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from the March 2009 issue

From “Paris–Athens”

To my father

I. Silence

I don't know when I started to write this book. I know that today is the 9th, I'm looking in my datebook: Sunday, November 9th, 1986, St. Theodore's day—no, I'm off by a week, today is only the 2nd, All Souls Day. I would have preferred to start on the 9th—Theodore is a Greek name. Oh, well; the Day of the Dead isn't bad, either.

Actually, I didn't begin this book today. A year ago, perhaps. Perhaps twenty-five years ago, when I left Greece. I was seventeen. I no longer remember at what time the ship set sail. It was daytime, it was hot. I remember the sunglasses my mother wore to hide her tears. I had a big white imitation-leather suitcase, and other luggage as well. While I was struggling down the pier, I looked at my shadow. It reminded me of a comic figurine, decked out in an enormous rectangular skirt. Did I really look at my shadow? Is that really what it reminded me of? I can't swear to it. In any case, maybe that was the day I began this book. I was too moved to speak. At the origin of every book there is, I believe, a silence.

There have been other silences since. A year ago, I tried to write. I spent hours, days, staring at the blank page without managing to trace a single word; I was incapable of choosing between Greek and French. It was precisely about the difficulty of this choice that I wanted to write, but how can you write without choosing?

I thought of a sophism we learned in Greek school: a crocodile (Why a crocodile? Have there ever been crocodiles in Greece?) kidnapped a child, then said to the mother:

"I'll give him back to you if you can guess what I'm thinking."

"You're thinking that you won't give him back to me," said the mother.

"You lose," answered the crocodile. "Because if I'm thinking not to give him back to you, I won't give him back to you, since that's what I'm thinking. If I'm thinking of giving him back to you, you guessed wrong, and so I won't give him back."

"You're the one who loses," the mother retorted. "Because either you're thinking of giving him back to me, and in that case, you'll give him back, since that's your intention, or else you're thinking you won't give him back to me, in which case I guessed correctly and you have to give him back anyway."

My powerlessness as I faced the blank page made me furious. Partly to console myself, I told myself—but in which language?—that there was no reason to put a single mark on the paper, that it expressed my situation perfectly exactly as it was.

On the small street where I live, in Paris's fifteenth arrondissement, there is an Arab café across from a dance school that nothing but a plate glass window separates from the sidewalk. You can see the women dancing very clearly—the shade that's supposed to screen them is never drawn—but you can barely hear the music. You can, however, hear the music from the café very well; the door is always open. This bizarre scene of young women studying modern or classical dance to Arabic music, which could come straight out of a Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati movie, makes me extremely melancholic.

I feel a bit melancholic every time I come back from Greece, too. I'm surprised when the taxi drivers at Orly airport speak to me in French. It's as though I have trouble acknowledging that I've really returned. I'm surprised to hear myself speaking French. In fact, I have trouble finding the right tone and difficulty speaking clearly, which explains why I always put off making that first phone call. When I finally do make the call, I still have the impression that I'm hearing someone else speak through me in my own voice. I remind myself of an actor watching himself dubbed on the screen.

And yet I've spent nearly half my life in Paris. I've been working for French-language newspapers for twenty years, and I've written most of my books in this language. I speak mostly French to my children, who were born in France.

I came to France in the early sixties to study at the school of journalism in Lille. At the time, I didn't plan on staying. I was impatient to learn the language well—not so as to be assimilated into French society, but in order to finish my studies as soon as possible and go back to Greece. But the better I learned the language, the more I wanted to use it, like a new car purchased after many hardships.

I don't know what I would have done after my military service if the army hadn't seized power in Greece. The coup d'état occurred in April of 1967. I lived under the Colonels for a year; that was enough. So I came back to France at the end of 1968. In one sense, it wasn't hard to choose between the France of '68 and the Greece of '67, between those two Springs. In one sense only, though, because afterward I was extremely critical of myself for having distanced myself from Greece, for having forgotten it at a time when it most needed to be remembered. Perhaps I began this book when I became aware of this distance. Since then, I've had long, silent discussions with myself about my attitude during this period, I ask myself questions, I try to understand myself but I don't.

The army relinquished power in 1974, after seven years. Those years played such a crucial role in my life that it didn't occur to me to leave France. My second son was born in 1974; he got a difficult start in life: he obstinately refused to eat, and gave the vague impression that he had come reluctantly into the world. That same year, the first novel I wrote in French was published and I was working on a second. I wanted to take part in the celebrations that followed the fall of the junta, but I got to Athens too late; already the only topic of conversation was a possible conflict with Turkey over Cyprus. I returned to France a few months after the events of '68. By straddling two countries, I managed to miss those rare occasions that history offers us to rejoice.

When I wrote in French, I rarely mentioned my childhood in Greece. I suddenly realized this one day when I was walking on the boulevard des Capucines. It occurred to me that no one in France had ever known me as a child, that I had no place in anyone's memory, and that they had no place in mine either because their childhood was entirely foreign to me. The only French people I've known all their lives are my children.

