and they don’t know how to start. That’s why we had the flourishing of all these creative writing programs and seminars where young people come asking for advice. When I started writing, there were no creative writing programs. I would go and frequent places where I would meet Elytis, Karouzos, Vakalo, Anagnostakis and Gatsos. That doesn’t mean that you actually had to follow what they said but they often offered valuable advice. I remember that by meeting Gatsos, for example, I learned Spanish poetry from him. I knew Anglo-Saxon and Italian poetry mainly, but it was through Gatsos that I got to know some of the great Spanish writers.
Today this is not the case. That’s why we have all these creative writing programs, which of course are very tricky because if people go to these writing programs – and I teach seminars like that myself – and they think that you take ten sessions and then become a writer, they are mistaken. In fact, in most of my seminars, what I do is that we read important and challenging texts. It’s mostly a seminar on reading and unlocking texts and seeing how a poem works. A poem is like a machine made of words. How does it work? You have to realize how it works. And I’ve discovered very soon, when I started these seminars, that most people hadn’t read much. So I switched and made the seminar mostly a creative reading seminar rather than a writing one.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Held every year on 21 March, World Poetry Day celebrates one of humanity’s most treasured forms of cultural and linguistic expression and identity. Proclamation by UNESCO of a World Poetry Day on March 21 has been largely the result of initiatives by members of the Hellenic Authors’ Society. In 1997, Greek poet Michail Mitras proposed to the Society that a day be designated for a celebration of poetry in Greece as well as in other countries and later poet Lydia Stefanou suggested that March 21, which usually coincides with the spring equinox, be selected.
The first Poetry Day in Greece was successfully celebrated by the Hellenic Authors’ Society in 1998 at the old Post Office in Kotzias Square in Athens. The following year author Vassilis Vassilikos, Greece’s permanent representative to UNESCO at that time and president of the Hellenic Authors’ Society later, recommended to the United Nations Organization that March 21 be proclaimed a World Poetry Day. Supported by many countries, the Greek proposal was adopted and World Poetry Day has been celebrated internationally since 2000.
Greece, with its rich poetic tradition, will honor World Poetry Day 2017 with celebrations all over the country. The Hellenic Authors’ Society, jointly with the Hellenic Post and the Greek State Broadcaster (ERT) will organize an event at the Old Parliament House where there will be presented a new anthology by Ilias Gris titled Ο ΤΑΧΥΔΡΟΜΟΣ ΦΕΡΝΕΙ ΓΡΑΜΑΤΑ ΠΟΙΗΜΑΤΑ [The Mailman Brings Letters Poems], with the participation of forty poets included in the anthology. Ilias Gris (1952) belongs to the so-called “generation of the 1970s” in Greek poetry. Apart from poems, he has also written prose, essays and five thematic anthologies. His poetry has been included in various anthologies and has been translated in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Bulgarian, Albanian and Persian.
Ilias Gris spoke to Reading Greece* about what changed and what remained the same in his poetry from the late 1970s when he published his first book to the present, noting that “if there is something that remains the same it is the poet’s vain passion and longing for the aesthetic perfection of his work”. He also comments on the anthologies he has published, explaining that they offer “a different insight into the ongoing preoccupation and turmoil that poetry entails”, “a pretext to speak as a writer in a different guise”.
Asked about the “generation of the 1970s”, he notes that “the burden of causes betrayed” has been “the most distinctive aspect of modern Greek poetry in its entirety” and adds that “it is the most diverse generation where a variety of voices with many different features converge”. He concludes that in times of “dynamic upheaval and unrest”, poetry – the vigilant guard of human conscience – “acts either as a consolation or as a secret blare for unsettling consciences”.
To be more precise, we should say from Oμολογίες [Testimonies] in 1977, although I have long disavowed that book. It was then, in the middle of that decade, that I made my first appearance, although I had been writing poetry long before. Even during the previous years of repression and demoralization under a dictatorship, a youthful spark had kept burning, if you were a free spirit. So, I started one evening, when poetry took my hand. Without any help! I was working in construction in order to survive, a feather in the wind, but reading and writing feverishly. I popped in and out of various doors, one time conversing with symbolism, other times with a social vision and its underlying political reflections. And there were times when I felt overwhelmed by an existential anguish… I can now say with certainty that I am one of those poets who, despite many deviations, always found their way back. And my path in poetry was an evolution.
What changed and what remained the same?
If there is something that remains the same it is the poet’s vain passion and longing for the aesthetic perfection of his work.
Your poetry moves around three axes: social, existential, philosophical. What are the main themes your poetry touches upon?
Depending on his mental and emotional state, formed largely as a result of social conditions, a poet chooses to temporarily rest in one of these directions or to remain there for life. As for my poetic character, it is to be found in that first disavowed book. Yet, as time went by, I was more and more inclined towards a historic reading of human adventure. In this respect, I feel closer to Cavafy.
Which have been your main influences?
A poet’s ‘debts’, until he finally carves his own path, if he does, are many and varied. And I have to admit that apart from some names – some of them truly beloved as Yannis Ritsos, Nikiforos Vrettakos or Takis Sinopoulos – all my ‘debts’ converge on our fabulous, unsurpassed, and unrivalled demotic or folk tradition. I fell in love with it from an early age and remained faithful to it.
Apart from poetry and prose, you have also published exceptional anthologies. What’s the story behind these publications?
My fifth and hopefully last anthology is titled Ο ΤΑΧΥΔΡΟΜΟΣ ΦΕΡΝΕΙ ΓΡΑΜΑΤΑ ΠΟΙΗΜΑΤΑ [The Mailman Brings Letters Poems]. It is published by the Hellenic Post and will be presented at the Old Parliament House on World Poetry Day (21 March 2017) with the participation of forty poets included in the anthology, starting from the “generation of the 1950s” (Yannis Dallas, Titos Patrikios) and moving onwards to younger ones.
Anthologies have been a break for me, offering a different insight into the ongoing preoccupation and turmoil that poetry entails. Three out of my fives anthologies have been a pretext to speak as a writer in a different guise. Let me explain. Το Μελάνι Φωνάζει [The Ink Shouts] (for the Polytechnic Uprising in 1973), Η Αρχαία Πατρίδα των Ποιημάτων [The Ancient Country of Poems] (on ancient Greece), and 1821 in Greek Poetry are anthologies accompanied by long texts either as introductions or postscripts that echo my personal view on these issues.
“What the reader realizes right from the start is that Ilias Gris, as well as all the poets of that generation, carries the burden of causes betrayed, as the experience was imprinted on the poetry of the first and second post-war generations”, to use Marios Michailidis’ words. Can we talk about a “generation of the 1970s” in poetry? If so, what are its common elements?
This “burden of causes betrayed” that the reader perceives as an element of my poetry – so aptly put by Marios Michailidis – is the most distinctive aspect of modern Greek poetry in its entirety. Which poetic generation from the interwar period onwards hasn’t put forward this “burden of betrayal” in its collective work? Yet, if you come to think of it, the deepest significance of betrayal involves at the same time a wake-up call for people.
Poetry is the vigilant guard of human conscience. Forty to forty five years since its first appearance, my generation has become established as the “generation of the 1970s” in Greek literature. Its important work as well as the individual work of each poet can only be evaluated by the only impartial judge, which is time! In any case, it won’t be an easy task as it is the most diverse generation where a variety of voices with many different features converge.
“The country’s deserted streets, roads of subordination with vipers whistling and poetry the only one still standing…” What is the role poetry is called to play in times of crisis?
You cited a verse written thirty five years ago! It can be scary when you realize how painfully timely poetry could be. This, in turn, shows the role poetry plays in times of dynamic upheaval and unrest. Poetry that aspires to be genuine, acts either as a consolation or as a secret blare for unsettling consciences.
