Nikos Gatsos’s profoundly mysterious and magnetic poem Amorgos, named after a Greek island he never visited and written during the Nazi occupation, is the single work on which his reputation rests. It is a wonderful incantation on the theme of loss and hope – a unique blend of surrealism, symbolism and folk song – lyrical and erotic, sometimes celebratory, sometimes bitter. It was much admired by the Nobel laureates Odysseus Elytis and George Seferis, and was hugely influential on the postwar generation of Greek poets.
[Translated by Kimon Friar and published in Poetry (Special volume on New Greek Poets, An Anthology and Commentary], 78:3 (June, 1951)].
Written in one night of inspired concentration, Amorgos was a distinctive re-imagining of the Greek poetic tradition, composed at a time of mortal danger for the Greek people. It is a polyphonic poem that synthesizes elements of the Greek literary tradition into an intertextual palimpsest of fragments, in the vein of the modernist ‘long poem’. “A memorable work of Modern Greek Letters”, said his close friend Manos Hatzidakis of Amorgos,“because it contains the deepest sense of Greek tradition, it does not exploit it, and at the same time it contains the European military service of the period between the wars”.
The surrealist poet maintains a fine balance between tradition and radical innovation, shaping Amorgos as a place where poetry is created as an interaction of opposing tendencies. The topical character of the poem is underscored by its title: the sea-and-land imagery evokes the island as a literary topos of seclusion and self-sufficiency that lends its characteristics to the composition itself: a ‘compendium’ of poetic writing and avant-garde aesthetics.
Poet, lyricist critic and translator, Nikos Gatsos stands apart in the annals of Greek literature. He was born in the village of Asea, in Arcadia in the Peloponnese, and went to school in Tripoli and Athens. By the time he entered the University of Athens to study philosophy he was already a fluent speaker of English and French. In Athens he came into contact with literary figures, particularly the poet Odysseus Elytis, with whom he formed a life-long friendship.
His first collections of verse, short poems written in a classical style, were published in the magazines Nea Estia (1931) and Rythmos (1933). For most of the decade, however, he dedicated himself to reviews and literary criticism. In 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Greece, Gatsos published his major work, the surrealist epic poem Amorgos. Amorgos was soon recognized as a major work, but proved to be the only book Gatsos published in his career. He later published three more poems, Elegeio in 1946, The Knight and Death in 1947 and Song of Old Times in 1963.
Following World War II, Gatsos worked for the Greek British Review as a translator and also for the Greek Radio Television as a translator, arranger and radio director, while he also became involved in translating theatrical plays for the National Theatre of Greece, the Art Theatre and the Folk Theatre. After part of Amorgos was set to music by Manos Hadzidakis, he established a new and influential role as a lyricist for Greece’s most popular composers, notably Hadzidakis, Theodorakis, Xarhakos, among others. Many of his songs are of great beauty and clarity, and helped to introduce a rare quality into Greek popular music.
In later years Gatsos established himself as a unique literary figure in Greece. Holding court in various Athenian cafés, he attracted intellectuals and writers, both foreign and Greek, and gave firm but gentle guidance to aspiring poets. In 1987, he was honoured with the Municipality of Athens Award and in 1991 he was elected corresponding member of the Academy of Barcelona. He died in Athens in 1992, and was buried in the village of his birth, as he had requested.
Aris Katsigiannis is a freelance photographer and filmmaker based in Athens. He specialises in travel photography and film production, as well as corporate film production. He has drawn a lot of attention as of late, after his video "Dreams can’t be quarantined" went viral in April 2020, while Greece was under lockdown; it featured stunning images from various parts of the country and carried a message of hope.
Katsigiannis loves exploring new countries, landscapes and people, and immortalising his experiences and the beauty he sees in the world, always with a knack for details. He uses his rich experiences from travelling in his work to create fascinating stories with his pictures and films, and has collaborated with many large international and Greek companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Switzerland Tourism, Huawei, Swiss airlines, BMW, Fix Hellas, Cosmote.
Aris Katsigiannis spoke with Greek News Agenda* about his project "Dreams can’t be quarantined", which showcases the beauty of multiple regions of Greece but also features positive messages sent by people from many countries around the world (from Italy, Chile and Canada to Australia, Morocco and India), making that point that we are all in this together and must hold on to our dreams.
In early April 2020, you posted on your YouTube channel a video titled "Dreams can’t be quarantined", which quickly went viral. What inspired you to create it?
The idea for this video just came to me in a flash. When I heard about the lockdown measures I thought to myself "Now what? What to do with oneself, locked inside for days on end?"
"What about using these days to create something beautiful to send out a positive and inspiring message? What about making something good out of a bad situation?"Then my mind went to the footage I have from all these parts of Greece. I have made videos for various places, but never something telling a story through the eyes of my country. So I thought this was an opportunity to motivate people around the world and put to good use all that beautiful material I had in stock.
Greece, as well as the rest of the planet, is being tested by the pandemic; yet your video clearly sends a message of optimism. Where do you draw this strength from?
It is my belief that we should always be optimistic. A situation may seem awful and unbearable, but that doesn't mean it will have a negative outcome. Sometimes a very sad event can lead up to the best thing that has ever happened to us. It all depends on how we handle this situation. I think we can always get something positive out of every negative experience. That was one of the reasons I started the project "Dreams Can't Be Quarantined". The power of positive thinking comes from within. We all have it, we just need to unleash it. This is often difficult, but we must never give up and we must never let go of our dreams.
In a four-minute video, you managed to reveal the beauty of many different parts of Greece. How hard was it to achieve that?
First of all, I would like to note here that the footage used in this video have been recorded by me and my creative team over several years, either for work-related purposes or while on vacation. Our passion is to capture the moment and share it with people who couldn't be there. This video features footage shot in many parts of Greece: Athens, Halkidiki, Mani, Amorgos, Milos, Ios, Crete, Lefkada, Arachova, Vasilitsa, Paros, Meteora, Chrysi, Mykonos, Zakynthos, Pertouli, Samos, Corinthia, Zagorochoria, Hydra, Corfu, Kyparissia,Papingo, Syros, Spinalonga, Kalamata, Naxos, Vonitsa and Thessaloniki. This video was not easy to make. It took many hours of intensive editing: a total of 21 days from morning until late at night. For the first week I had select the footage I could use out of 16,000 files. Then, it took another 14 days to do the editing and collect the video messages of people from around the world, which you can see at the end of the video. But it was all worth it. I think it is very important to showcase as many regions of Greece as possible. Our country is an amazing place blessed with natural beauty of an incredible variety, and all these stunning landscapes are worth advertising.
Do you think that Greece will be chosen as a holiday destination this year?
I think that Greece will be a destination of choice because we are among the countries with the best response to the virus. We have taken effective and swift measures and this will make a difference. Greece also has so much to offer. Mountains, the sea, beautiful and authentic people, great food. What more can a traveller ask for?
What are professional plans for the future?
My plans vary. I have begun work on various projects for international clients. At the same time, I am preparing two videos from my trips in the Philippines and the Faroe Islands. My dream and purpose in life is to travel to as many countries as time allows. I want to get to know new places and cultures, new people and new landscapes. I’ve been always inspired by the notion of the outlandish. I want to be able to share the feelings I get when I travel with as many people as possible. Many people may not be able to travel. Taking them to a new place through images gives a special meaning to my life. I’m looking forward to the time when we can once more travel safely so that we can get back to pursuing our dreams.
*Interview by Marianna Varvarrigou. Translation by Nefeli Mosaidi. (All photos ©Aris Katsigiannis)
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Photography: W. Mark Wilman on "Discovering the Beauty of the Cyclades"; Greece's UNESCO Global Geoparks; “111 Places in Athens That You Shouldn't Miss”: The stories that make up a city
There is something captivating in the story of two grieving, estranged brothers that go hunting together with their sons in “All The Fires the Fire”, the latest film by Efthimis Kosemund Sanidis. Born with dual Greek/German nationality in Mitilini/Greece, in 1983, Efthimis Kosemund Sanidis studied Informatics Engineering in Athens and then Contemporary Arts at Le Fresnoy - Studio National in France. His films, blending dreams, memories and reality, have been screened and have won acclaim at more than a hundred film festivals (Venice, Locarno, Clermont-Ferrand a.o.) and art venues (Forum des Images, Centre Pompidou, Haus der Kulturen der Welt a.o.) around the world. He is an alumnus of the Berlinale and Sarajevo Talents.
