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J. Sapountzis

Changes in Greek fiction (1975-2001)

  With all this, have we perhaps established a steady location for post-modernism, especially when we attempt to look for it in the by definition blurred landscape of Greek fiction of the past decade, which to a great extent is still in the process of being born or at any rate in the early stages of its formulation? Anthony Giddens is certainly wise to refuse to proceed to any strict division between modernism and post-modernism. Where post-modernism is concerned, he prefers to refer to a radicalised phase of modernism. This, I believe, is the way in which we too need to examine the Greek fiction of the last decade of the 20th century. And we necessarily need to take up the thread of our argument by observing that during this period various aspects of modernism may have become more acute (Giddens) while others may have receded or have been left behind (Jameson), within the framework, in each case, of that much debated but also much adopted idea: Anything goes.


I shall start with texts which possess acute modernist features. The most characteristic case, perhaps, and at the same time the most eloquent and pure in its polyglot and polymorph nature, is that of Evyenios Aranitsis. From Details About the End of the World (1993) and Stories Which Some People I Know Liked (1995) to Ips the Printer (2001), to limit myself to but a few of his most typical works, Aranitsis is a manic experimenter with literary genres. He throws himself with the same ease (but not, however, easiness) into broad fictional composition (with fresco-like requirements), into short or longer stories, into lengthy narrative poetry (full of lyrical accents) or into multifocal essays (whose subjects range from literature to philosophy, the art of photography and the sociology of everyday life). For Aranitsis, a work of literature is a permanently open and provisional morpheme (it is impossible to divide his work into poetry, fiction and criticism) which its creator may shape with a single breath -headlong, warm and full of longing. This breath can contain everything or nearly everything: irony and anguish, emotional distance and mute or manifest drama, a mood of abstraction and realistic depiction, a high-flown tone or one that is low-key and almost cold-blooded. The urban novel and the multiple mocking versions of it, traditional aesthetics and lyrical language or disjointed and elliptic writing: these do not constitute discrete entities which may be set in strict opposition to one another but rather form a continuous, ceaseless flow of material, which is organised into a major palimpsest or an immense pastiche and which turns on a single central axis - the tearing down of literature from its pedestals of Aesthetics and Ethics and its surrender without terms to the chaotic reality of our times through a constant slipping or splintering of meaning. Nevertheless (let us not overlook this fact), literature neither loses nor suppresses its role in the face of this perspective - it is simply called upon (even if it has to move mountains) to change its skin and catch up with its times. If with one hand Aranitsis demolishes conventions and rules, with the other he shows all the skill of an old-fashioned craftsman as he weaves the diaphanous garment of his strange and simultaneously endlessly fascinating world - a world which every so often reinvents itself, being by conviction plunged deep into multi-fertile heterogeneity.

Much more moderate in her use of the means at her disposal, yet equally mobile as regards the inner subversions and debunkings of her prose is Ersi Sotiropoulos. Of the books she has published so far (no small number -Sotiropoulos, like Aranitsis, published her first work in the 1980s), two, I believe, will suffice for the purposes of our discussion: her collection of short stories The Camelpig (1992) and her novel Zig-Zag through the Bitter Orange Trees (1999). In The Camelpig strangeness and weirdness prevail, rendered with both multiple hints about what is to come and multiple subterranean references. We encounter a whole host of different elements: from the ironic mixing in of the motifs of a futuristic novel to the creation of a series of symbolic hybrids which captivate us with their incomplete and permanently undecided forms. In Zig-Zag through the Bitter Orange Trees Sotiropoulos goes even further: by turning her characters into the playthings of a black comedy, she either dismantles their personality piece by piece, in order to hand it over to futility and self-mockery, or she draws it up from the depths of their insecurities and impasses to fill them with happiness and vitality. And if she is so successful in bringing her plans to their conclusion, this is due to her demonically developed narrative technique, which instead of a stream of consciousness (the easiest way to depict and shape characters who are so expansive and so limited in their awareness) prefers carefully thought out indirect speech within which she places imperceptible shafts of irony, giving the reader a meaningful wink and quietly bringing him on to the stage where the action is set.

