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from the March 2009 issue

From “Paris–Athens”

I first wrote this text in French. I finished it on November 20, 1988. I chose French because I wanted to make sense of my relationship with this language in which I have also written other books. I translated it as faithfully as I could: I don't touch upon events that took place after 1988; I simply omitted some explanations that were necessary for the French public and added others for the Greek reader.— V.A.

I. Silence I don't know when I began to write this book. I know that today is the ninth, I'm looking at my French calendar—Sunday, November 9, 1986, Saint Theodore's Day—but no, I skipped a week, today is the second, the Day of the Dead. I would have preferred to begin on the ninth since the saint's name is Greek. Never mind, the Day of the Dead is quite fitting.

To tell the truth, I did not begin this book today. Maybe it was a year ago. Or maybe twenty-five years ago, when I came to France. I was seventeen years old. I don't remember what time the boat left. It was daytime and it was hot. I remember the sunglasses my mother was wearing to hide her tears. I had a big, white, fake-leather suitcase and some other baggage. As I shuffled down the dock, I watched my shadow: I looked like Karagiozis, a comic shadow-puppet figure dressed in a protruding square skirt. Is it true that I looked at my shadow, that it made such an impression on me? I won't swear to it. Anyhow, perhaps I began this book on that day. I was all choked up and couldn't say a word. I think all books are born out of silence.

Since then I have faced other silences. A year ago I tried to write. I spent hours, days, my eyes fixed on the blank page, unable to put down a single word: I was incapable of choosing between Greek and French. I wanted to write about precisely the difficulty of this choice, but how could I write about it unless I had already made it?

I thought of the sophism they taught us in school: A crocodile (where would you come across crocodiles in Greece?) kidnaps a small child and says 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."

"You lose," says the crocodile, "because if indeed I am thinking that I won't give him back to you, then I won't give him back, since that's my intention. If, on the other hand, I am thinking of giving him back, then you guessed wrong."

"You lose," the mother retorts (this woman's composure always impressed me). "Either way you have to give him back, either because you're thinking of it, or because you're not thinking of it, so I win the bet."

My inability to write the slightest word infuriated me. To console myself I thought—in which language, I wonder?—that there was no reason to spill ink on the page, that the blank sheet of paper expressed my situation perfectly.

On the little street where I live in Paris in the fifteenth arrondissement, there is an Arabic café across from a dance school. Only a bay window separates it from the sidewalk. You can see the dancers clearly, since the shutters that could hide them are never lowered, but you can't hear the music. However, you can hear music blaring from the café, as the door is always open. This bizarre image of young women practicing modern or classical dance to Arabic music, which makes me think of a Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati movie, makes me feel melancholy.

I have the same sense of melancholy every time I come back to France. I'm startled when the taxi drivers at Orly airport speak to me in French, as if it's hard for me to accept that I'm back again. I'm surprised to hear myself speaking French. Also, I have trouble, in the beginning, finding the right expression, enunciating words clearly, as if I'd forgotten the purpose of language, and so I always put off making that first phone call. When I finally resolve to pick up the phone, I still have the sensation that someone else is speaking with my voice: I feel like an actor watching himself in a dubbed version of his film. Of course I eventually get used to it, but the fact that after so many years I still need time to adjust means that, clearly, I will never be fully assimilated.

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

I came to France in the early sixties to study at the journalism school in Lille. At that time I didn't expect to stay. I was in a hurry to learn the language well, not in order to become part of French society, but so I could finish my studies as soon as possible and go back to Greece. But the better I learned French, the more I wanted to make use of it—as though it were a new plaything that had cost me dearly.

I don't know what I'd have done after completing my military service if the coup of 1967 hadn't intervened. I lived under the dictatorship for one year; I didn't need a second. So I returned to France at the end of 1968. In one regard, it wasn't hard to choose between the France of '68 and the Greece of '67, between the French May and Greek April, between one spring and the other. In one regard only, as later I felt terribly guilty for estranging myself from Greece, for forgetting her at a time when she so needed to be remembered. Perhaps I began this book when I became conscious of this estrangement. Ever since, I've been having endless silent conversations with myself about my attitude during that period, I question myself, I try to understand myself, but I don't understand myself.

The seven years that went by during the dictatorship played such a decisive role in my life that I didn't even think about going back to Greece. My second son was born in the summer of '74. He had a troubled start: he stubbornly refused to be fed, as if he had no inclination to live. The same year, my first novel was published, written in French, and I had already begun my second. I too wanted to celebrate the fall of the dictatorship, but arrived in Athens too late: people no longer spoke of anything besides the possibility of going to war with Turkey over Cyprus. I had moved to France several months after the events of '68: By living between the two countries, I managed to miss out on the few joyous occasions in the history of each.

I rarely spoke of my childhood or of Greece when writing in French. This suddenly occurred to me one day while I was walking along the boulevard des Capucines. I reflected that no one in France had known me since childhood, that I had no place in other people's memory, just as they had no place in mine, as I knew nothing of their past. The only French people I have known since birth are my children.