I realized I had forgotten quite a bit of my mother tongue. Often when I would try to find the right word for something, the first word that would come to mind was a French one. The genitive plural in Greek gave me real trouble at times. My Greek became ossified, rusty. I knew the language and yet had a hard time using it; it was like a machine whose operating instructions I'd lost. I also realized that the language had changed enormously since I had left it, that it had rid itself of a great number of words and created countless new ones, particularly since the end of the dictatorship. In a certain sense, then, I had to relearn my mother tongue; it wasn't easy, it took me years, but finally I managed.

Nonetheless, I continued to write in French, out of habit and because it appealed to me. I needed to talk about the life I was living in France. I would have had a hard time explaining in Greek anything about the "housing project" I'd lived in for twelve years, the subway, or the corner café. All of that resonated in me in French. Likewise, it would be difficult for me to conjure up in French a dinner among Greeks; the characters would lose all credibility in my eyes, they would seem like Common Market civil servants! I used Greek to speak about Greece, where I was going more and more frequently.

Traveling like this from one country to another, from one language to another, from one self to another, I thought I'd found a certain balance. I tried to translate myself once from Greek into French and once from French into Greek. I had fewer problems than I had anticipated. I don't know what the degree of relationship between the two languages is. It seemed to me, though, that I had found in each of them the words that suited me, a territory that resembled me, a sort of very personal little country. Someone told me about a foreign writer who wound up marrying his French translator. "Well," I thought, "I'm my own wife!" I was fairly happy for a while. I didn't have the impression I was betraying myself by using two languages, nor did I think I was betraying them.

"Oh? You write in French?" people would sometimes ask me in a stiff and slightly reproachful tone, as if I were committing some unnatural act. "That must be hard! French has so many shades of meaning!"

Remarks of this kind didn't annoy me too much. It seemed to me that it would be easier for the French to understand that someone else could write in their language if they themselves were more interested in foreign languages, if they were convinced that shades of meaning existed in other languages as well. Still, I was intensely irritated by a well-known linguist who proclaimed at a colloquium of francophone writers that one can only write a work of any originality in one's mother tongue. My modest experience in this area tells me that this is not true. I don't have the sense that my switch to French, as difficult as it was, and as painful in so many ways, reduced my imagination, limited my freedom, or diminished my pleasure in writing. The opposite is in fact true: French increased my pleasure, opened new spaces of freedom for me. It did not force me to tell stories that were foreign to me. Of course, sometimes I have the feeling as I write that the French language is already thinking of what will come next, that it will suggest things to me as soon as I have finished the sentence I'm in the middle of. Obviously I can reject these suggestions, but usually they are on the right track. I don't only claim to know French, I claim that French knows me, too! I'm not envious of authors who have only ever used one language or are familiar with only a single culture. If the result of my work is bad, or simply mediocre, it's not because I write in a foreign language, but in spite of the fact that I write in a foreign language. In other words, I demand the right to be judged with even greater severity!

Since then, I've noticed that this linguist's point of view is more widely held than I believed. People are thrilled that the French language conquers foreigners, but they are not at all convinced that foreigners can master the language in turn. Foreigners are considered more as representatives of another culture, as ambassadors from a different world, than as original creators, authors in their own right. People expect an excess of exoticism from them. For the most part they are asked to provide information about their home country.

I recall some rather tiresome Parisian parties where, at about two in the morning, the hostess would relentlessly ask the Greek guests to liven up the place by dancing a sirtaki. I can still hear her voice:

"Come on! Dance for us! You're so much better at having a good time than we are!"

I came up against prejudices about foreigners who write in French when my last book was published a year and a half ago. It was a novel written in French that could be described, to simplify matters, as Parisian. I'm afraid I'm giving the impression that it received bad reviews; they were very good. And I think they were right to be! It seems to me that I've made some progress in twenty years! But I also noticed some discreet reservations, some signs of incomprehension. There were some people who were surprised (even in Paris everyone knows everyone's business in the end) that I wrote in French and made no mention of Greece.

Their surprise could have occurred sooner; it was my fourth novel in French. It's true that no one was supposed to know that my first books were the work of a foreigner—I seem to recall in fact that some reviews said I was "of Greek origin." It was only after I had written a somewhat autobiographical novel in Greek and translated it into French that people found it surprising that I also write in French.

If one believes that it is impossible to express oneself as well in a foreign language as in one's own, then indeed there are good reasons for being surprised when someone chooses a foreign language. Why would anyone choose to express himself less well? One understands if he does so under some kind of constraint, in other words, when he really has no choice. I, however, have no excuse for writing in French: I don't come from a francophone country, my mother tongue is not just a spoken language, I have not broken all ties with it, and Greece got rid of the Colonels long ago.

"So why do you write French novels?" a critic asked me. "There are already so many on the market."