His debut short film, “II” (2014, 16’), won the Pack & Pitch award at Sarajevo while in development, followed by a world premiere in the Pardi di Domani section of the Locarno Film Festival. It went on to win Best Short Film, Best Direction and Best Cinematography awards in Drama and Athens IFF. He shot his next two films, ‘Odette’ (2015, 16’) and “Unbuilt Light” (2017, 29’), while in residency at Le Fresnoy. “Unbuilt Light”, a farewell over the three last months of a man before his final transformation, consisting of memories, dreams and encounters, won 2nd Best Short Film and Best Cinematography awards in the Athens IFF and the Hellenic Academy Awards. “Astrometal” (2017, 15’), the hallucinatory night out of three young people, was nominated for a Golden Lion in the Orizzonti section of the 74th Venice International Film Festival before continuing its career in film festivals and art venues. His latest short “All the Fires the Fire” (2019, 25’) premiered in Locarno, took home the Special Jury Prize at Clermont-Ferrand ISFF, the Best Actor Award at the Athens IFF and is currently screening in festivals around the world.
As Efthimis Sanidis is developing his first feature film project, “That Burning Light”, which has been selected by the Torino FilmLab FeatureLab program 2020, he was interviewed by Greek News Agenda* on the way he works with the uncanny, evident in his work. He sees his films as rituals where the viewer is gently being taken to a flexible reality. He underlines that he believes in the importance of narration and this is what leads him in a narrative that fluctuates between dream and reality, fiction and documentary.
“All the Fires the Fire” (2019)
“All the Fires the Fire” is a captivating combination of uncanny events in a seemingly realistic background. What drove you to that story?
I wasn't anywhere close to being ready for another short film and just wanted to focus on my feature project and keep writing. But then, as it often happens, I stumbled upon a hunter when I met the father of my sister's boyfriend. We were at a village in Lesvos Island for lunch, it was Easter. He proposed to walk me through his collection of guns. He insisted that we shot a few rounds in the sky, “Right now, let’s go!” he said. To my surprise and not long after, the whole village joined in and you could hear shooting everywhere. I got to hear a few trigger-happy stories that day. Next one, I wrote an outline, I couldn’t help it. We shot the film six months later. This is how it began. As for the feeling you describe, I have always been interested in creating an everyday mood, banal even, and then gradually impregnating that world with small cracks on its realistic texture. I think that this introductory familiarity is what prepares the viewer and allows the acceptance of these transcendental incidents or clues subconsciously, a lot easier and at a deeper level, than if I was to pronounce this uncanniness from the start. In that way, I see my films as rituals where the viewer is slowly and gently being taken to a place where reality is a lot more flexible than what the diminishing Cartesian logic of our culture has assumed. The exact reverse process of baptism in a way, trying to go back, not in time but to a purer place; kind of a romantic idea, I know. It's not just what we can see and name and explain and calculate. The human experience is a lot richer than that. These are my intentions but I' m not sure about any of it at the moment. It's a process and I' m trying to figure it out myself. Or maybe I shouldn't even figure it out and try and go with my flow, whatever that is.
"All The Fires The Fire" (2019)
Homo homini lupus (Man is a wolf to another man): there is something unbearable in the human relations in “All the Fires the Fire”. Alienation and toxic masculinity are core elements in this film. Would you like to elaborate?
Others are all we've got and human relations are what moves us, but, at the same time, they are also unbearable. I don't think it is just my film. Hell is other people, that's Sartre, no? Look at the history of the world, the time sample is quite large. We've been destroying what we've been building all along. It's a Sisyphean act. This seems to be the output of our patriarchal societies. An everlasting expansion and aggression against nature, which is us - I object to the word “environment”, a movement of self-destruction. This was exactly what initially drove me into doing the film, hunters nurturing birds during the year and then gradually releasing them before the hunting period. This cycle along with the setting of men on a mountain detached from any societal bond or reference was -and still is- fascinating to me. I have no idea what would happen in a women-led society or civilization and whether or not this toxic masculinity that you describe is inherent to us or a man-made product. There have been counterexamples, in some Native American communities for instance. But I only know this through books. This is another symptom of our era. We could now maybe appreciate alternative society paradigms, but there is practically none left to experience anymore. It’s a very sad thought.
Nikos Georgakis and Dimitris Xanthopoulos in "All The Fires The Fire" (2019)
The hatred between brothers is common both in the Bible and folk tradition. How do you incorporate this element in your cinematic text?
What you say somewhat validates my previous train of thought. It seems that this violence has an atavistic character, that it keeps reappearing. I find that the study of literature, the bible, folk songs etc., can be more revelling than history. In the Christian world, we are all brothers and the story of Abel and Cain was at the back of my mind as I was writing my script. This is the intention I had with incorporating and suggesting different generations, the dead father, the two brothers and their boys as well as the reappearance of the incident narrated by the opening text, in the middle of the film. A never-ending circle of aggression, a never-ending circle of fire.
Mihalis Sarandis in "Astrometal" (2017)
The fluidity between dream and reality is a recurring issue in your films, especially “Unbuilt Light” and “Astrometal”. What attracts you in this fluid narration?
As I said earlier, reality for me is an expanded world that includes dreams, memories and fantasies, both mine and collective ones. We speak of reality and objectivity but what does it mean really? How can we define it? Where is it? It is not written on stone or presented to us by the Gods. It is a social contract. But, for myself, every aspect of human experience is filtered through me. The only thing that has been proven by philosophy, psychoanalysis or science, if anything, is that everything is a narrative. Which is good, but then I would not talk of reality but rather of what seems real. There is a nice word to describe this in Greek, ‘αληθοφάνεια’. Plausibility, verisimilitude, these maybe come close. And for me, that’s enough.
Aggelos Skasilas in "Unbuilt Light" (2017)
Part of your films “All the Fires the Fire” and “Unbuilt Light” is shot in a documentary style. Why is that?
I don't differentiate between documentary and fiction. And I definitely don't bother with maintaining a certain style. I get bored easily and try to play around with each different project. Again, all is narration. In practice, of course, every film is different but, I think this is a matter of control, of the balance of control one has and maintains while creating a film. There is for sure some driving force needed to set up a film but how much, is a matter of preference. With each film I make, I find a different balance and a different sensitivity at each part of the production. I have a long way to go to get to my intentions. But each film I make is a stepping stone and I have learnt a lot from my last one. I would definitely do it differently now. I think I have to let go even more, in some aspects. The camera is a very powerful storytelling tool and it captures such complexity every single time. There is so much going on, the faces, the eyes and gestures of the people and the animals inside the frames, the light, the movement of the camera. I want to be more elaborate and thorough in my writing and at times looser while shooting, only to take over again as much as I can in post-production. But every time someone describes my films as something close to a documentary, it makes me smile as I feel like the film has managed to get under their skin. They ask me how much of it was real, how much of it was made-up, they ask to read my scripts. What do you think? If I had to describe my films, neo-realism would describe part of it, and I share a lot of its methods and beliefs but there is more than that.
“All the Fires the Fire” (2019)
Your next stop is your first feature, “That Burning Light”. Would you like to say a few things about that?
The story goes something like this: Ilias, a young man with a debt on his shoulders, crosses the sea hoping to claim the will of his long-estranged father, a doctor. But, instead of resolving his debt, he meets a woman, and while a series of inexplicable illnesses spread, love grows. Essentially, it' s a love story at the end of the world. It' s a project I am very excited about. First about the story and the script itself and then also because I feel it will be, in terms of adventure, the wildest I have experienced so far. I am surrounded by people that, through our previous work together, are above all friends and then partners, Elizampetta Ilia Georgiadou, Christos Voudouris and Yorgos Tsourgiannis, to name a few of the family, and can' t wait to venture into this together with them. At the same time, it is difficult and tedious with the way things usually go in Greece, the time a project needs to take off. But happily, I haven't lost my focus and inner burn. "That Burning Light" is in a good place now and has been chosen to participate at the TorinoFilmLab FeatureLab 2020 which starts in less than a month. But there is still a lot of work to be done and I' m looking forward to it.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
“My father, thunderstruck, was demanding to know: "But when? This is madness! Impossible." When at last he replaces the receiver in a grand Shakespearean manner - my father has it in the blood - he broke the news to us: Dictatorship. My mother cried out and collapsed in a heap on the sofa. Calliope the maid, as part of her duties, always manages to sense the right moment for a restorative coffee, and set off for the kitchen. My father repeated: "Dictatorship, do you hear!" I stared at him, shaking off sleep.”
This is how Myrsini Panayotou, an Athenian girl about to start university, learns of the coup d'etat that brought to power the infamous dictatorship of the "Colonels" in her country in the early hours of Friday, 21st April 1967. The child of a well-to-do family, Myrsini enthusiastically joins the underground resistance, making common cause with a varied cast of characters from backgrounds very different from her own. After an early failed love affair, she gets engaged to George, a political prisoner, only to find her human instincts increasingly difficult to reconcile with her idealistic philosophy once he is released. The story moves towards its climax as Myrsini becomes involved in the bloody events of 17th November 1973, when tanks were used to evict students from the Athens Polytechnic.