Could the Greek crisis become a source of inspiration for younger Greek poets? If so, based upon which poetic and aesthetic criteria? Could a multi-faceted socio-economic phenomenon trigger a poetic ‘cosmogony’ and possibly a ‘new generation’ in poetry?
Aesthetic criteria in poetry have always formed the basis for the primary stake at hand: aesthetic fulfillment! This is certainly a heavy burden, especially for younger poets. To the extent they can avoid being tempted by the ease of imitating what represents a predominant poetic style or trend, then there is ground for hope; even though there is no reason why a new poetic generation should be established every time. Setting up generations is mostly a vehicle for scholars and academics. Who is in a position to predict “cosmogonies”? Following the “cosmogony” of Modernism during the first decade of the 20th century, whose birth was polyvalent and indeed a breakthrough, I see nothing similar happening in the immediate future. In this context, let me conclude by posing a question which is an answer: To which generation did Cavafy belong?
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Spyros Economides is Director of the Hellenic Observatory, Associate Professor in International Relations and European Politics and co-ordinator of the LSEE - Research on the South Eastern Europe Unit at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His doctoral thesis at the LSE on “The International Implications of the Greek Civil War” received the Robert Mackenzie Prize. His subsequent work has concentrated on the international affairs of South-eastern Europe and EU external relations in the field of foreign and security policy, on which he has published widely. He has been writing on the EU's Balkan experience since 1991. Economides acted as Specialist Adviser to the House of Lords EU Committee in its report, 'Responding to the Balkan Challenge: The Role of EU Aid' and is a regular commentator in international media on issues relating to EU External Relations, South Eastern Europe and Greece.
Professor Economides talks to Greek News Agenda* about the implications of Trump’s presidency, Brexit and Greek debt negotiations on the European project and foreign policy. He also talks about the relevance of Europe in Greek and Western Balkan countries' foreign policies in the Trump era, European enlargement, and the possible effects rising tension in the Western Balkans would have on Greece.
As you have noted in 2013, “the Eurozone crisis has marginalised the attention given to the EU's foreign policy capacity”. What are the implications of recent developments (Trump’s presidency, Brexit, Greek debt negotiations) for the European project and the EU foreign policy debate?
The ‘European project’, meaning the process and future of European integration, has been heavily affected by the broader Eurozone crisis – as well as the specifics of the Greek situation within it – as well as by Brexit. Essentially these crises have caused great uncertainty about the viability and future of the Eurozone and the nature of the EU as a whole. What they indicate is that on the one hand there is ‘disintegration’ in the EU in the literal sense: the UK – after the Brexit referendum – has opted to leave the EU, which is a clear form of disintegration.
On the other hand, the Eurozone crisis has indicated that there is also a process of ‘fragmentation’ within the Union. A process by which different states have begun being categorised in different ways - e.g. ‘PIGS’. Scenarios such as the creation of a multi-speed Europe are discussed more readily and become more likely. Different speeds of integration are possibilities. The distinctions between those ‘who can’, those ‘who can’t’ and those ‘who won’t’ are becoming much starker. The refugee crisis has made these distinctions sharper. All of these factors have made the EU weaker as it highlights structural and political problems inherent in the European project. As a result there is less time and money for foreign policy and perhaps, most importantly, the EU’s credibility has taken a heavy knock in the view on states beyond its borders. Of course, crisis always leads to calls for further and deeper integration: a federal Europe for many is the only solution to the crises highlighted above. So, there is always the possibility that we may see a deepening of the EU project as a result of crises but the question will be who will this deeper project consist of?
The election of Donald Trump has had a unifying effect among European states but it raises serious issues for EU foreign policy. Essentially, the EU (along) with NATO fears US disengagement from the European theatre; it is suspicious of the Trump administration’s intentions towards Russia; and it is wary of the populist influence of ‘alt-right’ politics and the world of ‘alternative facts’ on the European political and cultural landscape. All in all, this uncertainty is debilitating for the EU and its foreign policy at a difficult time internationally.
LSE Hellenic Observatory closely monitors Greece and its relation to Europe. What is ‘The Relevance of “Europe” in the Foreign Policies of Greece and Balkan countries in the Trump era?
Greece and the countries of the Western Balkans are firmly fixed in the European project and their futures lie within the EU either as members or future members. Greece’s economic troubles cannot be dealt with in any other context but that of the EU in that sense, Europe is more relevant than ever to Greece. The current Syriza-Anel government has at times sought to find economic support from other actors (eg Russia), and at times has been seen to push US administration to support its positions, but the context always remains Europe and the EU. Greece’s future can only be guaranteed in that context and the beginning of a ‘Trump era’, with all its uncertainties, will only reinforce that.
This is equally true of the Western Balkans. Yes, there are ties between individual WB states and other countries – again like Russia and Turkey – which are deep and at times controversial. Indeed, the US through NATO still plays a significant role in the region and will do even more so in time of conflict (and nothing can change constitutionally in Bosnia or Kosovo without US approval). But the EU is by far and away the most significant economic, political and security actor in the region and this will only be enhanced by the ‘Trump era’.
Would you like to comment on the EU Enlargement process with SE European countries? Is what commentators refer to as a “rising tension” in Serbia, Kosovo, FYROM and Albania going to affect Greece?
Rising tension in Bosnia, FYROM or anywhere else in the WB immediately becomes a regional issue. And any regional issue immediately has implications for Greece both diplomatically and physically. But one thing above all is in Greece’s favour: it is a member of the most significant organisations in Europe, the EU and NATO. As such, it has guarantees which none of the other states beyond it do. As for enlargement to the region, it is difficult to see any further accessions in the short-term (beyond Montenegro).
*Interview by Florentia Kiortsi. Many thanks to Alexis Georgiades, Press and Communication Counsellor – Embassy of Greece in London
The National Library of Greece, under the direction of Dr. Filippos Tsimpoglou, General Director, is methodically preparing for a historic relocation that will enable its transition into a new digital era of innovation and extroversion. From the Vallianeio historic neoclassical building in the center of Athens, which together with the University of Athens and the Academy form the Athens Trilogy, the National Library is moving its headquarters to a state-of-the-art building erected by architect Renzo Piano for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC). At the building on Panepistimiou Street, feverish preparations are underway ahead of the moving process. The reading room has been temporarily closed to the public and every corner is a hive of activity, full of library employees and external staff, conservators in white coats and plastic gloves preparing the collections for the monumental transfer.
©Photo: Nikos Kokkalias
The nearly 22,000 m2 (235,000 sq. ft.) impressive building at SNFCC combines tradition with technological innovation, conservation with information and communication, thus ensuring that the National Library can respond effectively to the ever-changing needs and challenges of the digital age. The entrance to the Library leads into a large open lobby that provides an immediate visual orientation to all the organization’s functions. The natural light creates an open hospitable environment for individual and collaborative learning. Within its new premises, the National Library of Greece will thus be able to strengthen its role in the field of Research, while expanding its focus from an exclusive research facility to an inclusive public resource, an active hub for knowledge, enterprise and innovation.
The General Director of the National Library of Greece Dr.Filippos Tsimpoglou spoke to Reading Greece* about the time schedule for the relocation of the Library to its new premises, noting that the library opening is being scheduled for Autumn 2017. He also elaborates on the new and enlarged role the National Library will be called to play in its new premises, explaining that the aim is to “offer a framework for information literacy, while applying innovative methods and approaches to learning which will constitute best practices and raise standards for all libraries in Greece”.
