Essays

The public library of Serres through this section presents various present day issues that have en effect on society with the aim to warrantee a more reliable information of the citizens. The issues are of social, health, educational, cultural and economic interest as well as issues of daily lite that are published in magazines, and newspapers in Greece or abroad.
J. Sapountzis




The Greeks in the Balkans, the Balkans in Greece

  Contemporary Greek fiction's first steps towards recognising the other who lives next door

by VANGELIS HATZIVASSILEIOU

The Balkan turn taken by contemporary Greek fiction (I use the word "turn" with some reservations, since I do not believe that what we have before us is a systematic and established phenomenon yet) is the offspring of the last decade of the twentieth century. I shall proceed immediately to make a distinction which I believe will help us better understand the material. There are two basic manners in which younger Greek writers are opening themselves to the Balkans (I am deliberately limiting my range to those writers who made their first appearance after the political cut-off point of 1974). The first of these manners is static and internal, and requires a kind of observation post - in these writings the foreigner from the Balkan countries represents a character who, having only just begun to function according to the rhythms of Greek society, becomes the object of a first attempt to record and explore. The second manner is external and imposes as a necessary prerequisite a shifting of the field of action to beyond the Greek borders. Here too there is an observation post, but it works the other way round: the observer is now the foreigner himself - a stranger who finds himself faced with a society that is clearly in transition, and who attempts to grasp and understand its changes while they are in the process of happening.

The writers who adopt the first method are, by the nature of things, led to the consequences which the organisational changes (on both the economic and social levels) taking place in Greece during the past twenty-five years have had on everyday life. From being a society of emigrants, which saw its members moving in an unceasing flow towards the USA (at the beginning of the 20th century), Germany and Belgium (just after the Second World War) or France (in the mid 1960s, with the "brain drain"), Greece turned after 1990 (by which time the changes were fully embodied) into a reception area for the Balkan emigration that was born from and grew in volume after the collapse of Soviet socialism. The settling of Balkan immigrants in Greece and the manifold situations to which this gave rise (ranging from phenomena of deportation and generalised fear to a variety of minor meld-ings and groupings leading to many different outcomes) comprise the living material of several contemporary novelists, who observe foreigners in the large urban centres in order to record the central (if I may put it like this) points at which they intermix with the locals, but also to trace the ways in which they converge with their host country or diverge from some parameters (of lesser or greater importance) of its material culture and mentality. This, I believe, is the point that summarises with great clarity the main features of the first type of approach to the Balkan foreigner (in which category we must, albeit inaccurately, include Russian and Polish economic immigrants), for this approach involves nothing else but the observation and description of the other in terms of our own localism (secure in the order that it guarantees).

But let us move on rapidly to the second method, in order to conclude our prefatory remarks. The writers who follow this course must travel and move to other countries (either they themselves or their heroes) in order to locate and recognise the other in his own environment -presupposing (as much as is possible) his own localism. In this case we see the protagonists of the narrative crossing the frontiers either in order to seek the traces of their recent or more distant collective history, or to discover entirely new experiences which they attempt to incorporate into a new perspective, by definition liberated from the narrow national context.

Most interesting, of course, is the conjunction and interweaving of the two methods in relation to the overall outlook of contemporary Greek fiction, as well as an illustration (albeit at a preliminary and certainly preparatory stage) of its main tendencies. When we speak of this overall outlook, before going any further into the subject we should not forget that the contact of modern Greek novelists (from the older ones to those who have recently emerged) with the outside world is not limited to the Balkans; on the contrary, it extends to the USA and Western Europe (and occasionally even further afield) and covers (I'm speaking here mainly of novels written in the past decade) many, often widely different, aspects: from the chilly and distant Strasbourg of today, the stifling Austria of Mozart's day, Poland, Egypt, Belgium, the Bay of Biscay during the 1950s and the ultra-advanced medical technology of research centres in the USA, to the Germany of casinos and gas-tarbeiter, the gangsters of early 20th century New York, the tribes of the Pacific islands today, the circulation of revolutionary ideas in the Europe and Russia of 1917, the spreading of the commercial spirit in Asia Minor during the 19th century, to Trieste and Odessa or the frenzied racing of powerful motorcycles in Italy, France and Spain in our own days.

