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from the March 2009 issue

Modern Greek Literature,  Inside (and) Out

It has never been possible to speak of Greece in terms of a simple opposition between what it contains on the inside, and what lies beyond its borders. Even before the founding of the Greek state in 1830, independence was actively pursued by bourgeois, cosmopolitan Greeks living in cities as far-flung as Istanbul, Alexandria, Odessa, and Marseilles. Greece was, then, an idea long before it was a reality—an idea promoted, in large part, by the literature of ethnic insiders living outside the geographical region of what would become the Greek state. The borders of that state only assumed their current configuration in 1923. In the interim, as the country expanded, it experienced significant internal migration from the provinces to the cities, as well as the first waves of emigration abroad. Countless Greeks sought work in the U.S. during the early part of the twentieth century and in Germany, Belgium, and Australia after the Second World War, while the late 1960s saw an exodus of leftist intellectuals, many of whom ended up in France.

These patterns of movement are perhaps not surprising if we consider that for Greece, the greater part of the twentieth century was a time of tumult: the Balkan Wars (1912–13); the Metaxas dictatorship (1936–1941); the Axis Occupation and the subsequent civil war (1945–49); and the turbulent Cold War period, which culminated in another repressive dictatorship (1967–74). Only since 1974 has Greece enjoyed a period of peace and stability—and, since its entrance into the European Union in 1981, a period of relative affluence that has transformed it, quite suddenly, into a host country for economic migrants from the Balkans and Eastern Europe, from East, South, and Southeast Asia, from Africa and the Middle East. It has been estimated that in 1990 there were roughly 150,000 foreigners living in Greece; that number has now more than quadrupled. This remarkable shift in the demographics of the Greek state has dramatically altered the ethnic and cultural landscape of major cities and smaller towns alike. And the transition hasn't been smooth; on the contrary, it has been marked by disturbingly frequent manifestations of racism and intolerance.

Earlier generations of Greek writers and artists, from Alexandros Papadiamantis in his 1880 novel The Immigrant to Alekos Sakelliaros in his 1957 film The Aunt from Chicago, explored the circumstances and consequences of the exodus of Greeks to foreign lands. In recent years, contemporary Greek writers and filmmakers have likewise begun to thematize this influx of foreign—or, as scholar Eleni Yannakakis has put it, "at least not typically Greek"—individuals into Greece. Indeed, the question of who or what qualifies as Greek poses a serious challenge not just to immigrants and first- or second-generation Greeks, but to Greeks of all stripes, including those living elsewhere and those returning from long stays abroad. In Ioanna Karystiani's Suit in the Soil, Kyriakos Roussias returns to his village in Crete after twenty-eight years in the U.S. When his cab driver asks if he's a foreigner, Roussias replies, "That remains to be seen."

The handful of pieces included in this issue represent only a small sample of recent Greek prose dealing with emigration and immigration, and with the challenges they pose to national, cultural, and ethnic identity. The selection is also, by design, rather eclectic, in style and form, and in the particular ways in which these works engage the issues I have been outlining. I have brought together texts about Greeks living abroad and texts about foreigners living in Greece; the selection as a whole deals with migration on a number of socio-economic levels and in a variety of historical situations. Many of the pieces included already juxtapose the figures of the emigrant and the immigrant in an attempt to make sense of the experiences of the cultural "other" by way of analogy; by presenting these writings as a group, I hope to further enable that work of empathetic comparison.

The first two texts in this selection—an excerpt from Thanasis Valtinos's The Book of Andreas Kordopatis, Part I: America (1972), translated by Jane Assimakopoulos, and one from Dimitris Chatzis's The Double Book (1976), translated by Peter Constantine—both date to a period when the possibility of extensive migration to Greece was almost unimaginable. Valtinos's novel follows its narrator from a village in Greece to Pocatello, Idaho and back again; denied entrance to the U.S. because of illness, Andreas Kordopatis crosses the country as an illegal immigrant, is eventually deported and returns to Greece to get well and try again. The excerpt I have chosen begins with Kordopatis sneaking off the ship on which he is being held and wandering the streets of New Orleans. As the book unfolds, we see through the narrator's eyes a vast country that seems crisscrossed by an extensive network of immigrants of various nationalities using a hodgepodge of languages to help new arrivals find their way.

Chatzis's novel likewise shows its narrator both at home and abroad, in Volos and in Stuttgart—yet the emphasis here is not on provisional immigrant communities but on the immigrant's sense of isolation and estrangement in his new home. The section presented here, from a chapter entitled "Kaspar Hauser in a Desolate Land," takes the figure of Kaspar Hauser—the now-mythical German foundling of the early 19th century who claimed to have spent most of his short life confined to a dark cell—as a loose metaphor for the immigrant: surrounded by unfamiliar things in a strange land, unable to communicate, he becomes, at least in the eyes of others, a man without qualities, a man without a past.