I also discovered that I had forgotten a great deal of my native language. I grasped for words and, often, the ones that popped into my head first were French. I had trouble using the genitive plural. My Greek had run to seed, was out of date. I knew the language and yet I had a hard time using it, as if I had a machine at my disposal but no instruction manual. I came to the conclusion that the language had changed a great deal since the time I had broken away from it, that it had shed a large number of words and generated countless new ones, mainly after the dictatorship came to an end. So I needed to somehow relearn my native language: I had to work hard at it, it took me years, but in the end I think I managed.

Nonetheless I continued to write in French. I did so out of habit and because I enjoyed it. I felt the need to talk about my life in France. It would've been hard for me to relate in Greek the life in the municipal housing where I spent twelve years, the métro or the corner bistro. All of these things reverberated within me in French. It would be just as hard for me to describe a meal at a Greek taverna in French: the characters would lose all credibility for me if they spoke French; they'd be like employees of the Common Market! So I used Greek when speaking of Greece, to which I was traveling more and more often.

By continuously moving from one country to the other, from one language to the other, from one self to another, I thought I had reached a certain equilibrium. I tried my hand at translating Talgo from Greek into French, and The Girls of Boom-Boom City from French into Greek: I had less trouble than I'd expected. I don't know what type of relationship the two languages could have, but I think I've found in each of them the words that suit me, a domain that resembles me, a small personal homeland. I heard the story about a foreign writer who ended up marrying his translator: "Well," I thought, "I've married myself." I felt rather good for a while. I didn't feel that I'd betrayed myself by using two languages, or that I'd betrayed those languages.

"Oh really? You write in French?" they would say to me here with a sour expression, lightly admonishing, as if I were involved in unnatural activities. "It must be very difficult! You see, our language has so many nuances!"

Such comments didn't bother me much. I thought the French would understand better that a foreigner can write in their language if they were a bit more interested in foreign languages, if they were convinced that other languages have nuances as well.

However, I was quite annoyed by a well-known linguist who declared, at a conference of francophone writers, that a writer can compose an original work only in his native language. My modest experience in this realm tells me this is unfounded. I don't think my passage into French, as difficult and painful as it was in many ways, has curbed my imagination, limited my freedom, or deprived me of the pleasure of writing. Precisely the reverse is true: French has enhanced my enjoyment, expanded my horizons, and given me greater freedom. It has not coerced me into writing stories that are foreign to me. Certainly I have the sense, at times, that the language itself is thinking up the text as it goes along, and that it will offer suggestions as soon as I finish the sentence I am writing. Naturally I can reject them, but generally speaking they help me reach the place where I want to go. I'm saying that not only do I know French, but French knows me too! I don't envy writers who use only one language and are familiar with only one culture. If the result of my labor is bad, or simply mediocre, it isn't because I write in a foreign language, but despite the fact that I write in a foreign language. In other words, I claim the right to be judged even more rigorously!

Later on, I discovered that the linguist's point of view was rather prevalent. The French tend to believe that their language can master a foreigner, but not that a foreigner can master their language. They consider a foreign writer a representative of another culture, an ambassador from a different world, instead of an independent artist. They mainly expect him to provide a certain element of exoticism, along with information about his homeland.

I remember some rather tedious Parisian soirées where, at around two in the morning, the hostess grabs her Greek guests by the sleeve and badgers them to dance the sirtaki to liven up the atmosphere. I can practically hear her now:

"Mais allez-y, dansez-nous quelque chose! Vous savez tellement mieux vous amuser que nous!" (Go on now, dance for us! You're much better at having a good time than we are!)

I made this discovery a year and a half ago, when my last book came out—Identity Control, a novel written in French and set in Paris.1 I don't mean to give the impression that it was received poorly: the reviews were very favorable and with good reason! I think I made a lot of progress since I first began writing. However, they expressed some tactful misgivings, not about the novel itself, but about me. "Why does he write in French?" some asked. "And why doesn't he tell us about Greece?" Even in Paris everyone finds you out in the end.

They could have expressed their misgivings earlier, considering that this was my fourth novel published in French. Of course, people didn't necessarily know that my first books were written by a foreigner—If I remember correctly, several book critics mentioned that I was of Greek origin, not that I was Greek. It was only after I wrote a somewhat autobiographical novel in Greek, Talgo, and translated it into French, that they became astonished that I write in French as well.

If, in fact, it were impossible to express oneself in a foreign language as well as in one's own language, it would make little sense for a writer to freely choose the former. Why prefer to express oneself less well? It wouldn't be logical unless one were obliged, if in effect there were no freedom of choice. As for me, I have no excuse for writing in French: I'm not from a francophone country; my native language isn't only an oral language; I haven't severed my relationship with it; and, finally, it's been quite a while since Greece rid itself of the dictatorship.