©Photo: Vassilis Makris
In addition, he lays out future plans regarding the operation and actions of the National Library, pointing out that “'technological humanism' and user-centered design constitute core values of the National Library of Greece as it enters this new digital era”. He concludes with how he envisions the National Library of the future, noting that “at a time of growing extremism, post-truth and crisis, we hope to create the appropriate framework for synthesis, analysis, and creation of new meaning, using the treasures of the past to build a brighter future".
Filippos Tsimpoglou holds a PhD in Library & Information Science from the Ionian University (2005) and a BSc in Economics from the Athens University of Economics and Business (1983). He was the Director of the Cyprus University Library and an ex officio member of the Cyprus University Senate from 1999 to 2014. He served as Head of three Departments at the National Documentation Centre of Greece / Hellenic Research Foundation (1983-1999) where he managed major EU framework and development programmes. In 2008 he published his book Collaborations between Libraries: a systemic approach. He has also published numerous articles for international scientific journals, books and conferences.
Since 2014 he is the General Director of the National Library of Greece and head of the historic relocation project to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre. He is leading the design of digital services which will enable the organisation to enter the digital era, as well as the development of innovative services that strengthen and expand the core mission of the National Library.
©Photo: Yiorgis Yerolymbos
What is the time schedule for the relocation of the National Library to its new building? When will the library be open to the public?
2017 marks the transition of the National Library of Greece to its new home at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC). The landmark building was officially delivered by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation to the Greek state on February 23rd 2017 along with SNFCC S.A., the company responsible for overseeing facilities operation and maintenance. Its cross-institutional Board of Directors was appointed to ensure the sustainability of this complex project, home of two major public cultural organisations, the National Opera and the National Library, as well as the Stavros Niarchos Park.
Starting from March 2017, the National Library of Greece has six months to complete the relocation process and two months to conduct pilot operation at the new building. Based on this framework, the library opening is being scheduled for Autumn 2017. It is important to note that the National Library of Greece will then be operating from three buildings which will host different collections and services: the SNFCC, a building located in the Votanikos area and the historic Vallianeio building on Panepistimiou Street, part of the Athenian Trilogy. The Vallianeio building will require extensive restoration in order to function anew as a reading room and events space at the heart of the city.
You have stated that “the relocation of the National Library marks the transition to a new digital era of innovation and extroversion”. What will be the new and enlarged role of the National Library in its new premises?
The relocation project of the National Library is not merely about moving books from one building to another - it is about undertaking a leap of faith. This project constitutes a complete transition into a new era, so that the institution may truly fulfil its core mission as a National Library, provide new services to the public, and continue to meet contemporary challenges. The transition process comprises 40 different projects, which are managed and implemented by the NLG in partnership with external experts and contractors.
During this transition, we are enriching our collections and purchasing books for the first time after many years. We are upgrading our digital services and acquiring advanced technological equipment for key departments (i.e. conservation, microphotography, etc.). We are integrating and training new staff while launching seminars for libraries across Greece. We are redefining the NLG mission and brand in order to address new audiences and we are designing a new Public Library Section which will offer special services and educational programmes for children and teenagers. We are planning a series of events that will re-establish our unique intellectual position and we will open up our collections to the world.
Our aim is to offer a framework for information literacy, while applying innovative methods and approaches to learning which will constitute best practices and raise standards for all libraries in Greece. As you can imagine, managing this level of transformation within a Greek public institution during a time of uncertainty entails major challenges, which we hope to surpass by using a systemic approach and by building strategic partnerships.
At a more practical level, what about the necessary funds and personnel for the full operation of the National Library in the future? What are the state provisions in this respect?
The transition project is realised thanks to an unprecedented public-private partnership. The Greek State is providing a special subsidy of 5.200.000 euros and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation is providing a 5.000.000 euros donation. The National Library of Greece will require a yearly budget of 6.700.000 €, on top of staffing expenses, in order to cover the SNFCC facility management services and the institutions’ operations. We have now secured these funds from the Ministry of Finance on a yearly basis until 2022.
The NLG currently has 120 staff, which is insufficient. The 3785/2009 law predicts that the NLG will require 286 staff members for the full operation of the three buildings. The General Secretary of the Ministry of Education, Mr. Yannis Pantis, recently announced a hiring plan for 300 librarians at a national level, out of which 110 will be placed at the National Library. We are working towards securing the necessary human resources for tomorrow, while having the Library’s current staff work at full capacity on the relocation project today.
©Photo: Yiorgis Yerolymbos
What about your future plans regarding the operation and actions of the National Library? How will new technologies contribute to this end?
The National Library is reclaiming its leadership within the relevant scientific community in Greece, and redefining its role as a centre of excellence for the study of Hellenism globally. We are currently developing the Greek Libraries Union Catalogue in partnership with the Hellenic Academic Libraries Link at the National Technical University of Athens. This will provide a much-needed central database for librarians across the country to facilitate the cataloguing process, while enabling inter-library loans between institutions. Furthermore, we are acquiring access to major electronic databases which researchers will be able to access from within our new premises. Our digitization department is being enhanced with high-end technological equipment that will facilitate and improve the book scanning process and our overall digital preservation capabilities. At the same time, we are building a platform for our digital collections, which will provide remote access to digitized content, including manuscripts and newspapers.
Another area we are currently exploring is the development of the Greek Web Archive, which will ensure the preservation of our national digital heritage. We are developing an application for the digital legal depository, which will enable editors to submit their publications in print and digitally through a simple online process. New technologies will have a major role in the programming of our new Public Library Department. Studios for radio production, music recording and video-making, interactive applications, and open-source software will provide unique opportunities to children, teens and adults wanting to learn, experiment and co-create content within the new NLG building. “Technological humanism” and user-centered design constitute core values of the National Library of Greece as it enters this new digital era.
©Photo: Yiorgis Yerolymbos
Will the National Library act as a coordinator for libraries around Greece? How easy will it be to implement such a project?
Last year we founded the Greek Libraries Network, engaging 150 municipal and publiclibraries in a major Summer Reading Campaign, which produced over 3000 creative workshops for children across the country. 150 librarians were trained in fundraising and creative workshop facilitation, and developed diverse programmes based on a centrally produced bibliography and methodology.
The National Library of Greece has recently acquired the legal responsibility of coordinator of the Greek Libraries Network, which will expand so as to include academic, school and private libraries. With appropriate staffing and funding, the National Library aims to be the core institution providing library standards and prototype processes, training programs and experimental projects, providing the means to exchange information and expertise among Greek libraries, as well as fostering capacity-building opportunities. The network will enable the creation of common catalogues and will provide advocacy for financial, legal, and social matters that define the operation of libraries. Last but not least, it will facilitate the clustering of libraries under thematic initiatives such as e.g. funding programs for refugee integration or international book exchange programs.
©Photos: Yiorgis Yerolymbos
The ultimate objective is to put libraries at the heart of each community and substantially upgrade the services that they offer to citizens. The new NLG premises will act as a meeting point for training librarians, a space of experimentation for new services, and a central hub for guiding audiences to discover local libraries across the country. The National Library of Greece is claiming its role as the leader of libraries and the libraries’ response is highly positive.
How do you envision the National Library of our future?
We envision the National Library of Greece as a living ecosystem where curiosity, research, creativity and innovation enable communities to grow self-awareness, collective spirit, humanism and democratic values. We aim to create an international centre of excellence for the study of Hellenism and a unique destination for researchers in the field of Humanities. The NLG will be repositioned to inspire and coordinate an open platform for the exchange of know-how, resources and content among diverse organizations across a vibrant network of public libraries at the national level. Following this objective, we are in the process of building partnerships with Universities, Institutes and NGOs at both the national and international level.