In stark contrast to these two texts comes the selection from Margarita Karapanou's The Sleepwalker (1985), set on the island of Hydra, which has long been the part-time home of many foreigners, including Brice Marden, Michel Le Goff, and Leonard Cohen. This excerpt, in my own translation (the full novel is forthcoming from Clockroot Books), also offers a good counterpoint to some of the later texts, as it presents a very different picture of the interactions between Greeks and non-Greeks, again from an era before the influx of economic migrants. The island in The Sleepwalker is not only inundated by waves of day-tripping tourists, but inhabited by a collection of rowdy and dysfunctional ex-pats—wandering spirits, upper-crust loafers, aspiring artists and writers. Karapanou's novel, part murder mystery, part fantasy, and part farce, offers a bitter satire on the clashes and misunderstandings between the locals and the foreigners, who have chosen to make this island their home without adopting either its language or its ways.

Ioanna Karystiani's Suit in the Soil (2002) and Vassilis Alexakis's Paris–Athens (written in French and in Greek, in 1989 and 1993, respectively) both treat another category of middle-class, highly-educated migrants; both deal—though in very different ways—with issues of exile and return, and with the problems of living between two places, two selves, two languages and cultural codes. In Karystiani's novel, the successful scientist Kyriakos Roussias returns to his village in the mountains of Crete after twenty-eight years in the U.S., having been sent away as a teenager by his father, who wanted to keep his son from becoming entangled in a feud then erupting between himself and a family from a neighboring village. On his return, Roussias must choose between maintaining the stance of the outsider, the Greek American vacationing in the place of his birth, and that of the insider—in his case, of the avenging son.

The opening chapter of Alexakis's autobiographical Paris–Athens treats silence both as a precondition for writing and as an affliction that plagues the writer caught between languages. Alexakis, who moved to France to pursue his studies in 1968, has lived there ever since. He writes in French and in Greek, and translates his work between the two languages; Paris–Athens reflects on the difficulties and emotional pitfalls involved in that kind of movement. This issue includes two versions of "Silence," Alyson Waters' translation from the French, and Andriana Mastor's translation from the Greek. It is of course impossible to fully comprehend the stylistic differences between the two originals when reading in translation—any two translations of either the French or the Greek would likely be just as divergent—but it is possible to note the more obvious disparities between them, as Alexakis tailors his text for two very different audiences.

Sotiris Dimitriou, meanwhile, uses dialect to make the problems of language and self-expression visible on the page. Dimitriou's work often focuses on the experiences of immigrants and ethnic minorities in Greece, and draws on the speech patterns and vocabulary of the Northern Epirot, Albanian, Vlach, and Romany populations, creating a linguistic bricolage that is often quite difficult for the average Greek reader to understand. In God Tells Them All (2002), a group of construction workers of various ethnic backgrounds are building a house for a returned emigrant on the outskirts of a village in Northern Epirus, close to the Albanian border. The book offers a loose collection of stories that the men tell one another as they work, mostly involving the hardships of immigrant life, both in Greece and abroad. Patricia Barbeito's bold translation of one of these stories tackles head-on the issues of racism and social conflict that are everywhere present in Dimitriou's work.

Along with these excerpts from longer works, I have also included three short stories. Petros Markaris's "Green Card" (2004), in David Connolly's translation, offers a twist on the notion of a fluid identity: after several years in Bosnia, a young Greek man returns to Athens, and, unable to find work, supports himself by begging on the streets in the guise of a Bosnian Serb. Ersi Sotiropoulos's "Can Anybody Hear Me?"—my translation of which will be included in Landscape with Dog and Other Stories, forthcoming from Clockroot Books—brings together a Russian couple and a young girl pathologically afraid of leaving the house: their movement and her stasis are shown to be two different forms of alienation from one's surroundings. Vassilis Gkourogiannis's "Nazif, the Turk from Ioannina' (2006), translated here by Patricia Barbeito, deals with the issue of migration on multiple, kaleidoscoping layers: a caravan of Turkish Gastarbeiter passing through Greece is held up near Ioannina when the story's title character is suddenly struck by thoughts of his ancestors' lives in that region, prior to the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey in 1922.

The last piece in this issue is a chapter from Gazmend Kapllani's Short Border Handbook (2006), translated by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife (forthcoming from Portobello Books). Kapllani, born in Albania, crossed into Greece by foot in 1991 and worked various jobs while earning his BA and PhD from universities in Athens; he is now a columnist for a major Greek daily. A Short Border Handbook intersperses snippets of first-person narrative recounting Kapllani's experiences in both Albania and Greece with short ruminations, in the second person, on the condition of the migrant in a hostile country and culture. It was reading Kapllani's book that originally gave me the idea for this issue, and I am delighted that he has also agreed to let us post a number of his recent columns on the Words Without Borders blog throughout the month.

I hope that this selection will generate interest not only in the particular issue of the shifting ethnic and cultural makeup of Greece—a shift that has parallels around the world, and helps us reflect on the history both of immigration and of literature about immigration in the U.S. as well—but also in the fascinating, fast-growing field of Greek fiction and literary prose, which is sadly all but unknown in the U.S. I am extremely grateful to Words Without Borders for providing us all with an opportunity to make a change on that front.

Read more from the March 2009 issue
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