In Michel Fats' first novel, The Autobiography of a Book, published in 1994, we encounter a different type of dislocation. The book's entire plot is organised on the basis of a purely intra-textual convention. As we follow the novel within a novel, we rapidly realise that the author is heading towards the direct opposite both of realism and of documented fiction - genres which Fais has been playing with for a long time (in The Autobiography of a Book as well as in his subsequent books, novels and short stories a-like) - in order to strike a blow at the heart of their principle: the field of truth and apparent truth. The truth in The Autobiography of a Book shifts every so often to the back of the stage (without, we should note, ever being revealed to us in its entirety). As regards the apparent truth, it is constantly and systematically undermined as the narrative fabric is repeatedly dissolved before our eyes, to be immediately recreated in another, completely different form, which in turn will be replaced by a new (and once more unexpected) form in an endless cycle of shifts and transformations. The language of the streets, professional jargon, journalistic cliches and fragments of academic language are grafted on to a multiple narrative (interior monologue but also first and third person narration) which fluently reveals Fais' other aim: the moulding of a dramatic (but not melodramatic or sentimental) content which moves us without forcing our response and which creates tangible and rounded characters without resorting to pop psychology or narcissim and glib lacrymosity.

The documentation game is also the ultimate preoccupation (although not in Fais's extremely complex manner) of other writers: Kostas Akrivos, for example, suddenly, who from about the middle of the 1990s until Yellow Russian Candle had a completely different orientation, but also Kostas Voulgaris, who recently made his debut as a novelist with The Pelononnese is Always in My Dream (2001).

From documentation to the intensive melding of different genres, in many aspects taken to its limits. In Yantes, A-manda Michalopoulou's first novel, published in 1996, elements taken from a wide variety of literary fields and types of language come together under the umbrella of a great gastronomic adventure: the jargon of linguists and of cookery recipes, endless lists of titles (of dishes, of novels but also of songs), thrillers and detective stories, the novel within a novel and the epistolary novel, magic realism and the real or the fantastic are all fitted easily and skilfully (without awkward handling or facile or fortuitous solutions) at the same well-laid table, where they communicate organically with one another and support a multifarious and mutli-voiced saga, which as it unfolds comments at every step on its extraordinarily heterogeneous (yet not contradictory or ill-suited) material.

In Greek Crossword (2000) Thomas Skassis, who first appeared in the 1980s, has written a purely self-referential novel (superabundant and slightly mannered, I must admit), which every so often presents (like Yantes) the scheme by which it is planned and the process by which it is constructed. An unreserved mingling of genres is the unmistakable feature of this book, which attempts to pass through every single literary mould (from the historical novel, the eye-witness account and the diary to inner monologue, framed narration and lists), drawing in parallel its linguistic material from the most disparate fields (from newspaper journalism, compilations and historiography, to political theory, archaeology and philosophy).

Along similar lines is Dimitris Petse-tidis' book Tropic of Leo (2001), in which his earlier (in the 1980s) finely drawn lines portraying human beings have suddenly been transformed into a sweeping literary mockery which blows everything sky-high: from spy fiction and detective novels to literary criticism. The seach for an oral writing and for the idioms of popular speech went hand in hand with Greek fiction's relation to modernism from very early on. Nevertheless, it was in the decade just ended that the reproduction (straight or devised) of the oral tradition began to cohabit with other modernist practices. Two books are indicative here: Sotiris Dimitriou's novel May Your Name Be Blessed (1993) and Clairi Mitsotaki's Flora Mirabilis (1996). Dimitriou (whose first novel was published in 1987) gives his Northern-Epirus dialect to three different narrators, who during the whole course of the novel maintain the individuality of their voices - voices which are based on entirely natural speech free of any naive exaggeration or simulation. Mitsotaki (first publications in the 1980s) in turn uses the dialect of her native Anogeia region of Crete for the voice of her third person narrator, who is a disguised version of the intellectual observer who appears at the end of the book to explain its action, directly now, in his own analytic language. In Flora Mirabilis reflection and the language of oral speech form a couple who may not always be loving and well-suited (the metafiction occasionally pushes the popular idiom too hard) but who are certainly fatally entangled and apparently inseparable.