©Photo: Yiorgis Yerolymbos
We dare to see the NLG as a model public institution that develops cross-sector synergies and operates according to the values of openness and transparency. The NLG, by its nature, stands between paradoxes: the old and the new, the analogue and the digital, the expert and the popular, the past and the future, the national and the ecumenical. At a time of growing extremism, post-truth and crisis, we hope to create the appropriate framework for synthesis, analysis, and creation of new meaning, using the treasures of the past to build a brighter future. In this venture, the National Library of Greece will invite not only Greek society, but also the Greek Diaspora and Philhellenes worldwide to contribute to the preservation and collective flourishing of Hellenism for future generations.
* Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Marica Frangakis is an independent researcher and a member of the European Economists for an Alternative Economic Policy in Europe (the EuroMemo Group) as well as a member of the Board of the Nicos Poulantzas Institute, Athens.
Marica Frangakis talked to Greek News Agenda* about the proposals of the EuroMemorandum 2017 report, how the Greek crisis could have been averted, the necessity of a substantial restructuring of Greek debt, the concept of burden sharing in order to deal with increasing European debt, as well as the how the European Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe overlooks the inherent contradictions and tensions of European societies and economies. Frangakis concludes that in order to undo the harm done by the crisis there needs to be decisive shift away from the tried and failed policies of the past: the role of the Left is to push in that direction.
Could you talk to us about the EuroMemorandum 2017 report of the EuroMemo Group on European economic policy? What are the biggest problems identified in the report? What are the basic tenets of an alternative economic policy proposed in the report?
The European Economists for an Alternative Economic Policy in Europe (also known as the EuroMemo Group) is a forum for the exchange of critical ideas and the formulation of alternative proposals to those of the European Commission on economic and social policy. In fact, 2017 marks the twentieth year of the publication of EuroMemorandum reports, as the first one appeared in 1997 (also in Greek in https://www.euromemorandum.eu). It is worth noting that this year’s conference will be held in Athens at the Harokopeio University on 28-30 September.
The EuroMemorandum 2017 Report deals with a range of issues, such as the inadequacies and the lack of democratic accountability of the EU’s economic and monetary policy, the refugee crisis and the lack of EU solidarity, the rise of right-wing forces and economic nationalism, TTIP and more recently the equally regressive CETA, as well as the ineffectiveness of the European Neighbourhood Policy.
In each of these areas, the Report makes alternative proposals for a high and sustainable level of employment, for a substantial EU level budget to finance EU-wide investment, for overcoming disparities among regions, for a strategy of wage growth and against tax competition, for the democratic accountability of the ECB, for the support of refugees, for the establishment of mutually beneficial cooperation between the EU and its neighbouring countries in the south and especially in the south-east of the Mediterranean Sea.
Has Europe learned any lessons from the way the Greek debt crisis was handled? Is there still a chance for a substantial restructuring of Greek debt? What does it take to make Greek debt "sustainable"?
The EuroMemo Group has been especially vocal in its criticism for the way the Greek debt crisis was handled by the EU and by its failure to learn from it. The Greek crisis could have been averted, had the speculation on the government bond market been dealt with in 2009/2010 and had the ECB intervened in the decisive way it did in 2012, when the Italian and Spanish government bonds came under pressure. Even today, Greece is the only Eurozone country to be excluded from the ECB’s quantitative easing programme.
Further, once started, the Greek crisis could have been contained, had the debt restructuring of 2012 been implemented at the beginning of the crisis, i.e. in 2010. Instead, Greece was given large loans at market rates in order to bail out its creditors. Further, these bail outs were conditional on harsh austerity and deregulation measures, which have ravaged the Greek economy and society over the past seven years.
The short-run debt restructuring measures agreed in 2016 and implemented in 2017 go some way towards reducing the risks faced by the high public debt of Greece in the case of an increase in interest rates. However, they do not solve the long-run problem of reducing the debt burden and boosting economic and social development.
Debt sustainability may be defined in a number of ways. The Stability and Growth Pact takes a static view in setting an upper limit of 60% of GDP, above which a member state is in breach of the EU fiscal rules. The IMF defines debt sustainability in relation to the Gross Financing Needs, which should not exceed 15% of GDP. The ECB takes a similar view. In view of the fact that the maturity of the Greek public debt reaches the year 2059, a substantial restructuring of the debt is deemed necessary in order to secure its long-run sustainability. The EuroMemo Group is an advocate of such an approach, which however meets with the resistance of the dominant forces of the EU at present.
What would be a good systemic policy to deal with the European debt issue as a whole?
As shown by historical experience, a systemic financial crisis of large proportions is followed by an economic crisis, which results in increased public finances, i.e. government deficit and debt. This is the result of the automatic stabilisers coming into play, as tax receipts are reduced while public spending is increased due to higher unemployment benefits and other crisis-related spending.
Most EU member states have in fact witnessed a significant increase in their public debt level as a result of the crisis. In this sense, the European debt issue concerns not only Greece but many more EU countries. A good systemic policy to deal with it needs to be based on the notion of burden sharing, which is absent from the conceptualization of the Eurozone, as well as from its architecture.
Assuming that there is the political will to introduce such a notion, there are many proposals as to how this can be done. One such proposal relates to the issuance of Eurobonds. The precise structure of the Eurobonds and their relation to the part of the debt that remains with the originator state are subject to discussion and negotiation by the parties concerned. In essence, this proposal would monetize part of the public debt of the Eurozone member states. Objections raised in connection with the risk of inflation are unfounded, in view of the fact that the Eurozone suffers from too low a rate of inflation, bordering on deflation in certain cases.
The multi-speed scenario for the future of Europe seems to be gaining traction. The European Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe, presented five scenarios for how the Union could evolve by 2025. Could you comment on these scenarios?
The European Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe lays out different options/scenarios for the future. However, it commits the common error of a typical EU approach. It overlooks the inherent contradictions and tensions of European societies and economies. This raises the question of who the Paper is addressed to. We contend that it is primarily addressed to the European elites who seem to be obliviously slipping into a very uncertain future for European society, themselves included. Examples of issues not discussed by the White Paper include the following:
a. The working conditions in a post-crisis working environment, characterized by heightened insecurity and an increasingly deregulated market environment;
b. The role of finance in post-crisis conditions; the five reports to be prepared by the Commission in the next few months do NOT contain finance!
c. The growth of a ‘subaltern’ class across the EU but with a greater emphasis in certain areas; pressing questions of increasing poverty and inequality and lack of opportunities for a full-filling life are not touched upon;
d. The growing appeal of ultra-right political forces, which was already evident in the 2014 European election results;
e. The marginalisation of new immigrants and the growth of racism.
Overall, the EU is indeed at a crossroad. The White Paper needs to undo the harm done by the crisis and the inadequacies/prejudices of the EU policy response to it. Populism and the rise of ultra-right forces may serve as a wake-up call for the European leaders and the class interests they represent; but, will they? Only a decisive shift away from the tried and failed policies of the past and especially the response to the crisis will do. Such a task takes resolve and vision on the part of the ruling political class; the role of the Left is to push in that direction. As the SYRIZA experience has shown this is not a linear process, neither a straightforward one. In this type of process, resolve and vision is paramount, on part of the Left also, so as not to lose one’s strategic direction amidst everyday political setbacks and compromises.