At the same time the fortunes of Myrsini's family form a backdrop at once touching and bizarre to an impressionable girl's unflinching search for a true identity, both for herself and for her country. Myrsini breaks the conventional image of a patriarchal type of a woman though she has to admit she has to break through the demands of the others and her pretensions. She strives to free herself of the will of her parents and the beloved man, of the ideological and social labels and stereotypes. Nevertheless, the novel is something more than the presentation of self-revelations of a student who found herself "staring the dictatorship in the face" and still remaining a feeling young female longing for love. Her story includes numerous stories of other people, of both their private life or political struggle.
Masterfully translated by Roderick Beaton [Kedros 1991], Fool's Gold [I Arhea Skouria] is a sparkling novel by a talented writer, one of the foremost of a generation which grew up in the shadow of the events Maro Douka describes. The writer actually uses a unique approach which allows her follow the destinies of the individuals in tight connection with the history of Greece in the second part of the XXth century. Still she herself manages to preserve an unbiased attitude never interfering with her commentaries and letting the action unfold and the characters present their own vision.
The presence of Maro Douka herself in Fool's Gold can be felt through some autobiographic details. Some critics stress it out grounding their conclusions on the fact that the writer herself belongs to the antijunta youth and shares her experience and feelings, portrays the generation that «marked by blood their first steps on the roads to freedom. The fact of the author living through the years of the dictatorship of the "Colonels" and the bloody events of the 17th November 1973 makes us believe the character/narrator who matures into an independent and politically aware woman throughout this period. The writer says that "the events of the historical past or actual present take part in creating characteristics and psychology of my characters, they are coloured by my own experience and adapted to my vision of the composition and type of narrative”.
Considered one of the most important writers of modern Greek literature, Maro Douka belongs to the so-called Generation of the 1970s, a literary term referring to Greek authors who began publishing their work during the 1970s.
She was born in Chania, Crete in 1947. She studied archaeology at the University of Athens and has lived in Athens since 1966. She began writing in 1969 and her work has been published in periodicals and newspapers, and she received numerous international prizes in recognition of her works and contribution in literature. Her short stories have been translated into French, German, Italian and Russian. Fool’s Gold has been translated into English and French, The Floating City into German, and At the Bottom of the Picture into French.
Her novels dwell mostly on women’s way through the troubled years of the Greek history. They possess deep insight into the individual consciousness still keeping the social and political events in focus. Douka is free in integrating the Western European and Greek literary techniques upon which she builds on her own original manner of writing. Her works, being addressed to some burning and controversial issues, undermine the conventional opinion of women’s writing as the one limited to themes of low social topicality.
Stavros Kotsireas is an artist with an international background and reputation. He has 37 solo and 81 group exhibitions to his credit, and his works, both paintings and sculptures, can be found in many private, public and corporate collections. His solo exhibition "One exhibition in three parts" was scheduled for April 2020 at Chili Art Gallery; when, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the show had to be cancelled, Kotsireas chose to provide online access to the exhibition via a virtual tour.
Kotsireas was born was born in Athens in 1960. In 1963, his family relocated to Brisbane Australia for five years. As a teenager he took up athletics (track & field 400m & 800m events), competing at championship level for sixteen years. In 1980 Kotsireas started a two-year apprenticeship with painter and set designer Vasilis Fotopoulos, who also became his mentor. He got his first experience in scenic design assisting Fotopoulos with the set design for the productions of The White Wedding and Emigrates at Karolos Koun’s Art Theatre in 1980.
From 1984 to 1990 Kotsireas studied at the renowned Royal Academy of Art, The Hague, where he specialised in Painting, Drawing and Graphic Art and went on to complete a Master’s degree in Set and Costume Design. Since 1993 the artist lives and works in the United Kingdom. He has presented in works in multiple solo and group exhibitions and has created sets for theatre productions. Since 2015 Kotsiréas is the artistic director of the Greek-based art foundry V&P. Tassis. He is a member of ETEE Chamber of Fine Arts of Greece and Surrey Sculpture Society.
On the occasion of his latest exhibition, Kotsireas spoke to Greek News Agenda* about his sources of inspiration, the way he approaches artistic work, and his choice to make his art show accessible through a virtual tour.
You have many solo and group exhibitions, both in England and in Greece, but also in other countries of the world. Would you like to tell us what prompted you to express yourself through painting?
My vivid memories take me back in the 60s growing up in Brisbane, Australia. As a child there were two things, I was enjoying the most, painting and running. These two interests of mine have accompanied me through my whole life’s journey. In the 70s and 80s I was involved with athletics in a high level of championships and through my trainer and European champion Spilios Zacharopoulos, I met my mentor Vassilis Fotopoulos (known worldwide as a scenographer and costume designer awarded among others also with the Oscar for the film Zorba the Greek) I was at the crossroads of a major decision of mine: to study, Sports academy or School of Fine arts. Vassilis Fotopoulos, after seeing my artwork without wanting to influence my decision, he made me aware of my ability as an artist and since then I took his advice and don’t look back. I studied at the Royal Academy of fine Arts in The Hague in the Netherlands and one of my two passions had become a reality. I can’t find a more fulfilling vocation than to paint and be able express my feelings and statements through art.
In your paintings, two very prevalent subjects are landscapes and still life. What do they represent for you?
Nature is the greatest artist of all and I am nothing but its instrument. Soon after my graduation, nature became a major inspiration for me. The landscape for me is a notion and not a picture with just lovely colours and compositions. I explored and experimented having in mind and associating two elements in my early landscape paintings. The elements of nature coexisted in the same compositions in my paintings with the elements of the human body, (I viewed the human body as a landscape and fragmented it, in parts). The human body in my later work was dissolved and became one with nature into my compositions as the paintings progressed to their final stage. The circle of creation of my landscape period lasted for fifteen years, from 1992-2007. While that circle of creation was coming to an end, in parallel I was seeking for new ways to express myself artistically. Because of my involvement in the theatre and how enjoyable was the creation of objects for the plays, I started evolving the idea of "Still Life" but not the way we used to know it until now: let me please make a parenthesis, -I don’t like the term still life so I have renamed the term for my personal benefit to "Silent life or Silent nature"-
Landscapes: Purple Planet, 2008, oil on linen; Enchanted Light, 1997, oil on linen
These moments of thought isolation turned out to challenge the ephemeral nature of the source of inspiration. In my work, the source of inspiration, those carefully selected inanimate objects, are preserved and associated with the final completed painting. This approach to silent nature challenges the idea that there is a hierarchy of value between the painting and the object. Through the strange and concerning juxtaposition of the source of inspiration and the painting, the real value and life force of the work is revealed, as the space between the two...the creative process.
What I actually do is, I preserve and don’t destroy the source of the -Still life- that inspires me to create the painting. In that sense you keep alive and visualise the pictorial journey from one to another.
"Creativity is part of our humanity – I want people to see what inspired me to create – that’s why I bring the compositions of my silent nature out of the studio into the exhibition space. I want to demystify aspects of the creative process."
Although we are experiencing a period of isolation, you found a way to communicate with the people through a virtual tour of your exhibition in Chili Art Gallery in Athens which got cancelled because of Covid 19. Would you like to tell us a little more about this exhibition?
My disappointment was obvious and a month before the show, the loss of our beloved mother was added, who, along with my farther, was always on my mind, especially during the time I was preparing for my shows and how much I would like them to be with us.
The people who responded to the invitation to the exhibition was unprecedented, I had to find a way to respond to this expression of interest and love. People have begun to adapt to the new conditions of survival and coexistence.
I thought about inviting people to see the exhibition in their own home, it’s not something new I did, but I sat down and set up a virtual tour and an online catalogue that you can also visit though my website and my purpose under these conditions was for the exhibition to visit the public and not the public to visit the exhibition. The exhibition at Chili Art Gallery in Athens was scheduled for April 2020 with an opening date on April the 4th. There were several reasons for having this show.
Silent Nature: Sea works - Sea Creatures (diptych), construction-mixed media
Firstly, I had not presented my work to the public in Athens in a solo exhibition for more than 10 years, for the simple reason that I have been working since 2007 with my new theme ‘Silence nature’, where I continue to experiment.
Secondly, for the last two years I have been creating an art installation that I am planning to present together with artwork by Sir Peter Blake, a beloved artist of mine who is also known worldwide as the godfather of British Pop Art, at the Averoff Museum in Metsovo, Greece. My idea was to support this effort with my exhibition in Athens. The title of the exhibition "ONE EXHIBITION IN THREE PARTS" where we will see in the first section my “Landscape work” in the second section compositions of my “Silent nature” and in the third section I will present, as a pro-announcement of my exhibition at Averoff Museum "CREATIVE ENCOUNTERS", pieces of my bronze sculptures included in my installation. Also, to make the virtual tour a little bit more interesting, I continued the tour outdoors, with a presentation of my sculptures and a wall (The White Wall) where I regularly will present different artworks from old works of mine that belong to private collections and some of them have never been seen before. I am thinking of keeping this tour alive until we find ourselves in better times and given once more the opportunity to present it live in the gallery.
