“A New Way of Spelling Athens”: a survey of contemporary Greek short fiction

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Woof, Woof, Dear Lord by Sotiris Domitriou (trans. Leo Marshall). Kedros, 1995.

Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonomou (trans. Karen Emmerich). Archepelago Books, 2016.

Good Friday Vigil by Yorgos Ioannou (trans. Patrick Mackridge and Jackie Wilcox). Kedros, 1995.

I’d Like by Amanda Michalopoulou (trans. Karen Emmerich). Dalkey Archive Press, 2008.

On My Aunt’s Shallow Grave White Roses Have Already Bloomed by Maria Mitsora (trans. Jacob Moe). Yale University Press, 2018.

Landscape With Dog by Ersi Sotiropoulos (trans. Karen Emmerich). Clockroot Books, 2010.

A nation lives in the imagination as much as it does in the streets and towns that populate the landscape. Few nations have been as mythologized as Greece, especially in the West, and even works that claim no connection to the ancient country seem at times to vibrate with its influence. It is difficult, in much of Western literature, to escape the idea of its looming presence. But much of contemporary Greek fiction turns its back on the ancients, choosing instead to look at the complexities of the current moment in the Greek nation. There is no Parthenon in these stories, nor do we feel the presence of the gods, or ancient rulers. The only visible ruins are the poverty-stricken homes and the lives that result.

In Christos Ikonomou’s striking collection Something Will Happen, You’ll See (trans. Karen Emmerich), the impoverished residents of the Athens neighborhood of Nikaia struggle for some semblance of solidarity. These are lives lived far from the center, an area no tourists ever visit, and where working class Greeks spend their days always on the edge of some disaster. In “Mao” a young man whose sister was raped sits nightly watch on his house steps, while the thugs who attacked her threaten to kill him and his family. Ikonomou’s stripped down language is beautiful, despite the horrors he sometimes describes: “His older sister Katerina got raped last summer behind the Katrakeio Theater where the quarries used to be.” In “Piece By Piece They’re Taking My World Away,” a couple’s house is dismantled by neighbors while they still live there after news spreads that it is scheduled to be demolished. “They came with pickup trucks and brought tools to loosen the stones and casually loaded them onto the beds of their trucks, slow and easy, taking their time.”

There are echoes in Ikonomou of the earlier stories of Yorgos Ioannou, a writer who died just as he was maturing into his style. His final published work, Good Friday Vigil (trans. Patrick Mackridge and Jackie Wilcox) details the lives of prostitutes and transvestites and outcasts, living far on the edges of Greek society, and is shot through with homoerotic yearning. In “The Cripple” a temporary boarder starts a friendship with the reclusive son of his new landlords which quickly shifts to them telling each other ever more daring, and disturbing, erotic stories. In another, an aging and lonely teacher takes in one of her former students, a handsome soldier, who spends his nights in her bed but refuses to touch her. Believing him to be having an affair, her obsession grows and she begins to follow him, only to discover him on the roof, where every night he watches a distant man disrobing in his bedroom. She takes him downstairs and shows him that the view is as clear from her window.

Amanda Michalopoulou’s exquisite collection of linked stories I’d Like (trans. Karen Emmerich) reads at times like a perfectly deconstructed novel. Phrases, objects, characters, snatches of conversation recur from story to story. What at first seems like an adulterous couple performing violent sex acts become a married couple pushing the boundaries of their sex life. The death of an older sister is replayed from different angles, and the struggles of the younger sister to become a writer form a thread that gradually expands throughout the work. In one story, a young Stella talks to her older self through a movie screen. In another, a young psychiatrist kidnaps a patient that has regressed into babyhood she feels will be better helped by cigarettes and alcohol than the institution’s therapy. Michalopoulou’s love of language and form helps bring her experiments to life. In the concluding story, “I’d Like (Orchestral Version)”, she brings many of the strands together, though not in explanation. Like the title suggests, it reads closer to an orchestral coda to a great symphony.

Two visions of contemporary Greece clash in Ersi Sotiropoulos’ powerful story “The Pinball King”, where a group of middle class friends get lost while driving in the forests near Delphi. Saved by a local goatherd, they ultimately reject his offer of spending the night at his broken-down hut where in the morning he promises to slaughter a pig to celebrate, leaving him confounded by their unwillingness to accept his generosity. It could be a scene from an Antonioni movie, and throughout Sotiropoulos’ collection, Landscape With Dog (trans. Karen Emmerich), that same sense of searching and dislocation often returns. “Kissing the Air” relates in a diary that spans years a young man’s sexual obsession with a schoolmate and the meaninglessness his life descends into. In “Feather in the Hair,” a woman is led on a seemingly random journey through the streets of Rome, unaware that she is traveling along the route of her friend’s nostalgia.

A brutal Greece shows itself in Sotiris Domitriou’s Woof, Woof, Dear Lord (trans. Leo Marshall) where, in the title story, a sadistic army officer, bored with his posting, viciously murders the local strays. In “A Boy from Salonica” a group of street sweepers find a homeless kid in the bushes, so emaciated his vertebrae stand out in stark relief, and rob him of the little he has. The stories here are a vision of a crushing, working class Greece, impoverished and with little or no love left for strangers or neighbors alike, the post-war nation, when the disastrous Great Famine and the horrors of the Civil War still haunted the nation.

The evocative stories in Maria Mitsora’s collection On My Aunt’s Shallow Grave White Roses Have Already Bloomed (trans. Jacob Moe) serve as a corrective to Domitriou’s more savage vision. In the translator’s preface, Moe writes that in the book Mitsora handed him, she had scrawled on its title page that she had found “a new way of spelling Athens, Greece.” These wildly imaginative tales draw equally on myth and scattered geography, and often dive directly into the protagonist’s subconscious. Using surrealism, formal experimentation, vignette, and a willingness to travel far beyond the nation’s borders, Mitsora’s daring work offers some of the most challenging and engaging short fiction being written in Greece today.

None of these authors offer a tourist vision of the nation. There are no beach bars, no sapphire-colored waters, no locals dancing the tsamiko. Nor are there any of the gorgeous celebratory paeans to Greece that visiting writers like Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller offered. This is writing with dirt under the nails, writing that contends with the urban reality of a rapidly changing nation, that helps illuminate something of the daily lived experience of the citizens. Any visitor, looking for a more honest guidebook, could do little better than reading a few of these books.

 

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