*Interview by Ioulia Livaditi
Environmentalist, geographer, and engineer, Michalis Modinos was born in Athens in 1950. He has lived and worked in several countries on behalf of international agencies and organisations. He has published the following novels: Golden Coast (Kastaniotis, 2005), The Great Abbai (Kastaniotis, 2007), Homecoming (2009), The Raft (Kastaniotis, 2011), Wild West: a love story (Kastaniotis, 2013), Last Exit: Stymfalia (Estia, 2014) and Equatoria (Kastaniotis, 2016). He has won several literary prizes and distinctions, among them the European Prize for Literature. His scientific works include: Myths of Development in the Tropics (1986), From Eden to Purgatory (1988), Topographies (1990), Where is the World Heading to? (1992), The Development Game (1993), The Archaeology of Development: Green Perspectives (1996), The Eco-geography of the Mediterranean (2001), The Pathways of Sustainable Development (2003), Globalization and the Environment (2004).
He has been an environmental activist, the editor of the monthly review New Ecology, and the author of numerous publications on environmental and development issues. He was President of the Greek Agency for the Environment and Sustainable Development, and the director of the Greek edition of The State of the Planet, in collaboration with the WorldWatch Institute. He has taught in academic institutions, and from 1998 to 2010 he ran the “Summer Ecological University”. He is a member of the administrative board of the Hellenic Authors’ Society. Since 2005 he has regularly been writing book and literary reviews for the daily press and several publications.
Michalis Modinos spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest book Equatoria, which is “a three level story about the years of the colonization of Africa, recording the story of the 19th century search for the sources of the Nile”. He notes that “Black Africa rarely appears in Greek novels” with the exception of “Alexandria with its extended Greek community that has attracted Greek writers” and explains that the western literary tradition usually depicts Africa “as a savage, mysterious place, full of magic and secrets to decipher”, “the unknown strange framework where adventures take place and where the origins of humankind are traced”.
Asked about how history, politics and fiction are intertwined in his books, he comments that “the conflict between progress and tradition or modernization and underdevelopment” is often discussed in his writings, noting that his books belong “to the tradition of the perpetual conflict of civilization and nature”. He concludes that “great narratives have been discredited nowadays and a good novel helps reconstruct reality (the World) and place ourselves in it”, while “it also leads to personal ‘katharsis’ in the Aristotelian sense of the word”.
Almost a decade after The Great Abbai, your latest book Equatoria brings us back to the African continent. Tell us a few things about the book.
In Equatoria I wanted to narrate a three level story about the years of the colonization of Africa, recording the story of the 19th century search for the sources of the Nile in a genre similar to New Journalism. The language combines journalistic research with the techniques of fiction writing in the reporting of stories about real life events. The plot develops a century after the story narrated in my book The Great Abbai. At the same time I wanted to give a travelogue, a retrospective on the past of the impressions and experiences of a fictional Greek explorer, a wealthy cotton merchant who, setting off from Zanzibar, reaches Equatoria and the Mountains of the Moon.
In fact I gave my name to the central character and narrator of the story in a refection game, taking partial responsibility for his views and reflections. On another level, it was very important for me to discuss, on the basis of real life events, the concept of the construction of a utopia – a hybridic, multicultural society- as it was attempted on the ground in the heart of Africa, the great lakes area of Northern Uganda and Sourhern Soudan (to be deconstructed in the end against the will of the people who created it).
Africa, in its million faces, has been occasionally depicted in Greek literature. What is it that makes Africa appealing to Greek writers? And, in turn, how do you explain the different ways Africa is portrayed in these works? Are there parallels to be drawn with the respective European literary tradition?
Black Africa rarely appears in Greek novels as a matter of fact. It is usually Alexandria with its extended Greek community that has attracted Greek writers (Tsirkas, Kavafis etc). The western literary tradition, in which Greek writers are certainly included despite the language gap, often used Africa as an appealing background, mostly in novels. Writers like Vern or Conrad (to name just a couple) usually depict Africa as a savage, mysterious place, full of magic and secrets to decipher. Elsewhere writers describe African nature and landscape in rather lyrical terms. Africa is the unknown strange framework where adventures take place and where the origins of humankind are traced.
Any of these approaches help the plot to develop as an exotic environment, triggering the imagination of the reader. On the other hand, they shape and sometimes determine the central characters of a book. Some modern writers, including myself, use the African landscape or setting in general as characters equally important to human ones.
A researcher, environmental activist, geographer, traveler, fiction writer, literary critic. Where do all these attributes meet? Does writing constitute the binding thread?
Without a doubt. Since I was the founding editor of the influential monthly review New Ecology, and managed it for fifteen years, I tried, along with a group of intellectuals and activists, to popularize scientific questions and to build bridges with political action at both local and international level. This is how my first essaylike research books were initiated, starting with Ecogeography: Myths of development in the tropics (already in its sixth edition, something rather out of the ordinary for a non literary book). Thus arose the term «Ecogeography» that I also use in literary terms nowadays.
As regards the binding thread of all those professional occupations that you mentioned, I suppose literature was just waiting for me “around the corner”. If anyone reads my early essays and nonfiction books he will probably understand that despite the scientific and political questions raised, there has always been a narrative tone inherent, inspired by writings of social anthropologists and geographers. Thus, transition to novel writing was not very difficult in terms of style and form. It was rather a question of allowing my imagination to take the upper hand. Now I am completely devoted to fiction literature. I work full time and I find writing somehow redemptive after all those decades of working in academic institutions, international organizations, social movements etc.
Some of your books have multiple references to the cultural and environmental decay of modern societies. How are history, politics and fiction intertwined in your books? And to what end?
I often discuss the conflict between progress and tradition or modernization and underdevelopment: see for example Golden Coast, Homecoming, Wild West – a love story etc. The prevalence of the development idea is mainly a postwar phenomenon - it was then that development became a central goal for practically all societies around the globe. Still my books do not belong to the post-colonial tradition, but rather to the tradition of the perpetual conflict of civilization and nature. I am interested in the circular time of Ecology, somehow more than the linear narration of history anyway. My concern is to incorporate global thematic lines into the destiny of my heroes.
“Literature can by its own means depict reality in turmoil, offering at the same time a way out”. What role does/should literature serve in times of crisis? Should literature and art in general be politically militant?
Maybe now more than ever we must insist on the achievements of Western civilization, where we belong. Of course, my country cannot itself decide where it belongs and that is the tragedy of the times. In any case, to me, the persistence on values like freedom, rule of law, human rights and expanded democracy are nowadays an obligation for writers and public figures in general. It is one thing to adopt tolerance and respect of the Other (which I consistently do in my books) and another thing to accept a mess or even worse than that, imported totalitarianisms. All these topics, in fact, are discussed in Equatoria, together with the cultural conflicts, migrations, early globalization trends and the propensity of humanity to escape the “Beaudlerian ennui”, through immigration and travelling.
What about future prospects? What purpose does depicting a fulfilled utopia, as the one your hero discovered in Equatoria, serve under current dystopic conditions?
Reconsidering the environment and reshaping our lifestyles and traditions, which are gradually being lost, will help us understand the problems and find solutions in times of increasing confusion and acceleration of changes. We need to set goals for the future, and in order to do so, we have to rediscover who we are and what we want to achieve. Still, literature plays a critical role in times of disillusionment. Great narratives have been discredited nowadays and a good novel helps reconstruct reality (the World) and place ourselves in it. It also leads to personal “catharsis” in the Aristotelian sense of the word. One last thing: I believe in cosmopolitanism in literature, a style of researching and writing that deals with the greatissues common to humankind.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Widely known to the Greek public for his successful films and TV series, director and writer Manoussos Manoussakis was born in Athens and studied at the London Film School. He has directed five feature films, “Bartholomew” (special mention San Remo film festival 1972), “The Enchantress” (best script, music and editing at the Thessaloniki festival, best cinematography at the Chicago children film festival, official selection at the Berlin Children’s film Festival, European Parliament award at the Giffoni Film Festival, Italy), “Power” and “Red Dragon”. He has directed eleven theater plays, ten TV films and twenty TV series. Three of his series got best series award, best directors award and all twenty are included at the top ten of the rating lists with one of them having ratings of 73%, a record unsurpased till today.