I was informed that you will donate part of the money of the sales to Greek institutions in order to help them to deal with the economic problems caused by the pandemic. Can you tell us more about this decision?
It doesn’t matter how small or big a contribution is; the main thing is that each contribution makes a difference to the ones who need it. Charities are in dire need of support due to the situation with the coronavirus. I will donate 20% of all sales to The Ark of the World charity for children living in conditions of neglect and abandonment and I hope I can also support an additional charity that has been affected by these conditions. These thoughts pre-existed long before the exhibition and will be valid whenever the show can take place. We tend to forget that people are in need of support regardless of pandemics. I have always tried to give back to the community in many ways and this specific way through my art, gives me a moral satisfaction because I believe a healthy and mindful society has a stronger future.
Evolution of a sculpture, I, II, III, bronzes with patinas
As I saw in the third part of your virtual tour, you are also an excellent sculptor. How difficult is it to combine painting and sculpture?
Creativity has an open mind for those who wish to be challenged. When you study for a degree in fine art, the beauty of it, is that no one can stop you involving yourself with any artistic discipline you desire, regardless of your background.
My first ever experience in the art scene was at the Theatre of Art of Karolos Koun in Athens, as I mentioned earlier, where I worked as an assistant and student of Vassilis Fotopoulos in two plays. That experience, with the stage design and the hand-crafted sculptural objects had me hooked for some time. Theatre and film set designs in a way are sculptural representations of ideas within a different medium.
As I finished my studies in fine art and dedicated myself completely into developing my love for painting and drawing, gradually the bug of sculpture appeared back on the scene and for a few years now it preoccupies my creative output parallel with my painting. The transition from one to the other is fulfilling and the combination of the two are very obvious in my present works of "Silent Nature" where the source of inspiration is created from three-dimensional found objects but also objects created by me. As a result of this procedure I have also been creating individual sculptures and compositions and never felt that painting or sculpture is competing against each other. It’s a harmonious coexistence and I dedicate my time accordingly.
Renowned artist Sir Peter Blake, who will exhibit with you at the Averoff Museum, has offered some lauding remarks regarding your exhibition "Metamorphosis". Would you like to make a comment on them?
Sir Peter Blake, of whose work I am a great fan, quoted prior to my exhibition in 2017 in London, that "this is a new and exciting addition to the still life, especially when painting and sculpture are combined. That’s a unique and smart idea."
Peter’s response to my new work was a delightful comment. When I started chatting with him about it and explained how this approach to still life challenged the whole concept of how we viewed Still life through art history, he responded with the above comment.
Peter is a highly regarded artist, so his words are very dear to me and much appreciated.
Silent Nature: We are on a Roll (diptych), construction-mixed media
And one last question. How is the situation in England in this time of pandemic? Is the situation getting better?
We all are in unknown territories; this pandemic is a shock to every society. I would reserve my final thoughts for when this pandemic has eased up, because I fear it will be something we need to learn to live with, as we have done with the flu virus. Historically and every nation individually will be judged at the appropriate moment, how they dealt with this crisis. Despite the easing up of the lockdown in England, I am not 100% sure that England is in a stage yet to ease up, I still hear there are 400-600 casualties every day and ‘one in 400’ people in England has coronavirus. I understand the financial complications are huge and despite some positive steps taken, still we need to realise that without people there is no economy, no evolution, no future. Right now, the effort must be to save human lives. Everyone’s life is precious and unique. I cannot see how Greece, who reacted sooner against the pandemic and has fewer cases and zero casualties at the moment is easing up the restrictions and England, that declared lockdown more than two weeks after with a much larger population, is easing up the same time, still with many daily casualties. There is a lot of pressure and only time will tell if these measures had the desirable impact. Meanwhile: In these given moments, the question is: What is more valuable than life itself?
*Interview by Marianna Varvarrigou (Intro photo: The artist in front of his work Seeds of mother earth, 2009, construction-mixed media)
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Painter Dimitris Tzamouranis: "Art’s ultimate objective is the pursuit of beauty"; Maria Filopoulou: an important representative of contemporary representational art in Greece; Arts in Greece | Kostis Georgiou: “Art’s purpose is to provide a zone of unlimited paths”
Katerina Gardikas, associate professor in Modern Greek History, received her degree from the Faculty of History and Archaeology of the University of Athens and her PhD in Modern Greek History from King's College, University of London. She worked as a researcher at the Centre for Modern Greek Research of the National Hellenic Research Foundation and taught at the Democritus University of Thrace and the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. She taught at the University of Athens since 2001 and retired in 2016. Her research interests include the social history of health, spatial history and the history of state building. Her recent book, Landscapes of disease: malaria in modern Greece, was published by Central European University Press in 2018. She is now moving on to her next project on the history of midwifery. Greek News Agenda* had the opportunity to interview Katerina Gardikas on the social history of malaria, its management and eradication in modern Greece, as well as the impact of pandemics on regional and global history.
Your monograph Landscapes of Disease: Malaria in Modern Greece provides an insightful account of the different ways in which malaria interacted with the social realities of modern Greece, which you describe as having once been the most malarious country in Europe. Can you elaborate on the great variety of human responses throughout this period, as well as their interplay with environmental factors and the disease itself?
Greece suffered from malaria more than any other country in Europe; furthermore, it had a greater prevalence of its lethal form, falciparum malaria. Like in Subsaharan Africa today, children under the age of five were particularly vulnerable and died in great numbers. Although malaria was primarily encountered in the countryside, cities also experienced their share of the disease. Draining swamps both to relieve the peasantry from fevers and to reclaim land for agriculture was an ancient practice of proven, yet limited consequence. For instance, Muslim landowners in the Ottoman period would see that their estates were drained from floodwater. In fact, until quinine became available to the Greeks in the nineteenth century, draining was the only effective means of malaria control. The authorities of the Greek state, however, saw drainage primarily as a means of clearing land for agriculture. Ecological responses to malaria besides draining, such as spraying water surfaces with whatever chemicals were recommended by sanitary engineers, became a practice after malaria transmission was associated with the Anopheles mosquito, i.e. after 1897, in effect in the twentieth century, but were a highly costly measure that was practiced selectively. The vast majority of the Greeks relied on their quinine, which became a very popular means of protection and treatment, largely considered as a citizen’s right. Its widespread use often made it the subject of extensive adulteration.
As far as the effect of environmental factors on the spread of malaria is concerned, this is an issue that lies at the centre of my recent book. Environmental factors are directly related to the causes that affect the increase and decrease of mosquito populations, as demonstrated by British epidemiologist George Macdonald in the late 1950s. These factors varied greatly throughout Greece on account of the fragmented nature of the country’s geography. Owing to the particular ecological features, different areas were suitable for specific species of Anopheles that were capable of transmitting malaria in all its forms that had been endemic in Greece for millennia, namely vivax, quartan and falciparum malaria. Moreover, malaria was prevalent, not only in the plains and swamps; mountainous areas and islands were by no means free from the disease.
The fragmented nature of the Greek lands produces an extremely variable rainfall regime, a feature that resulted in the unpredictable behaviour of the disease within a year and from one year to the next. As a result, immunity to malaria was not easy to attain except in the most malarious marshlands, where the population suffered continuous and multiple infections. This situation of erratic protection from malaria greatly affected the disease experience of the Greeks. Nonetheless, around 1900, a period when malaria prevalence in Greece was at its peak, one in every three or four Greeks contracted malaria each year.
It was virtually impossible to escape its grip; the peasant was exposed to it in his every daily activity in the field and in the pasture lands. So was the refugee in the camp, the settler in his new town, plane or rail tracks, the merchant in his travels and the soldier on the front or in the barracks. Indeed, the first malaria statistics were compiled by military doctors in the 1880s.
To what degree did Greek scientific personnel participate in the specialized international community that was formed since the 19th century and helped shape the contours of antimalarial struggle?
Most foreign-trained Greek doctors had studied at Italian, French or German medical schools and retained their connections to their respective scientific communities after their return to medical practice in Greece. Furthermore, the first Greek governments were very serious about training medical personnel locally; thus, the first medical school was created in 1835, two years before the establishment of the University of Athens. Medical innovation, however, still entered the country through European medicine, albeit without much delay, particularly in fields such as malariology, which was of prime interest to Greek doctors and society owing to its widespread prevalence. Indeed, when Ronald Ross, the British doctor who had established the connection between malaria and the Anopheles mosquito in the transmission mechanism of malaria, toured the country in 1906 at the invitation of the British Copais Company, he was accompanied by Ioannis Kardamatis, the country’s leading malariologist.