I have attempted so far to distinguish some of the most characteristic cases of acute modernism in Greek fiction during the 1990s. We now need, however, to take a look at the other side - the rejection of elitism and of complexity of form. I consider it necessary to clarify from the start that this kind of rejection, at least in the examples that we shall examine, in the first place does not lead to any loss of quality (on the contrary, this is systematically avoided), and in the second place (more crucially) it does not ignore the modernist convention: on the contrary, it presupposes it as a further depth, in the sense of its insistence on powerful reproduction of historical literary genres. To pass from one side to the other, we need a bridge: the bridge of magic realism, as we see it applied in the novels And at Wolf-light They Return (1993) by Zyranna Zateli (first appearance in the 1980s) and The Sailor (1993) or The Dancer in the Olive Grove (1996) by Theodoras Grigoriadis (first appearance 1990). Using constant flashbacks and plentiful premonitions, Zateli moves with a kind of hidden cine camera: without resorting to poetic artifices, her narrator creates images based on the unseen or invisible detail - images which incorporate fragments of varied popular traditions and demotic legends in an archaic semiotic and symbolic system (birth - love - death), which offers us the chronicle of a densely woven family in Macedonia at the close of the 19th century. On his part, Grigoriadis, both in The Sailor and in The Dancer in the Olive Grove, avoids the miraculous (the unclarified or unexplained) and the fantastic (the suprarational or the transcendental) and deliberately limits himself to the peculiar and strange - in a reality which, among other things, supports multiple readings without passing the bounds of the laws of reason and natural order.

But it is time to leave magic realism or, to be more precise, the magic dimension of narrative, and to turn to the field of the eternal adventure novel - a genre well known to the literary past from which it is imaginatively drawn forth whenever the need arises. Defoe, Stevenson, Poe or Michel Tournier all constitute visible sources for The Shipwrecked Sailors of Pasiphae (1997) by Faidon Tamvakakis (first appearance 1982). Nevertheless, Tamvakakis' relation to his forebears in this genre is neither one of reproducing nor one of overturning. The author passes through all of them, picking up a morsel everywhere yet settling nowhere. From Defoe's Divine Providence to Verne's scientific positivism and the deconstructive inclinations of Tournier, Tamvakakis is led to a loose -by conviction - and centripetal plan, where what emerges is not some necessarily hidden or indestructible and unified meaning, but the plotting of a flexible and fascinating story, which in any case cares little for persuasion and the seemingly true.

The line which Tamvakakis draws from exotic adventure stories to The Shipwrecked Sailors of Pasiphae is drawn by Apostolos Doxiadis from the roman noir to his Three Little Men (1997). Thoroughly familiar with the language of the roman noir, Doxiadis pays hommage to it and at the same time undermines it. As he did earlier with legends (Parallel Life, 1985) or with mathematical analysis (Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture, 1992), so here too he confronts a code which he knows inside out, in order to disarm it by reversing its most basic condition, which is nothing other than its cold dramatic nucleus. Although in the roman noir murders are carried out mercilessly, leaving their heroes with little room for emotional reactions, they do not ever lose their dramatic quality: the lives that are lost are a source of pain and have a cost, causing a chain reaction of other immeasurable lossses. In Three Little Men too the murder leads to other murders, with however one basic difference: the fact that at a certain point the chain breaks unexpectedly, as well, mainly, as the fact that all those who die have first been ridiculed to the limits. An apposite method and an apposite result.

I perceive elements, if not of the roman noir, then assuredly of a certain detective story suspense in Vangelis Hatziyannidis1 first novel, entitled The Four Walls (2000). In this case the suspense is well fitted to a gourmet Utopia, which resembles the shadow of an undisclosed Platonic idea.