His latest film, “Cloudy Sunday” (Ouzeri Tsitsanis), concerns the forbidden love story between a Sephardic Jewish girl and a Christian boy in Nazi occupied Thessaloniki. The subject matter of this film, as many of his works, is concerned with the denunciation of intolerance.The film’s theme, the extinction of the 500 year old Jewish community of Thessaloniki by the Nazis during World War II has as background the music and character of Vassilis Tsitsanis, one of the greatest composers of rebetica music. The film has been awarded best director and cinematography awards at Slemani International Film Festival 2016 in Iraq, best feature film awardat San Francisco Greek Film Festival 2016 and Atlanta – New York Greek Film Festival and has also won three distinctions from the Hellenic Film Academy in 2016.
Manoussakis talks to Greek News Agenda* about “Cloudy Sunday”, stressing that the theme of his film is always contemporary and that through this he wishes to remind people what Nazism is. As a veteran director he offers an insight into the impact of the economic crisis on TV production that caused a large inflow of imported TV products and wonders why Greece has not developed an international market for its series. Further on, he underlines that there is no actual divide between Film and TV directors, as the case of many TV directors who thrived in cinema and cinema directors who thrived in the small screen proves.
“Cloudy Sunday” was an expensive production (a period drama with 2500 supporting actors). What were the difficulties in the funding and realization of this film?
Funding the film was a very challenging venture. The realization of the film was an adventurous journey to a historical period full of surprises; doors opened for us by our historical advisor Jacky Benmayor, by people who had lived through it and survived, children who had heard stories from grandparents, university students who helped out for weeks on end. People from all over the city of Thessaloniki, all ages, all religions were there. It was a grand journey that helped us live that period for about five years, learning, but mostly feeling the aura of the era.
What made you choose Giorgos Skabardonis’ novel on which the film was based? Was there a shift of focus in its adaptation?
Scabardonis novel, “Ouzeri Tsitsanis” is a kaleidoscope of small gold pieces of events, characters and mainly the scent of Greece which prevails throughout the novel. Reading the book I realized that I could narrate a very little known historical period of Greece through the eyes of an ingenuous composer and a young couple in love.
Bringing to life this gloomy period of the German occupation of Greece and of most of Europe and the annihilation of the Sephardic community of Thessaloniki, I had the chance to tellthose whodo not know and to remind the ones that chose to forget, what Nazism really is and to denounce intolerance. This is very much a contemporary issue, as we watch neo Nazi formations gaining momentum around Europe and endangering the foundations of European thought and values. At the same time, racism is lethally embracing the minds of people who cannot resist hate speech, due to the deterioration of educational levels.
When I talk about education I do not mean mechanical memorizing of information without critical thought, but an education which promotes analytical thought, experimentation, humanism, observation, the right to question as part of an ongoing process that should never stop. No establishment desires such an education because it produces free, critically minded citizens. In Europe, we harvest the seeds that we have sown by creating herds of uneducated citizens, even within the ranks of university graduates.The only way to fight fascism is through true education (to paraphrase remarks by Manos Hadjidakis in an opinion pieceof his on neo-nazism published February 1993).
The film was recently screened at the Hellas Filmbox Berlin. What were the reactions of German audience?
The film has also been screened at the Greek Film days of Nuremberg and the reaction of the German audience was especially moving. This particular story was not known to many, but World War II is a huge part of their history. The audience had their own heart-rending stories to tell, and I brought back the emotion and their beautiful words with me. Especially important to me were the comments of a fifteen-year-old boy, who remarked that he would have preferred that Estrea had chosen not to leave going to her death, as survival is more important than love for her family. In Austria, where a special screening for High School students took place, the same deep reflection on survival and duty was their main focus. People were deeply moved, some in tears, feeling the cruelty of the era and realizing the contemporary significance of “Cloudy Sunday”.
“Cloudy Sunday” has participated in many film festivals abroad. What attracts foreign audiences to this film?
The film has been screened at 30 festivals around the world, starting from China, Iraq, Austria, at three festivals in England, Australia, Israel, Argentina, India and many festivals in the US. The reaction of all audiences was the same: deeply moved even if they had no experience in their countries of the Holocaust. In Shanghai, the audience referred to their experience during World War II and the genocide they suffered from the Japanese. In Slemani (Kurdish Iraq) they referred to the genocide by chemical weapons they suffered from Saddam…. And also, Greek rebetika music is loved worldwide. In Jerusalem, a crowd of people got up in the cinema and danced during a concert that was given before the screening of the film.
One of the main characters in the plot is Vassilis Tsitsanis, an emblematic figure of rebetika music, which serves as a background in the plot. How did you use the element of his music in the film?
Tsitsanis’ music prevails throughout the film: it is not only heard in the small club (Ouzeri Tsitsanis) but his melodies were used for the entire musical score of the film. The backbone of the development of the film is the inspiration and the creation of Cloudy Sunday, an emblematic song which might be considered “the other National anthem” of Greece.
What was the impact of the economic crisis on TV production?
It is obvious that TV stations had to survive the crisis so they had to cut down on running expenses, as all enterprise did. This in turn had a radical effect on the quality of the product, namely television series,an area I am well acquainted with. The production of Greek series declined as a side effect of the budget cuts. For a long time, there were almost no Greek series produced and we were bombarded with imported products, mainly from Turkey but also from the UK, the United States, Latin America, Italy and Denmark. Despite the fact that they did not offer something different or better than that of the “Golden period” ofGreek productions, they had developed an international network for exporting their products. It is thus natural for the following question to arise: Why didn’t Greek TV stations develop an international market while other countries did, including Turkey?This question needs to be addressed to station managers, as they are better placed to answer it.
After a few years of almost no production, gradually low budget Greek productions are beginning to make an appearance. Budget deterioration is not necessarily followed by quality deterioration, but as the economic crisis is the outcome of a deep cultural crisis, this reflects on the quality of new series. It is not the budget cuts that are responsible for the context of the “new era” TV productions. It is the deep cultural crisis – all over the world – which caused the economic crisis – that reflects on these products. There can be masterpieces created with small budgets. Nevertheless, there are very smart comedies made with small budgets. The problem arises from the fact that a TV station has to cover a 24 hour programme at very little cost. There are talk shows, cooking shows and singing contests “educating” and influencing a whole new generation with the prospect of easy success and profit with no toil. A new conscience of reality is being developed which has no relation to actual reality.
Is there a dividebetween television series and film directors in Greece?
There is not such a division in reality. Most of the directors that moved to what we all call the small screen began their careers as film directors (including myself). When commercial television networks began broadcasting, we were very lucky because we were given the freedom to work with the subject matter that we proposed. Suddenly we didn’t have to wait for years to look for financing so as to direct and produce a film, but we could practice our art, experiment and have immediate feedback from the viewers on a weekly basis. Many new directors began their careers directing television series, and when the time was right for them, they made very successful films. It works both ways.
There is a pseudo division created by a small group of film critics. For them, directors who had worked in commercials or TV were not supposed to make films. Fortunately they did, and the films were good. Times have changed. These petty prejudices have vanished globally. Scorsese produced a 6 part documentary about the “GRATEFUL DEAD” (American band) for Amazon Prime Video, actors direct plays, photographer Luie Psihoyos decided to direct a film, “The Cove”, and won an Academy award for best documentary feature. Freedom of expression in any means is an asset of our times. Yes, there is a small group of film critics that like to divide. They are stuck in the past. It’s their problem. My colleagues and I will go on directing films, television series, plays, documentaries and whatever can be presented to audiences.