Another source of knowledge transfer in the same field was Italian malariology. Italy, which, like Greece, suffered a severe malaria burden, but, unlike the Greek case, had a long-standing tradition in medicine and also had imperialist aspirations, was a leader in the field. The Greek Society for the Control of Malaria was created in 1905 and modelled on its Italian counterpart. Similarly, in the early twentieth century, different methods of malaria control advanced in Italy became the subject of debate among Greek malariologists. Therefore, Greek physicians became eclectic in their sources of scientific knowledge. By that time, the influence of both Italy and Britain tended to replace that of France in this particular field.
Your monograph retraces different methods in the medical and social management of the disease. How did we finally come to eradicate malaria in Greece and what was the contribution of international cooperation in these endeavors?
Drainage as a means of fever control had been practiced since antiquity. In the early days of Greek statehood, however, drainage was perceived more as a means of reclaiming land for the benefit of agriculture. In fact, quite often large drainage and land reclamation schemes, such as the drainage of lake Copais, left the drained areas with an equally serious malaria problem as before. Furthermore, the widespread planting of eucalyptus trees, a species native to Australia, in places of high human concentration as a “natural” method of malaria control, may be dated to the turn of the century, although it had begun earlier.
At various stages of the country’s state-building process, the contribution of foreign aid and influence was critical. Thus, the initial state sanitary institutions of the 1830s, the ones that first tackled its health problems, were set up by the Bavarian regents and the Greek, foreign-trained physicians who manned these institutions. They were the ones who explored the prevalent diseases and uncovered the widespread nature of malaria. Subsequently, failure to adequately fund sanitary institutions left the health situation of the country, particularly that of infectious diseases and malaria, primarily, in an extremely critical state that was further exacerbated by wars and the frequent influx of refugees. The few responses to this situation originated from the mobilisation of civil society, mostly wealthy Greeks within the country and abroad.
When, however, Greece received more than one million refugees from the Caucasus, Asia Minor and the Pontus in the aftermath of the First World War and the country’s defeat in 1922, the crisis became unmanageable. As, indeed, malaria thrives in such situation, international bodies stepped in to assist also on the malaria front. The most serious impact, however, was that of the League of Nations Health Organisation and the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1930s. The latter, in particular, set up experimental stations throughout the country, studied the disease, inaugurated malaria control modern measures and offered training to young Greek doctors. These interventions may not have solved the country’s malaria problem at the time, but they created the groundwork for the future and paid dividend after World War II.
Malaria control through ecological management was expensive. For instance, Paris Green, a chemical compound that was developed in the mid 1920s by Rockefeller Foundation scientists, needed to be sprayed on water surfaces every two weeks. Therefore, the labour cost made its widespread application a challenge for sanitary authorities. Eventually, it was the use of DDT that was introduced to Greece by the sanitary engineers of UNRRA in 1945, after the end of the German occupation, that provided a cheap and effective means to control the Anopheles. Indeed, in the aftermath of the Second World War, UNRRA’s sanitary section, which was largely staffed by Rockefeller Foundation physicians and engineers, inaugurated a vigorous DDT spraying programme. The spraying of DDT, particularly aerial spraying, helped reduce malaria prevalence to 10% over its first year of application and became immensely popular, despite its high toxicity. The disease was finally eradicated in the mid 1970s after a methodical and sustained strategy of control and surveillance, under the guidance of the World Health Organisation, thanks partly to foreign aid but also thanks to the general prosperity, which Greece was able to achieve in the 1950s and 1960s.
On a wider note, there is an ongoing historiographical debate as to the importance of epidemics in world history. What is your stance on this topic?
My own approach has been very much influenced by William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples and his concept of disease pool. This concept helps us analyse and understand the connections between infectious diseases on the one hand and communications spheres on the other. In this sense, one may look at the spread of new diseases along the same routes as those traveled by trade, armies, ideas, large and small species. Interestingly, a recent study of the spread of the plague in fourteenth-century Europe suggests that the spread is traceable along the ports on the navigable rivers and canals, that is along the maritime and river trading routes.
After their first encounter with a pathogen and the lethal epidemics it produces, societies go on to build up their immune responses through the mechanisms of natural selection. Thereafter, the new disease gradually becomes less lethal killing ever fewer people and enters the disease pool within the broad geographical range defined by the communications regime of its time. Therefore, as important as epidemics are in world history, they should be historicised in relation to other defining features of entire civilisations. Consequently, the current crisis cannot be understood independently from the broader economic and environmental realities that plague our world today (pardon the pun). The immediate effects of epidemics may be important in significant ways, for instance the demographic depletion of Europe owing to the Black Death impacted subsequent labour relationships; the establishment of quarantine was effective in controlling the spread of epidemics before the introduction of germ theory; the control of the cholera outbreak contributed to the victory of the Greek army over the Bulgarians in 1913; the instances are countless, not to mention the impact of pathogens affecting other species, for instance the impact of the potato blight on the history of Ireland. However, today, as the survival prospect of humanity reaches a critical balance point, one should not lose sight of the role of pathogens in the broader patterns of historical change.
What would be a historian’s analytical and comparative perspective on the global Covid19 pandemic we are currently going through?
This is the first time in our lifetime that we witness the effective spread of a new and dangerous disease among our globalised society. Clearly, this uniqueness offers an historian an insight into what societies must have experience upon their first encounter with the virulent unknown. Influenza in its various strains is a virus with which humanity has become familiar, particularly after the 1918 pandemic; AIDS has spread more gradually and other dangerous new epidemics, such as ebola, have so far been contained before reaching the West. For humans, Covid19 is totally new. Some have termed this as the first modern pandemic, and, although this is not exactly true, it certainly has important unique features. What I believe is markedly different from earlier such occasions is the speed of its spread along with the speed and universal nature of the response of humanity. The international community was politically unprepared for the pandemic, despite the fact that the warnings from scientific experts had been issued clearly for several years; there had even been scientific centres dedicated to the study of possible suspect pathogens. Yet, the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the northern hemisphere occurred before the scientific community had time to fully understand how the virus functions. Global lack of preparedness, in turn, brought on urgent and abrupt socio-economic government responses, such as lockdowns, with secondary socio-economic consequences of yet unknown severity and hardship.
This is clearly a failure of the political institutions to anticipate and mount an effective defense in advance. Scientific networks and international organisations, however, are currently performing with the speed of the digital age, and to a large degree (with powerful and ominous exceptions), with a sense of community.
Notwithstanding the broader picture, on a micro-historical level, it is interesting to observe the way the disease is experienced by individual social and cultural groups of people, by particular age groups; or the ways we perceive, reward or condemn demonstrations of solidarity or selfishness and antagonism.
On a broader level, we are faced with pending questions for the future: what institutions will the pandemic leave behind; how will it affect the ideas and institutions of global governance; how will societies, states and institutions deal with the widening inequality gap that will result from the pandemic; and, most importantly, will the pandemic make us any wiser with regard to our own lethal ecological impact. Interestingly, the forerunner of the World Health Organisation, the Health Organisation of the League of Nations emerged out of the Epidemics Commission that the League had set up to control the epidemics outbreaks, primarily of typhus, that the large waves of displaced populations triggered throughout East and Central Europe in the aftermath of the First World War. On the subject of internationalist ideas and global governance, particularly on the way conflicting interests affect the shaping of international institutions Mark Mazower’s, Governing the World is an important work worth reading in these circumstances.
*Interview by Dimitris Gkintidis.
Cara Hoffman is the author of Running, a New York Times Editor's Choice, an Esquire Magazine Best Book of 2017, and Entertainment Weekly's Best New Book. Her second novel, Be Safe I Love You, was nominated for a Folio Prize, named one of the Five Best Modern War Novels by the Telegraph UK, and won a Sundance Institute Global Film Making Award. She first received international attention in 2011 with the publication of So Much Pretty which sparked a national dialogue on violence and retribution, was translated into multiple languages, and was named Best Suspense Novel of the year by the New York Times Book Review.
Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, The Paris Review, Bookforum, Rolling Stone, Salon and NPR and she has been a visiting writer at Columbia, St. John’s and Oxford University. Hoffman is the recipient of a number of awards and accolades including a MacDowell Fellowship, and an Edward Albee Fellowship, She currently lives in Manhattan and Athens and is at work on her fourth novel.
Cara Hoffman spoke to Reading Greece* about her latest book Running, which takes place largely in Athens noting that she has always been “captivated by the layered histories revealed in the city, the character of different neighborhoods, the sense of resilience, that traditions of warmth and hospitality and intellectualism”. She also comments on the relation of literature to the world it inhabits, explaining that “a novel is a record of possibilities—a weaving together of roads taken and not taken”. As for current literary production in Greece, she notes that she has been “overwhelmed by the intelligence, innovation and creativity in the Greek writers [she] has met” and concludes that she has been “profoundly inspired by readings and conversations with people in the literary community here”.
“A ferocious brilliant book”, to use Garth Greenwall’s words, Running takes place largely in Athens. Tell us a few things about the book.