And from the roman noir to science fiction or rather to the guise of science fiction. Both in Ziggy from Marfan (1998) and in The Gene of Doubt (1999), Nikos Panayotopoulos, a child of the decade of the 90s, resorts to science fiction in order to suggest or conjure up an entirely up to date and palpable condition or state. And if the science fiction novel is nothing but a formula in which we see an inflated projection of the present, as Raymond Williams observed so aptly many years ago, Panayotopoulos takes his own formula to its limits, laying the wager of the artist's wasted or gained time on his heroes' backs - a wager that ceases to have any meaning when the artistic value of the book depends on paranoia, as in Ziggy from Marfan or on some incomprehensible technological discovery, as in The Gene of Doubt.

Dimosthenis Kourtovik's Longing for Dragons (2000), which he began writing in the late 1970s along entirely different lines, brings us to the realms of the revised thriller: the theft of an ancient mummy and the subsequent stormy search for it provide the starting point for the projection of an exceptionally developed fictional encyclopaedism. Paleontology and anthropology, anatomy and biology, the occult and the science of religion or sexology are marshalled in order to weave the web of a plot whose denouement remains open till the end. The reader closes the book without having received any definite answers. He will have to think about it a-gain and again and test many hypotheses - which, importantly, are all equally legitimate - before he can fill in its crossword puzzle.

Yorgos Zarkadakis also attempts a certain revision of the thriller format in his Archipelago State (1999), where the philosophy of Plethon and Zoroastrian-ism meet Renaissance philology and the super information technology of the 20th century. The result, however, for Zarkadakis, who has attempted similar things in his two previous books, The Secrets of the Lands Without (1994) and Eastern Ending (1996), remains weak. His junior Christos Chryssopoulos, who made his first appearance during the 1990s and who plays with the tradition of the horror story, proves to be very much his superior in Sounyata (1999) and The Manicurist (2000) - a true, not to call it miserly, stylist. Beside him stands the somewhat older Aristidis Anto-nas, who made his debut towards the end of the 1980s and who picked the best moment for his discordant Gothic story Three-Headed (2001).

The never-ending adventure ends somewhere here. I shall close by describing a trend whose first traces we saw (though certainly articulated in an entirely different manner) in Ersi Soti-ropoulos' Zig-Zag through the Bitter Orange Trees. What I am speaking of is the debunking and fall of literary heroes. In Petros Tatsopoulos1 Comedy (1999) Sotiropoulos' black comedy gives way to Diderot's comedie serieuse. A novelist who in the past has placed great emphasis on intellectual mockery and cynical ridicule, Tatsopoulos, who like Soli-ropoulos made his name as a writer in the 1980s, moves between comedy and drama in the short stories of Comedy, hurling his protagonists into the void: his heroes betray, rob, are trapped, destroyed and die condemned to a tyrannical tragicomedy which often acquires the dimensions of a bitter self-mockery. A couple of clicks further on, Christos Ho-menidis, who published his first novel Wise Child in 1993, passes willingly into anarchic (but sometimes unprincipled) comedy, constantly demolishing his characters' personalities. In his first book as much as in his later novels or short stories, with Wise Child and The Measure of Circumstances as the tip of the spear, Homenidis models parody-heroes: characters who are savagely ridiculed by the narrator from the first page to the last, so that they never manage to put a foot right. Two novelists younger than Homenidis also come up with parody-heroes who reflect the attempt to ridicule everyday reality: the, in any case, rather small in stature Michalis Michaelidis, with The Swimming Pool of Memories (1999), and the clearly more talented Lenos Christidis with (among other books) Psych (2000) and Holidays in Hellad (2001). Christidis is the only one of the four comedy-writers, if I can call them this, who gets to grips with advanced games of genre, mixing the ro-man noir with science fiction and futurology with cyberpunk.

Whichever way we look at the past decade, whether in the phase of acute modernism or in the process of distancing itself from complexity of form, we shall find the effect of Jameson's postmodern pastiche: from the selling-out of truth (I need to say it one last time) and of seeming truth to the intensive bringing together of narrative genres or their renegotiation in ironic tones. And there can be no doubt, I believe, that contemporary Greek fiction is thus acquiring, albeit experimentally, albeit with a certain hesitation, a dimension quite new to its existence so far - a dimension whose true meaning will by the nature of things become apparent at some other more advanced and more determined time.

Vangelis Hatzivassileiou

Ithaca - Books from Greece
No 18, September 2002

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