Thus the leaven not only exists but also increases every so often - sometimes in the strangest and most unexpected of ways, in a perspective of the full confluence of the self with the other, or, to put it differently, of the foreign with the domestic and of the local with the international. In this way too the leaven of the Balkans takes shape. At this point, I cannot but begin with a glance at the Balkan foreigner who lives and works in Greece, creating a broad range of relationships and bonds with the local inhabitants. Let me note as a preamble that if we wish to perceive these bonds correctly and understand them in some depth, we shall need in our brief course to consider works of literature that depart from the immediate present in order to refer to moments in the historical past, as well as to permeations that in various ways defined the Greek identity. Still in the context of the presence of the Balkan outsider within this country, my mind turns, for example, to "Olga's Story" in Rhea Galanaki's Three Concentric Stories (1986), in which a girl of Turkish descent (Turkey here, beyond its Balkan image, having connotations of our national experience of the East) pays a steep price for her freedom in Crete at the dawn of the 20th century, or Yorgos Skambardonis' novel / Grow Old, Successfully (2000), with its bitter memories of the Bulgarian Occupation of Thrace (with the blessing of the Nazis) during the years of the Second World War. Remaining for a moment in the territory of the historical novel, I think in addition of Vassilis Gouroyannis' novel The Silver Grass is Flowering (1992), in which the leading role is played by the Tsamides: the Albanian-speaking Muslims who during the Occupation collaborated with the Germans and Italians, thus arousing the hatred of their Christian neighbours. The historical Balkan foreigner is thus depicted both as an oppressed social entity who can only be perceived from a distance and who does not have the slightest hope of gaining his liberty, and - at the opposite pole - as the oppressive political and military powers that exercise unprovoked violence on the local populace.

Yet how is the Balkan foreigner presented in the immediate present? In Michel Fai's' collection of short stories From the Same Glass and Other Stories (1999), two pieces give us a vivid picture: "Halima, Desdemona, Boubou" and "Upper and Lower Limbs". In the first, a collective, trans-Balkan perspective dominates, although there is also a historical element: two cats and a woman who becomes transformed into a cat relive the history of the Balkans during the century just ended, sketching in a fragmentary way its bloody milestones. The second story deals with a purely personal drama: a Russian Pontic woman is obliged to see the man she fell in love with and loved deeply as an invalid in a foreign country. We also encounter a mixed-race erotic (marital) partnership in the novel Kilroy Was Here (1992) by Dionyssis Hari-topoulos, where the main character continually declares his admiration for a woman from the then united Yugoslavia who has married a Greek from Preveza. However, the most powerful coexistence of Greeks and Balkan nationals, this time expressed on a social level, is to be seen in the novel Broken Greek (2000) by Thanassis Heimonas, in which the narrative fits together two disparate and from the start opposed and conflicting worlds: on the one hand we have the sleek, bourgeois inhabitants of Psychiko, Filothei and Ekali, while on the other hand - in a variety of versions and aspects, and without the least Manicheism - we have a parade of the sorely tried East Europeans, foremost among them people from the Balkan countries, who are struggling to survive in a wealthy foreign land that is often hostile to them. This, then, is how Greek writers, as they pass into the immediate present, strip the other of demonised stereotypes and approach him as what he is, or rather what he struggles daily to become: a citizen (and hence a fulfilled human being) in a strange and even inhospitable or unfamiliar society.