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

I don't think I write the same books as other people. Whether I write in Greek or French, wherever the action (what action? In any case…) takes place, in Athens or Paris, I always tell more or less the same story. Something interesting comes into play in both languages, or in neither one of them. Besides, the Greek market is also saturated with novels…

Even my editor confessed his perplexity to me: should he place my books in the French or Foreign Literature section? He also thinks my bilingualism isolates me, that it's inexplicable to some, that I pose a problem.

I wouldn't have needed to speak of these reactions if they hadn't provoked a drama within myself: for the first time, I thought maybe I should leave France. I—who had worked so hard to learn French—came to regret being so fluent. Is it possible to unlearn a language? Can one learn to forget? If I left France, I would surely become estranged from the language as well, just as earlier I had nearly forgotten my Greek. You cannot love a language, or a woman for that matter, from a distance. You can keep in touch for a while with a great deal of effort. But when it drags on for a long time, it becomes tiresome.

I started taking classes at the French Institute of Athens when I was ten or twelve years old. At a festival at the year's end, I recited a French poem dressed as a parrot. I was praised for my pronunciation. I was also learning English at another private institute. These lessons took place in the evening after school. It was pitch black by the time I got home. I saw the lit window of our kitchen from far away. I always whistled the same song—"Lily Marlene"—to let my mother know I was coming. My parents, like all Greek parents, placed great value on foreign language learning. I suppose they knew that Greece could not easily survive in isolation. Learning at least one foreign language was a prerequisite in order to advance, to succeed as a student. I took my first French lessons from Mrs. Aspromalli. Her sister, who lived above us, was a dentist.

The idea that someday I could leave French behind distressed me deeply. I had expressed myself in this language for such a long time that leaving it behind would mean fatally losing a part of myself. It occurred to me that if the French saw me as a Greek writer, my compatriots had even more reason to consider me a foreigner. In fact, I had written very little in my native tongue—a number of screenplays but only one novel—and though I went to Greece often, it was only for short periods of time. Like a pole without a flag—that's how my pen seemed to me for a moment. I called to mind examples of other Greeks who had expressed themselves in a foreign language. There are quite a few, most notably Kazantzakis, who lived in France and wrote several of his works in French. Conversely, I couldn't think of a single French writer who had written in a language other than his own. Our country has always had one foot abroad, for many reasons, among them economic and political. The journey is an element of our national identity. Perhaps the drama I was experiencing was simply a natural consequence of my nationality. But none of these considerations was wholly reassuring.

Although I had thought that I'd reached an equilibrium, that I could be in two places at once, I discovered that I was nowhere at all. I found myself crossing a chasm on a bridge that in reality didn't exist.

A year ago, then, I tried to write, but the words wriggled away, as if they were afraid they might be wounded by the tip of my pen. I thought it would be interesting to begin with the words I don't know, but should I write them in Greek or French, Den kséro, or Je ne sais pas?

"What language do you speak to yourself in?" A friend of mine once asked me. "What language do you understand yourself better in?"

I use both languages in my notebook—Greek a bit more frequently, but the difference is minimal. I wanted to write in Greek, likely out of spite, because I was feeling out of sorts with France. But it was precisely this phenomenon that disturbed me; if I tried to write about it in Greek, it would in a way leave it open to doubt. I needed French—it was in French that I first wrote this—but it had become inaccessible. In other words, there was no language in which I could say what I wanted to say.

I spent whole days in bed, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. It was winter. A bit of light came in through the window, a grayish light, just enough so I could make out objects. They had no color. I gazed at the telephone. I asked myself when exactly I had stopped saying allo? when I picked up the receiver, when I had begun to say, methodically, embros? I heard the noise from the building, the traffic on the boulevard de Grenelle. Every so often a whistling sound came from the tap in the bathroom, followed by a long, drawn-out breath: I pictured an animal trapped in the pipes, dying of asphyxiation.

A tourist asks a woman in a Greek village some questions in Greek. She takes a liking to him and bends his ear for a while. Now and then he nods his head as if in comprehension. When the foreigner leaves, she says excitedly:

"Now there is a tourist who not only speaks Greek, but understands it, too!"

I think it was Kostas Tzoumas who told me this story.

I did nothing. Was I waiting for night to fall? My wife, when we were living together, said that I spoke Greek in my sleep. Perhaps our relationship would have lasted longer if she had learned Greek. Maybe the time had come for me to divorce France, too. Had I sunk into this state simply because my last novel had received a somewhat chilly reception? Was I, then, so easily offended?

In fact, I didn't manage to pull myself out of this funk; I could not write. Once again, I couldn't articulate a single word. "There are things that I need to understand," I thought again. This statement intrigued me; it sounded like I had borrowed it from a Raymond Chandler novel.

I thought of the Vietnamese family that had lived in the studio next door for a while. They spoke Vietnamese among themselves, but to the stray cat which they'd taken in, they spoke French.

1 A Greek edition, translated by Victoria Trapali, was published by Exantas [Author's note]

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