In preparation for my upcoming and long awaited trip to Greece, I decided to study up on the culture in my usual way: by reading literature. Unfortunately a search for “Greek literature” yields only the classics: Socrates, Plato, Homer. Even the search for “modern Greek literature” goes as far back as the Byzantine era. Finally, a search for “contemporary Greek literature” is really all I needed.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there are many books written about Greece, there are many books that take place in Greece, but there are very few translated books written by Greek people, in the Greek language, about life in contemporary Greece. This is what I really wanted. Not an essay about politics, not a memoir written by a third-generation Greek American. I wanted to hear how Greek people described themselves to themselves, in their own context. That’s the great gift of fiction, we can enter into another life without the explanation usually given to outsiders. We have to figure things out on our own.
If you do a search for these type of books you will quickly stubble upon Karen Emmerich, who is quite possibly the most renowned Greek-to-English translator of contemporary literature. Once you know her name, the stories of contemporary Greeks open wide to you. Before I left for Greece, I had read about ten books.
The first book I read was The Scapegoat by Sophia Nikolaidou .This thriller was based off a true story of an American journalist who was murdered in the 1940s. From this book, I gathered an impression of a dirty, impoverished, frightening Greece. The story also provides insight into life in a Greek high school, where one student anxiously tries to solve the mystery for a school project. Through this book, it was easy to appreciate the unique dynamic Greek students share with their professors.
The next book I read was …And Dreams are Dreams by Vasiles Vasilikos. One of the finest examples of magical realism in Greek language, this book is a strange joy to read. The title comes from the opening short story, about a group of friends who start a newspaper called “The Almanac of Dreams” where they publish the dreams of everyday people, power world leaders, and even celebrities.
The almanac “expressed, finally, the deeper desire of people to be outis (no one) in outopo (no place)…Dreams don’t need land to bear fruit….” (Vasilikos, 17).
I attempted two books by Ersi Sotiropoulos, one of the most acclaimed Greek novelists of our time. Unfortunately I could not connect with either Landscape with Dog or her award-winning Zigzag Through the Bitter Orange Trees (though the real bitter orange trees of Athens are forever burned into my mind) so I did not finish her books.
Amanda Michalopoulou, on the other hand, was someone I enjoyed so much I read two of her books. The first one, I’d Like, was a collection of short stories that I felt vividly captured the human existence.
“It occurred to me that we are living a life of substitutes,” Michalopoulou wrote, “That somewhere there's a core of original life, a place where things don't just resemble other things”(Michalopoulou, 14).
Her novel, Why I Killed my Best Friend tells the story of two girls growing up together through loss, trauma, and tragedy.
The narrator says of her aunt:
“Whenever anything bad happens, she digs a hole in her head and shoves it in there.
‘Aunt Amelia, if you dig a hole in your head, how many things will it fit?’
‘Oh, lots. Lots and lots…’”
(Michalopoulou, 16 ).
But of all the Greek authors I was introduced to along this journey, my favorite, my kindred spirit, the one I will take to my bedside and tuck under my pillow, was Margarita Karapanou.
I met Margarita through her most famous novella, Kassandra and the Wolf. A story of disturbing vignettes told through the eyes of a six-year-old.
“At night, forgotten words tried to reach me. I listened with my skin. Words tore my skin off, crept inside me, and nestled down. I was a mass of wounds. When I opened my mouth in front of the mirror, beasts lay asleep in my throat; they'd made it their home” (Karapanou)
I loved Kassandra and the Wolf, but her next book, Rein Ne Va Plus, moved me even more. A desperate story of love, marriage, betrayal, and longing, the title of the novel describes it best:
“He lit a cigarette and started to read. Then he raised his head and looked at me, smiling.
- Rein ne va plus, he said.
- Isn't that what they say in roulette?
- Yes. It's not as ominous as it sounds. But it marks the most crucial moment of the game. That's what gives it that terseness, that sense of conclusion.
- What exactly does it mean?
- It's the moment when you can't affect the future anymore, for better or worse. When you hear the croupier’s famous rien ne va plus, you either win or lose whatever you've bet. Usually you lose" (Karapanou, 18)
Greek novelists have changed my life an the way I read and enjoy literature. Their colorful words certainly shaped my experience in Greece and now I see my country through their eyes and my own.