Running is a love story between three young drifters—a queer couple from England and a seventeen-year-old American woman. It’s set in the late 1980s and early 90s, at the tail end of people’s liberation movements like the Badder Meinhoff and the Red Army Faction. The characters find work and a home in a hotel in the red-light district of Athens where they become immersed in the culture and later unwittingly become involved in an act of political violence. It’s also partly set on the islands and in Manhattan—but the heart of the book is Athens. It’s in many ways a love letter to the city of Athens.
How is that you chose Athens as the background of Running. What is that makes Athens an inspiring literary setting?
I think Athens is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I am always captivated by the layered histories revealed in the city, the character of the different neighborhoods the sense of resilience, the traditions of warmth and hospitality and intellectualism. The fact that it’s a dirty city like New York, but also remarkably green—forested in places, hilly and mountainous, bitter orange trees lining the streets. The slick uneven sidewalks, the terrace gardens, the cafes full of people in conversation. The neoclassical buildings standing next to modernist buildings, standing next to gutted ruins or squats. The graffiti, the amazing vibrancy of night in Athens. The myth of Athens, a city named after a warrior goddess. The gift of olive trees, the beauty of spring with its smell of neroli blossoms, the shocking heat of summer. The simplicity and richness of the food and the intersection of cultures—including subcultures. The revolutionary sensibility. The music—at my house in Exarchia it always seems there is music drifting in through the windows. And Athens is a city of contradictions which makes for good writing. It’s simultaneously elegant and gritty. Iconoclastic and the seat of icons. I could talk for hours about what makes Athens inspiring. There is no where I’d rather live or write.
You have characterized Running as more deeply personal. How does it differ from your first two novels?
Running is based on events in my life—I lived in Athens when I was a teenager and worked as a runner for a hotel near Larissis. At that time, I had been traveling and working, hitch hiking through Europe and meeting other expats and backpackers. There was an understanding that we had escaped the wreckage of a political and cultural system that didn't work, that had no ethical foundation, and certainly no moral authority over our lives. Athens resonated deeply with all of us. In the novel I describe it ‘an internal landscape at last made visible.’
According to the New York Times Book Review, “Hoffman impressively evokes the combination of nihilism, idealism, rootlessness, psychic and economic necessity, lust and love that might set a young person adrift”. What are the main issues your writings touch upon?
All of my writing focuses in some way on the lives of outsiders, and on transgressive or revolutionary acts whether they are large political acts or smaller personal attempts to dismantle the dominant culture. My work is always about the saving grace of art and friendship.
What would you say is the relation of literature to the world it inhabits? Where does the world of fiction meet the real world in your books?
That’s a very good question. I have often thought of my novels like Fredrick Wiseman films—Wiseman called his work reality fictions. They were documentaries but the narrative arcs are driven by the choices he made in editing. My work –especially Running focuses on the lives of real people and on real events in history, and sometimes the line between journalism and fiction blurs but it is not autofiction. It is not the story of my life. A novel is a record of possibilities—a weaving together of roads taken and not taken. And Running is no different.
Jordan Blum has depicted you as “a master at blending creative and journalistic inclinations into a thoughtful and profound style”. Would you say that journalism and literary writing are communicating vessels?
I think literary writing has the power to communicate more truth and complexity than journalism—at least as far as journalism in the United States in the early twenty first century is concerned.
How would you comment on current literary production in Greece? Do you think that the new generation of Greek writers has the potential to attract readership beyond national borders?
I have been overwhelmed by the intelligence, innovation and creativity in the Greek writers I have met. I think Maria Xilouri is a genius. I think Americans would be wild for her work, which is so sharp and combines mythic and dystopic elements. I would love to see her novels translated more widely. Likewise Thanasis Stamoulis. I’m surprised to see that Nikos Chryssos isn’t already translated into English after winning the European Union Prize last year. These writers are the reason I have redoubled my efforts to improve my Greek. The poet Danae Sioziou is writing beautiful and exciting things. She’s starting to get the attention she deserves internationally and I expect that attention will continue to grow. I’ve been lucky enough to read Panagiotis Kechagias’s work in English which I think is gorgeously written, deeply strange and funny and I can’t get over the lyricism with which he writes in a second language. He’s a master prose stylist. His work is at once an homage and a critique of American literature—it’s amazing to me that Kechagias can write as he does without having traveled in the American south. I think all of these writers have great integrity. I’ve been profoundly inspired by readings and conversations with people in the literary community here.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Alexis Stamatis was born in Athens. He studied Architecture at the National Technical University of Athens and received post-graduate degrees in Architecture and Cinematography in London. He is the author of twenty eight books. His work has been published in nine languages. His first novel The Seventh Elephant was published in Great Britain. Bar Flaubert was published in Great Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Serbia and Bulgaria. American Fugue was awarded an International Literature Award from the US National Endowment for the Arts and was published in the USA (Εtruscan Press). His first book for children Alkis and the Labyrinth received the first award by the International Board on Books for Young People. His theatrical plays have been staged in numerous theatres in Athens, including the Greek National Theatre and the Greek Art Theatre Karolos Koun. He writes for the newspaper “To Vima”.
Alexis Stamatis spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest book Innocent Creatures, “an existential submersion in almost all fundamental human issues, mainly Love and Death”, delving into “the adventure of human existence; the nature of morality, the way people act according to what’s going on in their heads, where their most hidden secrets, their bottled-up feelings, are kept”. He also comments on how things stand as far as literary production in Greece is concerned, the role of social media in the promotion of new books and whether the essence of writing has changed in this respect, as well as on the challenges Greek literature is faced with in order to move beyond national borders and attract foreign readership.
Your latest writing venture Innocent Creatures received quite favorable reviews upon publication. Tell us a few things about the book.
The book was inspired by a certain incident: a plain middle-aged woman visits the main hero, a private investigator, and tells him “Follow me”, This phrase triggered the whole book. It was the only thing I had in mind when I started writing. The title refers to all of the book’s heroes, who may get involved in shady adventures leading to devious acts, yet remaining somewhat confusingly innocent.
A noir and at the same time a deeply existential book. Which are the main themes it touches upon? Would you say that it is a book of ‘maturity’?
What I was mostly interested in while writing this book was an existential submersion into almost all fundamental human issues, mainly Love and Death. This dipole either swings as a menacing pendulum or casts its shadow over events, leading the story to an unexpected journey that leaves its indelible mark on all the people involved. It’s a novel I have been wanting to write for a long time. The people close to me who read the book told me how different it is from all the others. Yet, I believe that in its essence it touches upon the same issues as the previous: the adventure of human existence; the nature of morality, the way people act according to what’s going on in their heads, where their most hidden secrets, their bottled-up feelings, are kept.
As I write in the book: “There is a secret crypt in all people’s life that is kept seven-sealed. They know that this crypt exists inside them, they know that they can enter whenever they want but they never dare. Why? Because they are sure that all the things they were afraid since they were born will tear them apart”.
Stories, hidden marks, gaps are places where this part of ourselves that we keep secret flourishes. The novel offers the chance to shed light on all theses places and lead to journeys that it’s up to the reader to follow or not.
Does the plot unravel in the streets of Athens? Would you say that the Athenian urban landscape is ideal as a literary setting?
The plot has not so much to do with Athens; it rather unravels in a big city that could be anywhere in the world. Yet, many of my books are strongly influenced by the city I live in, which has left its indelible mark on me. The way Athens was planned, or rather not planned, or wrongly planned, has created gaps, unorthodoxies, discontinuities that are extremely interesting for a careful observer. There are so many such places, whole neighborhoods, that constitute genuine “literary settings”. They are so interesting that they could be treated as “characters” themselves.
From The Seventh Elephant in 1998 to Innocent Creatures more than twenty years later, what has changed and what has remained the same in your writings? Are there recurrent points of reference in your books?
In my first writing attempts, I used to spend so much time preparing and unraveling the plot and the characters. It’s been a long time since I neither lay out the plot nor do I spend time on preparation. The existing ideas are implemented when they are ready to be put on paper. These ideas may be triggered out of simple and everyday reasons. In my latest book, the idea came up as a result of the phrase “follow me”. The title Innocent Creatures is allegoric, ironic and at the same time literal. Based on a broadly accepted moral code, none of the book’s creatures is innocent. Yet, there is no soul void of darkness, instincts, hidden forbidden desires. What matters is whether they are brought to the surface or not. Innocent Creatures came out on bookstores less than a month before the corona virus crisis turned to the worse. Yet the book can be bought online at the following link: https://www.kastaniotis.com/book/978-960-03-6684-6.
It has been argued that Greek writers have a preference for short form and that short story collections have outweighed novels and longer narratives. How would you comment on this?
There is indeed a generation of young Greek writers who excel in short form. I think they are great and I am really proud that we have so many good writers. Greece has a long tradition in exceptional short form writers. Yet this in no way means that we don’t have equally great novelists. Quite the opposite. I read great Greek novels, which are additionally quite different from each other.
How do things stand as far as literary production in Greece is concerned? Has the crisis been a stimulus for artistic creation?