But it is time to move to the Balkans outside Greece. In Vassilis Tsiambousis' collection of short stories Sweet Bonora (2000) trans-border relationships predominate. The characters travel through the Balkans, but also through the wider European landscape: from Greece to Bulgaria and from Bulgaria to Greece, from Spain to Skopje and from Skopje to Spain and Greece or from Greece to Germany and from Germany to Greece. We could speak here of heterogenous identities and of racial and cultural mixes or (if we wish to use the vocabulary of an earlier vintage) of a melange of the dregs and the marginalised strata of society who are plunged into the void under the pressure of their dead-end daily lives and their harsh social fate. From Dimosthenis Kourtovik's novel The Nostalgia of the Dragons (2000) with its heroes' interminable wanderings between Italy, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Bosnia, we may single out the scene in Bosnia, where, instead of clearing up a situation that is already extremely complicated, the protagonists are submerged in even greater ignorance under the sway of religious fervour and the paranoia of the guns of the local politico-military groups. With Theodoros Grigoriadis' novel The Waters of the Peninsula (1998) we return to the historical past once more: in the burning summer of 1906, an English journalist, a Thracian translator who works at the British Embassy in Istanbul and a Muslim s-tudent who has dropped out of the Hieratic School in Kavala become involved with Greeks, Turks and Bulgars, stumbling into the national and racial passions that were running high in the Balkans at this period. Yet what has great power in Grigoriadis' work is nature. In spite of the fact that it can never be completely cut off from history, nature lulls these three men, distracts them from their collective cares and leads them into an endless play with the mysterious and the divine which in the end they fully embrace. The historical past that Grigoriadis takes us into does not change the standpoint from which contemporary Greek fiction views the Balkan foreigner outside Greece. The attempt here, as in those writers who get to grips with the immediate present, is to understand the other through the vital needs of his community. The truth now is the truth of difference or, to put it more precisely, the multiple (and of course mutually conflicting) reasoning of clashing differences.

We have nearly finished. Nevertheless, I don't want to conclude this account - which in any case cites random examples and is certainly only indicative -without stopping for a moment to look at a purely composite case, in which the inner and outer eyes meet in an integrated, indivisible glance. In Sotiris Dimitriou's novel (or novella, to be accurate) God Tells Them So (2002), the I as difference and difference as the I lead to an indissoluble, inevitable and fatal enmeshing. Greeks and Balkan workmen (Albanians, Vlachs, Rom, Northern Epirotes) meet on a lonely hillside in Epirus where an emigre is building his house. And they set to and start exchanging stories, which although differing widely from one another nevertheless reveal the common, bitter root from which they spring: the protagonists' condemnation to a life of torments, cruel blows and incurable injuries.

The main feature of Dimitriou's book is, I believe, precisely this: the anonymous, everyday heroes' painful wanderings, from which there is no way out, in two landscapes that are at the same time familiar and strange (Greece and Albania), where their longing to live and create is gradually transformed into an utter failure to secure even the basic necessities. Some of them escape from beneath the eyes of the agents of the Sigurimi only to fall into the booby-traps of the Greek border, others are thrown into Albanian dungeons only to re-emerge into the light of day thirty years later, others still are obliged to abandon their companions in haste as they are escaping, only to have this weigh on their consciences for the rest of their lives.

The stories which Dimitriou's heroes ceaselessly tell do not follow a linear course: they begin in the middle or at the end, they are interrupted by interjections from third parties, they are confused with other stories or serve as a basis for new narratives which once again stir the passions, keeping them burning bright throughout the whole course of the action. As for the characters in these stories, it would be a mistake, I believe, to search for their individual characteristics. Everyone who appears on Dimitriou's narrative stage constitutes an inextricable part of a collectively impeded fate, the organic elements of a dual identity which every so often dissolves, yet rapidly gathers up its fragments and pieces them together again from the beginning, and forever continues in this manner. In the course of this process it is not so much stories that the protagonists are exchanging as their own burning breath, in a text that magnificently reproduces verbal speech and the purely natural conditions under which it functions and is manifested. The men who gather on this lonely hillside in Epirus, in order for each to set his stone in the building of the emigre's house, have shared experiences of crushing weight. And this weight, in conjunction with the speakers' common background, activates their native idiom of speech, giving it an extraordinarily strong inner aroma and warmth. Dimitriou, moreover, has taken care to rid his words of any embellishment or useless baggage, turning the orality of his text into a dramatically distilled form of expression which works powerfully even in its silences. To conclude our tour rather abruptly (it could not be otherwise, however), I would say that the catalytic engagement described above will soon - as the Balkan element increases in Greece, but also as Greeks move in various ways into the Balkan countries (two probably inevitable prospects in the coming decades) - turn into a daily, continuous and lively challenge for modern Greek fiction. From that point onwards, it only remains to see in what particular forms this will be expressed. But that is a subject for discussion at another time.

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