What are your future plans?
We have several projects in development. We have a TV series taking place in Messolonghi during the 50’s and 60’s. It is based on a novel vividly describing the social and political situation in Greece in the post civil war period. What makes the novel great is that the main characters are young adolescents who try to live their lives against a hostile environment suppressing free thought.
There is a comedy based on a book by Giorgos Scabardonis that is rich in hilarious, imaginative situations when the mafia takes over the political scene. There is also a feature film which aims to expose the true nature of leaders, their pettiness, schemes, compromises and deals to gain public approval and power, the way they manipulate and are manipulated by the crowd. Trying to find the right vehicle to express this idea, we came across “Hecuba” by Euripides, which describes exactly what we want to put in to the film. We decided to place the action in a contemporary war zone. And finally, a play by an Argentinian scholar inspired by Socrates that deals with truth and duty.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
Auguste Corteau (1979) is a fiction writer, a playwright and a translator. He has written novels/novellas: Rabastin (1999), The Square (2000), Haunted (2001), Animal (2002), The Streets Sculptor (2002), The Man Faeries (2003), La Gioconda’s Son (2003), The Rabies (2004), Shameless Suicides (2005), The Demonizer (2007), The Obliteration of Nicos (2008), Sixteen (2010), The Book of Katherine (2013), Because It Is My Heart (2014), short story collections: The Book of Vice (1999), plays: The Orphans (2012), Suigeneris (2014), comic shorts: The Man Who Ate Too Much (2012), Love Me Tenderloin (2015), Ancient Greek Myths Revisited (2016) poems: The Cab Driver of Heaven (2012), a memoir: A Memoir of Madness (2016) and an original script for the movie Testosterone by George Panoussoupoulos, 2004).
He also won the 2004 Greek National Book Award for Children’s Literature and the IBBY Prize for Best Children’s Novel. He has also worked extensively as a translator, and has translated into Greek numerous works by English-language writers, amongst them books by Nabokov, Banville, Updike, Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy.
Auguste Corteau spoke to Reading Greece* about what changed and what remained the same in his writings all these years noting that “I was a mostly unhappy adolescent when I wrote my first short stories, while now I’m a happily partnered man”. He comments on his writing obsessions, he explains why he first writes in English and characterizes himself as a “musician manqué”.
As for his translation works, he notes that “I feel immensely responsible – accountable – when translating a book […] So I don’t allow myself the slightest haste or sloppiness”. He concludes that “one can still infer a much deeper understanding of another human being from the way they express themselves in writing. That is why the necessity for writing in these troubled times can only proliferate”.
From The Book of Vice in 1999 to A Memoir of Madness in 2016. What has changed and what remained the same?
I was a mostly unhappy adolescent when I wrote my first short stories, while now I’m a happily partnered man. All the books I read between these two points in time, all the people I met and was blessed with being loved by, have molded me into a quite different writer than the one I was back then. And for this I am profoundly grateful.
“You cannot escape from your writing obsessions, from what fills your everyday life: love, fear, death, anger”. What drove you to writing? And what continues to be your driving force?
The stories I consumed – the books I still devour – they are to blame: too many realities colliding within me. At some point, a new one – my own invented world - had to emerge. (By this I don’t mean to downplay the role of experience, of personal drama; however, all drama is humdrum when compared to what the human mind can conjure all on its own).
What about your love for music? How is it imprinted on you writings?
I am a musician manqué. To this day I hold no human creation holier than music.
“I feel that the English language is the ideal language for writing prose: playful, malleable, with endless potential”. How is it that you first write in English and then you translate your writings in Greek?
I turned to English after my sole major case of writer’s block. For more than twenty years, my mother tongue is interchangeable with English – so I sort of slip from one to the other as easily and unthinkingly as one finishing a book and going on to read another book written in a different language.
As Karen Emmerich has eloquently put it, “the strongest ethical claim for translation is that it demands of us a willingness to inhabit an open book, to maintain a sense and an attitude of uncertainty, and to welcome the endless provisionality of our answering”. Where does the role of a writer meet that of a translator?
I feel immensely responsible – accountable – when translating a book, regardless of its subject and my personal feelings towards it. It is a work of literature whose sole Greek translation will, in all probability, be the one I deliver. So I don’t allow myself the slightest haste or sloppiness.
In recent years, there has been an extraordinary burgeoning of Greek literature in every form: graffiti, blogs, literary magazines, readings in public squares to mention just a few. How is this trend to be explained? What about literature in the era of digital communication?
One can still infer a much deeper understanding of another human being from the way they express themselves in writing. That is why the necessity for writing in these troubled times can only proliferate.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Yiannis Dragasakis, Greece’s Deputy Prime Minister, in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE (4.3.2017), at the sidelines of the Delphi Economic Forum assured that "the risk of a Grexit has been prevented. The conditions that were linked to the bailout have, to a large extent, been met and in many areas, like tax collection, budget surplus and VAT increase, we have exceeded the targets." In regards to the negotiations with the institutions for the conclusion of the second review, he underlined that "the Greek government's objective is to reach an agreement on the technical part by March 20. Afterwards, there will hopefully be an agreement at a political level in regards to two important issues: the surpluses after 2018 and medium–term debt relief."
According to Dragasakis, the Greek government’s next targets are “conclusion of the review, integration in QE and borrowing exclusively from markets after the end of the program in 2018”. He adds that “the Greek government would like a solution within a European framework; whether the IMF will remain in the adjustment program or not is of secondary importance. As Dragasakis notes: “the IMF’s participation is rather creating problems. In the beginning we had reached an agreement with our European partners, and all of a sudden the IMF increased its demands, raising the cost of reforms needed to 3,6 billion euro. It is like changing the rules of a game while it is still being played.”
When asked about the future of Europe, Dragasakis argues that "what Europe needs is a change of policy, it must extricate itself from austerity" adding that "European citizens cannot be governed by the whip, this is a neo-colonial logic". On the issue of debt relief, he says that it is not a problem for Greece if the discussion takes place after general elections in Germany and in other European countries. What is a real problem, Dragasakis points out, is how to attract investments, while the situation remains unclear. As far the elections in Germany are concerned, he says that the “the Greek government does not wish to interfere in other countries’ home affairs, but we have our preferences. I believe that a Europe that insists on severe austerity risks alienating its citizens. Of a political change in Germany takes place [meaning the election of Social Democrat Martin Schulz as Chancellor] and there’s a shift in political powers, I would see it as something positive".
Talking about what the Greek economy needs to recover, Dragasakis indicates that "we need a new growth model focusing on research and technology, with a view to combating unemployment and addressing social problems. […] Instead of unrealistic targets (3,5% primary surpluses for ten years) we need a compromise. It is true that we asked help from the World Bank, after we’ve discussed about it with the European Institutions. This will increase the public debt on the one hand, as any kind of borrowing does, but on the other hand it will boost growth and employment.” Finally, on the issue of elections, Dragasakis told Spiegel that "there’s no particular reason for early elections, we will keep on with our program and we’ll have elections in 2019."
Speaking with British newspaper The Guardian, Dragasakis reiterated that “what Greece needs is a shock of growth, […] a new growth strategy that will focus solely on boosting investment and reducing unemployment to pre-crisis levels, that is to say 8% in the next 10 years and Greece will have to compromise in the negotiations with the institutions for the conclusion of the second review “even if such demands are totally irrational”. Dragasakis added that Greece’s real problem was that it was caught up in an ugly dispute between its lenders over what to do with a debt load close to 180% of GDP. The IMF has projected the pile will reach an “explosive” 275% of output if not relieved – a move that Germany, the biggest provider of bailout funds, refuses steadfastly to agree to. “It is why we have not completed the review,” concluded Dragasakis.