“The crisis constitutes a chance” is a mantra that we have been hearing for over ten years. Now with the pandemic, we will probably hear it for another ten. This enduring crisis may lead to new ways of expression, it may, hand-in-hand with technological advances, offer new terrains of creation; yet what it deprives the artist of is an independence to concentrate solely on his/her work, not being obliged to drift here and there. However, to be realistic, as things stand nowadays – this is almost self-evident. Let’s take writing, for instance: to do my work the way I want it and at the same time be secure –especially in this country – is utopian. Yet, it was in no way imposed. It is one of the few – if the only – decision of my life that I feel comfortable with. Regardlessoftheresult. After all, in art, as in life, what is important is the journey and not the result. I chose to take this risk, this insecurity, maybe because it constitutes my only hope. Andmylifecyclecorroboratestothis. By constantly reacting to perpetually changing conditions we come to create every conjuncture; and safeguard its authenticity. There are facts and there unpredictable events. Your fingerprint may always be the same, but who knows what kind of agitation runs under the skin?
In the era of online communication, what role do the social media play in the promotion of new books? Has the essence of writing been transformed in this respect?
The social media play an increasingly decisive role in the promotion of books. Whether, however, narration is adjusting itself to this new reality is something that remains to be seen in the future. What I don’t like is books that are written “in situ”, that is in a way that satisfies predefined demands. This instrumentalization – to use a fashionable word – of literature deprives art of its oxygen. An artist is transformed into a producer of wishes and desires; which, in turn, irreversibly leads to artistic death.
Since some of your books such as The Seventh Elephant, Bar Flaubert and American Fugue have been translated in English among others, what would you say is the ‘recipe’ for a Greek novel to attract foreign readership? How challenging is for Greek literature to move beyond national borders?
I was fortunate enough to have both my first and second book translated and published in English at a time when there was real interest in promoting the Greek book abroad. For the next fifteen years I went around the world participating in literary festivals: from Sydney to Montreal, from Shanghai to Riga, Latvia. Yet, this was mainly due to my personal contacts and the books of mine that were translated in English. Since then, things for most of us have been quite stagnant. When participating in international book fairs, Greek editors are not so much interested in selling books but rather in buying books. Modern Greek literature, delving into a panspermia of themes and issues, doesn’t seem to attract foreign readers, which would be interested in a book they could identify with “Greece”, as they envision it, that is an old-fashioned Greekness. And this is rather coercive; and yet quite conceivable since the profile Greece itself promotes has to do with its “glorious past, the sea and having fun”. In other words, ouzo, Zorbas and bouzouki, even in 2020!
Thus, a Greek writer should consider himself/herself lucky if his/her book is published abroad. On the other hand, Greek writer Christos Ikonomou has stated: “From what I have discussed with people related to the book market abroad, I get the feeling that there isn’t so much interest in national literatures anymore. What there are mainly interested in is finding good books. After all, are Greek writers really interested in such extroversion? Books are neither Greek olive oils nor Corinthian raisins; you cannot just take Greek writers and tell them we are now going to promote you abroad; not to mention that we are on a different wavelength with a significant part of foreign readers. I have heard so many different versions, “we are waiting for the next Zorba”, and my answer was that you will have to wait forever”.
Let’s wait for this terrible pandemic to end and I am hopeful that since nothing will be the same as before, the Greek book policy will be strengthened acquiring anew an international orientation. Unfortunately throughout all these years I feel I am writing as a hobby and not as a professional writer.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
As Greece is gradually adapting to the new normality that COVID-19 will impose, dr. Christos Michalakelis, President of the Study in Greece Organization, explains in his interview with Greek News Agenda* what comparative advantages studying in Greece has to offer to foreign students. Greece’s effective management of the pandemic, its Mediterranean climate, the high-level curricula, as well as the low fees and the post-Brexit reality are only a few of the parameters that have to be taken into consideration by foreign students, and Study in Greece aims at diffusing them to a global public.
Dr Christos Michalakelis is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Informatics and Telematics, Harokopio University of Athens. He specializes in techno-economics and assessment of ICT and high technology investments, like cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT). He teaches courses related to telecommunications, investment assessments in high technology markets, the economics of digital technology, mathematics, etc. He has previously worked for many years with the Greek Ministry of Education, as an IT manager, where he had participated in several projects concerning the design and implementation of information systems.
He is co-founder and the President of Study in Greece, the official initiative of Greece (Hellas) aiming at the promotion and support of internationalization and extroversion of higher education. Study in Greece is a not-for-profit organization focusing on the promotion of educational opportunities and activities in Greece for international students, the provision of information for studying and living in Greece and the development, support and implementation of educational programs and activities, acting as a cultural and educational bridge between Greece and other countries. Study in Greece is under the auspices of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education and Religious Affairs, and Tourism.
What was the rationale for introducing Study in Greece Organization and what has the outcome been so far?
Our first and principal aim was to contribute to the internationalization of the Greek academic world by creating a portal of information, where foreign students interested in studying in our country could easily find all information related to the undergraduate and postgraduate programs and other study options offered by Greek universities, as well as useful information concerning living in Greece, thus acting as a "one-stop-shop" of information.
Study in Greece places emphasis on the English-taught programs offered by Greek Universities and other educational activities targeting the international audience. The action merits the auspices of the Greek state, which has early recognized the added value of the offered services. We are very happy to observe that the Greek state’s mentality is totally compatible with this spirit of openness and extroversion which characterizes our organization. As a matter of fact, within this enhanced framework, thanks to the strategy of internationalization adopted by the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, the role of Study in Greece has been upgraded.
Nowadays, Study in Greece cooperates with all Greek universities and constitutes the official bridge which connects the Greek academic world with the international academic universe, not only by informing but also through the organization of conferences, Study Abroad programs, summer schools and other activities, which aim to accompany and promote the programs and activities of Greek universities.
English-taught postgraduate programs offered by Greek public universities, offering many perspectives to both institutions and students, constitute the key to this internationalization initiative mentioned above.
Eighteen universities in Greece offer about 140 Masters Programs taught in a foreign language (mainly English), in many cities and regions across Greece, like Athens, Thessaloniki, Heraklion, Lesvos, Volos, Crete, Peloponnese, etc., awarding degrees over a wide range of disciplines including, apart from Classics, Engineering, Humanities, Social Sciences, Medical studies, Technology, Economics, Business, Art, Music, Nutrition, and many others. This should be emphasized more, since there may be a wrong perception that Greece provides only studies focusing on Classics, which is not the case, since Greece is making substantial and continuous progress in scientific fields like the ones mentioned above, offering study programs of high quality. It should also be noted that the number, as well as the range of disciplines, of the English language programs, are expanding, as the universities have understood the importance of internationalization and extroversion.
Teaching methods vary between different fields and subject-specialisms, comprising large-group lectures as well as smaller seminar discussion groups and supervised practical work. Collaboration with other institutions (or their faculty) is not uncommon as Greek Master's degrees emphasize expert teaching and professional training.
The main “problem” related to these programs, is that they lack international promotion, as there is low international awareness, despite the high quality of education they offer. Here comes Study in Greece, which has as its main mission the promotion and the raising of awareness about studies in Greece and the offered programs. Regarding the postgraduate studies, we have created an e-book, which includes a panorama of English language master's programs in Greece. There, one can find all the program titles along with the appropriate information for each program, including application, fees, etc. Also, Study in Greece, in collaboration with the Greek Ministry of Education, has developed an electronic platform to host the Master's Programs.
Fortunately, the quality of those programs is well appreciated by the international academic community and we observe a fast-growing interest of foreign students, particularly coming from the USA and China, who want to obtain a degree from a Greek higher educational institute, or participate to short term courses, like Study Abroad programs and Summer Schools. This category of programs – Study Abroad and Summer Schools – organized by diverse Greek universities attracts more and more the academic public. We, Study in Greece, in collaboration with the Greek state, have succeeded in communicating the efforts of the Greek universities on a global scale, through our developing international network. Of course, there is a lot of work to be done to take Greek Academia where it deserves to be.
The breaking news is that the Ministry of Education is working on innovative legislation that will, among others, allow the universities to offer English taught undergraduate programs for international students, provide joint programs with international universities, etc., with very simple and quick procedures. This is expected to be voted soon by the Greek Parliament and become a law of the Greek state, boosting, even more, the internationalization of Greece and its selection as an international study destination.
As we all know, Greece is a beautiful country, with great sunny weather, magical landscapes, and rich cultural heritage. The quality of life, the attractive climate, and the classical sites are aspects that should not be underestimated, but they aren't all Greece has to offer. The country is also a vibrant research centre, with ongoing work in theoretical fields such as archaeology and classics as well as in scientific fields such as medicine, biology and physics, and technology disciplines like IT, computer, and engineering, among others.