I don't have the sense that I'm writing other people's books. Whether I write in Greek or in French, whether the action (action? What action? Anyway…) takes place in Athens or in Paris (naturally I need to speak about both halves of my life), I always tell the same kind of story. Either it has some interest in both languages, or it has none. Besides, the Greek market is also flooded with novels…

Even my publisher confessed his perplexity to me: should he put me in his foreign collection or in his French collection? He, too, has the feeling that the fact that I write in two languages is not, as they say, "well received."

I wouldn't feel the need to mention the reservations people have about me if they hadn't provoked a crisis in me: For the first time it occurred to me that perhaps I should leave France. I who had taken so much trouble in the past to learn French had now come to regret not knowing it less well. Can one unlearn a language? Can one learn to forget? I knew it was possible because I had almost forgotten Greek. If I were to leave France, I would surely end up having the same distance from French. You can't love a language from afar for very long, any more than you can a woman. You can maintain ties with it for a time, at the cost of a great deal of effort, but it becomes exhausting in the end.

It was at the French Institute in Athens when I was about ten years old that I learned my first smatterings of French. During an end-of-the-year party, dressed as a parrot, I recited a French poem called "I am Coco the Chatterbox." I was praised for my pronunciation. I was also learning English at another private institute. Classes were held in the evening, after school. It would be pitch black when I got home. I could see from a distance the lighted window of our kitchen. I'd always whistle the same tune to let my mother know I was coming; it was a German song, "Lili Marlene." My parents, like all Greek parents, placed great importance on language learning; no doubt they knew that Greece could not remain an inward-looking country. Foreign languages represented the possibility of openness and progress. My first French teacher was a woman. Her last name was Aspromali, which means "white hair." Her sister lived upstairs from us; she was a dentist. The thought that one day or another I could be led to break up with French deeply distressed me. Abandoning this language in which I had expressed myself for so long would inevitably mean taking leave of myself. I thought that if the French considered me a Greek author, my compatriots would be even more justified in classifying me with foreigners. In fact, I had written very little in my mother tongue—several screenplays but only one novel—and my stays in Greece, frequent though they were, were generally quite short. My pen reminded me of a pole missing a little flag. I cited to myself the cases of other Greek writers who expressed themselves in a foreign language. There are quite a few, the most famous being Kazantzakis, who lived in France and wrote some of his works in French. I could, however, think of very few French authors who had made use of a foreign language. A country with a large number of emigrants, scene of many conflicts, Greece has always lived with one foot abroad, a little outside itself. Traveling is part of the national identity. Perhaps I was simply in the process of discovering the difficulty of being Greek. But I was only half-reassured by all that.

I had thought I'd found a balance between two countries and two languages, but I now had the sense I was walking in a void. As in a nightmare, I saw myself crossing an abyss on a bridge that in reality did not exist.

A year ago, then, I tried to write, but the words shrank away as if they were afraid of being wounded by the tip of the pen. Je ne sais pas, I thought, could be the beginning of an interesting sentence, but should I write je ne sais pas or, in Greek, den ksero?

"What language do you speak to yourself in?" a friend asked. "What language do you understand yourself best in?" In my notebook, I use both—Greek seems to have the upper hand, but only by a little. I wanted to write in Greek, probably out of spite, because I felt things were a bit strained between French and me. But it was exactly this phenomenon that was troubling me, so to tackle it in Greek would have been a way of denying it. I needed French—it's in French that I'm writing all of this now—but it had become inaccessible. There was, in sum, no language with which to say that.

I spent my days in bed, drinking coffee and smoking. It was winter. Very little light came through the window—a grey light that allowed me to make out objects but no more. They were colorless. I looked at the telephone for a long time. I wondered when I had stopped saying "allo" in French when I picked up. Since when had I begun answering systematically in Greek, "embros"? I listened to the sounds of the building, the traffic on boulevard de Grenelle. Every now and again the bathtub faucets let out a whistle followed by a kind of long, deep inhalation. I imagined that an animal was stuck in the pipes, dying of asphyxiation.

I recalled a Greek peasant woman from whom a foreign tourist had asked some directions in Greek. She took a liking to him and began telling him her problems. From time to time he would nod his head. When he left, the woman turned to me and said, both surprised and thrilled:

"See, a foreigner who not only speaks Greek, but understands it too!"

I did nothing. Was I waiting for nightfall? My wife, when we lived together, said that I spoke Greek in my sleep. If we had stayed together longer would she have learned Greek? Was our separation a harbinger of my break-up with France? Was it the few misgivings my last novel provoked that had plunged me into this frame of mind? I knew I was sensitive, but to such an extent?

I couldn't pull myself out of this state; I couldn't write. Once again, I was reduced to silence. "There must be some things I need to understand," I thought again. This notion intrigued me; I had the feeling of having borrowed it from a Raymond Chandler novel.

I thought of the Vietnamese people who had lived in the studio next to mine for a while: they spoke Vietnamese among themselves, but to the alley cat they had adopted they spoke French.

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