Nicolas Leron is associate researcher at the Center of European Studies for Political Science, is president of the think tank EuroCité and president of the site of critics Nonfiction. He has just published "La Double démocratie. Une Europe politique pour la croissance" (Double Democracy. A Political Europe for Growth), co-written with economist Michel Aglietta. He spoke to our sister publication Grèce Hebdo* on the concept of "double democracy", the rupture between sovereignty and the single currency and Europe's to take a democratic and budgetary leap forwards in order to become a fully-fledged democratic power.
You recently wrote a book titled "Double Democracy: A political Europe for growth" with Michel Aglietta. What is the concept double democracy?
Double democracy is a reform proposal in order to overcome the European crisis, it is not an analysis of the current state of Europe. Right now the European Union is not a democracy. This does not mean that it is anti-democratic. The EU is an area of protection of fundamental rights; nothing like it exists anywhere else in the world. Respect of the rule of law is ensured by the European Court of Justice. However, the EU does not fulfill the criteria of a democracy, namely, voting on the budget by an elected parliament. The EU certainly has a budget, but it is a technical budget, a miserable 1% of the EU GDP, well below the threshold of political significance. In a democracy, before even thinking about the demos, there must be a kratos. The EU has no kratos, no political budget, no real res publica, no legitimate democratic power, other than a legal system. It is essentially a Europe of regulations, complemented by some sectoral and territorial policies.
But the Europe of regulations has an effect on national democracies: it stifles them. More than that, the EU, with its internal market law and its budgetary rules, is significantly reducing the budgetary powers of national parliaments, thereby striking at the heart of national democracies. This reduction of is qualitative: it forces national governments to implement, whether they want to or not, a supply-side policy or even, for the euro area countries, an internal devaluation policy. It is also quantitative, due to European budgetary rules. Citizen-voters no longer accept this feeling of dispossession of their political power and they start directly opposing the EU and even tend to distrust the democratic regime.
Faced with this, there are roughly four possible routes. The first one is the “status quo” route or the small steps method. We keep advancing slowly, step by step, by shaky, insufficient compromises. In our opinion, this option leads to a no way out, because it ultimately cannot stem the rising wave of populism and counter-centrifugal forces. The second option is exiting the EU or the euro zone. We consider this option illusory and contrary to the new world order that is emerging. A variant of this option is internal secession, in the sense of deviation from the constituent European values, like what is happening now in Hungary or Poland. The possible outcome of this route is not of a voluntary exit of the EU, but the country’s exclusion by means of removal from the European project. The third way is the great federal leap, which we consider equally illusory and inapplicable in the foreseeable political future. In this respect, it should be noted that the federal leap and the exit from the EU are two sides of the same coin: an obsession with sovereignty. Federalists advocate a transfer of sovereignty from member states to the EU, while nationalists aspire to a full recovery of national sovereignty. Illusion in one case as well as in the other.
The fourth path, which is the one that Michel Aglietta and I are defending, is the democratic leap: making the EU a legitimate democratic power, producing common goods, and reviving national democracies by loosening the European regulatory grip. This double democracy requires a European budget leap. Conceptually, this democratic leap refers to the question of capacity (budget, public political power, democracy), and not to the one of competence (law, sovereignty). An example: the EU has the competence to implement the Erasmus student exchange Programme, because Erasmus concerns less than 1% of European youth. The challenge is therefore not EU's competence in this area, but its ability to generalize Erasmus so that 50% or 80% of youngster are be able to do it, and thus transform European society.
You have said that there is a rupture between sovereignty and the single currency. Could you tell us more about this?
The Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) ruptured the organic link between the political sovereign and the currency. The euro is no longer linked to a clearly identified political sovereign. As a result, the euro is for the member-states like a foreign currency, with the dramatic consequence that they cannot go into default. Indeed, the euro area states cannot monetize their public debt. They no longer have the competence of the lender of last resort. But as nature abhors vacuum, the European crisis has forced the European Central Bank (ECB) to institute itself as lender of last resort, as a monetary sovereign in order to save the euro zone, by departing if necessary from the letter of its given mandate. But this modus vivendi is without a doubt untenable in the long run. A clear mechanism of lender of last resort will have to be established.
What would you say to all those who support the return to the national currency?
On the economic front, the shock would probably be much more violent and costly than the expected positive effects for both the exiting member-state and the rest of the euro area. The Greeks know this and, so far, they do not want to leave the eurozone. Apart from Wolfgang Schaüble, few top European leaders are in favor of even a temporary exit of Greece from the Eurozone. Creating such a precedent would indeed be extremely perilous. There will always be a relatively weak state within the eurozone, and therefore a member-state susceptible to speculative attacks.
More fundamentally, money is more than just a financing instrument. It is a constituent element of a political community. It is a decisive factor in building a society. To abandon the single currency is to undermine the political aspect of the European project. And to what benefit? Let us note that the United Kingdom was not in the eurozone and still the British voted in favor of Brexit". The single currency was a founding political act. But by breaking the organic link between the sovereign and currency, we are now in need of another founding act, which could be the aforementioned a European budget leap.
Isn’t the formation of a European Parliament with genuine budgetary policies a utopia, given that currently the European extreme right is making progress and the European political establishment has always shied away from that option?
The creation of the common market was a utopia, as was the establishment of the euro. History proves that such founding acts are possible, on the condition that political actors understand that they operate within an evolving a historical context. It is the only way out of the trap of short-termism, the “tragedy of the horizon”. This requires a new historic and geopolitical compromise between Germany and France. It is said that Germany will never debt mutualisation. But would Germany be willing to destroy the EU?
The challenge is to forge a new paradigm in understanding European political and historical realities. This is what our book is about. Relocate the terms of the problem. The issue of the European budget resonates, as we can see European Parliament Resolution on budgetary capacity for the euro area and the Monti report. Many think tanks are also working on the subject. But the important thing is to ask the question of the European budget: it is not just a tool for macroeconomic stabilization of a sub-optimal monetary zone. It is first of all, the constituent element of a political Europe. Therefore the budgetary leap is not a hypothetical future in the path to European integration, but a prerequisite, a starting point, a founding act.
What lessons can be drawn from the European management of the Greek crisis?
That the “small steps” method is now over, in that it has an ever-increasing cost, to ever-declining and precarious results. The third Greek adjustment programme is not yet complete, and we are already talking about a fourth. To use the phrase of the German academic Wolfgang Streeck: We are buying time at an increasingly prohibitive cost. This is simply not sustainable, either economically or politically. The very nature of the situation calls, sooner or later, for a definite response: exit / implosion of the euro area or debt mutualisation and wealth transfers, that is to say the choice between a Europe of dissatisfaction, the primary characteristic of which is the over-juridification of relations between member-states, with its share of humiliations and deadlocs, or Europe as a genuine democratic public power that creates common good.
It should be noted that a union of transfers already exists: it is called the internal market and it manages massive flows of wealth (capital, industry, technology, human resources, etc.) between member-states, but it does so according to the principle of competition between private interests, and this generates a dynamic aggregation of wealth in only one center, say Germany and the German bloc. A Europe of democratic political power is intended to institute a counter-union of transfers by distributing wealth according to a reverse, centrifugal dynamic, from the center to the periphery (territorial and social), according to the principle of electoral contest for the definition of general interest.
*Interview to Costas Mavroidis, translated by Ioulia Livaditi.