The high-quality education offered by the Greek institutions across a broad spectrum of subjects and the proud tradition of scholarly inquiry – Greece has an academic heritage like few other countries in the world, having been home to the likes of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Pythagoras are two basic reasons to studying in Greece.
Furthermore, Greece is a member of the EU and participates fully in the modern European Higher Education Area. Plus, the cost of living in Greece is at a very low level, as compared to many other European nations, especially in the post–Brexit era.
To sum up, Greece is a particular place that harmoniously combines research, recreation, and reflection and connects the legendary past with the evolving present, providing a value for money destination.
There is a general misunderstanding as far as it concerns the type of research in Greece and I am glad to admit that the Greek academic world has managed to surpass the traditional clichés. Research in Greek universities covers classical studies and surpasses it by being at the same time classical and contemporary, aligned with the spirit of our times. As I have already mentioned above, Greek universities offer foreign researchers the opportunity to develop their research projects in traditional scientific fields such as medicine, biology, and physics, without forgetting the humanities – philosophy, history, sociology, and theatre. Furthermore, and that's, in my opinion, very important and optimistic, Greece provides a friendly and fertile environment for the students who want to delve into cutting edge subjects such as artificial intelligence, internet of things, 4th industrial revolution, computer science, as well as to some of the most crucial matters of the contemporary world like immigration.
Yes indeed, there are already many and there used to be much more active. During the last decade, Greek universities expanded their networks by adopting a continuously globally-oriented attitude and the academic society became more extroverted.
However, because of the economic recession, Greece faced during the last years, many of these synergies fell into an inactive state. It is of paramount importance that there is a need to reactivate the existing synergies and create many more as, among the many other benefits, they can contribute to the economic support of the universities and the society in general. Thus, it can be taken for granted that Study in Greece, acting as a diplomat of the academic world, through its growing network, is willing to contribute to this effort by providing valuable assistance to Greek institutes of higher education that are seeking to develop or find partners abroad.
Greece has so far successfully addressed the COVID-19 pandemic. Will that reflect on attracting foreign students?
I think that despite the difficult circumstances with the negative impact of COVID19 on social and economic life worldwide, our country – Greece will find its way to light. The way we managed as a State and a society to handle this severe crisis will constitute the paradigm in a new era of challenges. We have to capitalize on this precious success and instil our courage and our creativity into developing sectors like the one of internationalization of education and academic and educational tourism, as they have a lot to offer to the extroversion of Greece and, consequently, to our economy. We should and we can promote the material and immaterial values of our country and civilization, in order not only to attract tourists but to educate citizens of the world. And be sure that Study in Greece will be at the front line of this effort.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
Visit: Study in Greece e-book of English speaking master’s programs in Greece and the electronic platform of Master's Programs.
Read also: International educational programmes for foreign students in Greek Universities, Study Classical Greece in Athens, e-Academia: Learn Modern Greek online, Study in Greece: Summer Schools 2020
Iakovos Anyfantakis was born in Crete in 1983. He did his PhD on the presentation of the Greek civil war violence in literature in Panteion University. He started publishing in literature magazines and collective volumes in 2007. His first book, the novella Foxes on the hill was published in 2013. In 2017 he published his collection of short stories Beautiful loves. His latest book, the novel Other people came out in 2019.
Iakovos Anyfantakis spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest writing venture Other people, noting that a theme he explores in all his books is “the transformation of the modern educated man, who is trying to find who he is in a world that is shifting towards more equality and a better representation for everyone”. He expresses his skepticism as to whether it is plausible to talk about a ‘literature of the crisis’, and concludes that for a Greek book to attract foreign readership, it should be “local enough so that everyone can identify it as Greek but at the same time speaking about matters that are important universally”.
Your latest writing venture Other people received quite favorable reviews upon publication. Tell us a few things about the book.
It’s a book about a middle-class couple in its thirties that immigrates to Poland after becoming unemployed in Athens. The woman gets a job easily while the man has to fight his lack of occupation, the guilt of getting fired and the shifted dynamics in their relationship due to the fact she is the sole breadwinner in the family right now.
He, thus, finds recluse in an investigation: three men fall from the sky in Gdansk and in Paris, after they tried to escape Istanbul hidden in the wheels of two airplanes. He wants to learn what led them there. And although the answer comes easily for the two of them, two Syrian refugees, that’s not the case with the third, a 70-year-old American sports photographer. And while investigating the death of the American photographer he is in fact searching for solutions in his own life, in order to get back to a winning track.
Critics have emphasized on the intensity and fierceness of your narrative language. How important is the role of language in your writings?
Literature is language. It is the way you say things, not the things you say. Ιcannot think of the stories I write outside the way I am writing them. And it takes me a lot of time to find the final “voice” of each book- long after I am done with the plot and the characters.
In this book the fierceness of the language had to do with the psychology of the main character who was trying to retrieve his identity after he lost his job. He may be a calm man on the surface but he is burning inside. Τhis was the challenge. I don’t know if I was up to it, but I sure had a great time trying to live up to the expectations.
Which are the main themes your books delve into? Would you say there are autobiographical elements? Where does fiction meet reality in your writings?
Τhere is a small part of autobiography in the book: I was an unemployed man in my early thirties migrating to Poland. But that’s about it. I do believe it is important to put elements of your life in your book, but it should be well divided across all characters. I am as much the Greek man who suffers the trauma of failure as the Croatian former goalkeeper who has to learn how to kill during the civil war or the 21-year-old Polish girl who has to raise a son from an unexpected pregnancy on her own.
That being said, I do find that there is a broader theme I am trying to explore throughout all of my books. It is the transformation of the modern educated man, who is trying to find who he is in a world that is shifting towards more equality and a better representation for everyone. It is the tale of the people who support change on the outside but sometimes fight it on the inside.
The 2009 economic crisis has undeniably acted as a source of inspiration especially for the new generation of young writers. In this respect, would it be plausible to talk about a ‘literature of the crisis’?
Every time this conversation comes up I can’t help but remember that story David Foster Wallace used, to start his famous speech “This is water”. Two young fish are swimming in the ocean. They meet an older fish that nods and says, “how are you doing, guys? How’s the water today?” The two young fish nod along and carry on with the journey. Then, after a while one of them turns to the other and asks “what the hell is water?”
In that regard, I do not know if what I’ve been writing all these years is a literature of the crisis. I know that I’m writing about people during the crisis, or shortly before that. I’m writing about people who are unemployed, people who are employed but still want more, people who fall in love, people who cannot be loved, people who do not know what love is, people who feel their dreams are shattered, people who do not know what will come from their life. Is this all about the crisis? It might very well be, since the crisis was the water we had everywhere around us, the fabric that has been connecting it all.
It has been argued that Greek writers have a preference for short form and that short story collections have outweighed novels and longer narratives. How would you comment on this?
That’s a common myth about Greek literature; similar to the one that we have better poetry than prose. I would agree that there are some marvelous works of short form fiction. But I wouldn’t go as far as making a rule out of it. For every great short story or novella, I can mention an equally great novel- be it The Dead Man and the Resurrection [O pethamenos kai I anastasi] by Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis, The Third Wedding [To trito stefani] by Costas Taktsis, Crossroads [I megali plateia] by Nikos Bakolas, Famine [Loimos] by Andreas Franghias, Brave Telemachos [Ο gennaios Telemachos] by Alexandros Kotzias, Orthokostá by Thanassis Valtinos, From the mouth of an old Remington [Apo to stoma mias palias Remington] by Giannis Panou or Autobiography of a book by Michel Fais.
As you can see, I’m practically namedropping here, but I could carry on for a while. On the flip side, writing a novel is nearly an impossible task the way authors live in Greece. You cannot live by writing books; seldom can you live by saying you are a writer and getting scholarships orders for translations or workshops.Εspecially for my generation the reality is that we either have to work non-stop in our day job, or we have no job at all, creating a suffocating environment that kills creativity.
“We are neither too exotic nor too global. We don’t represent something different that would entice foreign readers to explore us; nor are we international enough so that the issues we focus on are recognized beyond national borders. Τhus, even very important Greek writers, who have nothing to be jealous of its foreign counterparts, remain in the margin of world literature, lost behind the shelves of major academic libraries”. Is there a way for the challenges of integrating Greek literature in the international field to be met?
Ηad I known the answer I would have used it to write the kind of book that would be read across the globe. Therefore, I can only guess. But I imagine the solution should be quite simple: write great books. A great book will inevitably overcome all shorts of barriers and reach people everywhere. And when I’m talking about a great book I do include in its merits being local enough so that everyone can identify it as Greek but at the same time speaking about matters that are important universally.
To be fair it's not like all foreign books that become an instant success- and many of them come to Greece as well, getting tones of praise and attention- are necessarily better than everything written in Greek. Very often we read the next great American or British novel and we see nothing more than an average work. No, for a Greek book to go abroad, it needs to be much better than that. But it’s ok, that was the goal anyway, to write something great.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou