CULTURE

Three publications display Greek talent

Clearing the desk has produced a trio of publications, two recently out, and diverse in practically every sense. One is a semiannual published outside Greece which provides a taste of Greek creative writing; the second a quarterly published in Greece and covering the country’s contemporary political and cultural life; and the third, an annual edition published here but looking both outward and inward at the craft of writing history. Modern voices Popi Ioakim is 45 and had never, until this fall, published a word; Vassilis Vassilikos will be 70 next year and has written over a hundred books. There is something fundamentally good about a publication that can bring together the former’s delicate toe-testing in the waters of literature with the latter’s fire-hose literary style and oceanic quantity. Such is the range of experience that the eighth and latest (fall 2002, $10) edition of Mondo Greco brings to the newsstands, a collection of travel writing, fiction, and poetry, all with the Greek experience as its unstated theme. It offers a pleasant and sometimes challenging read, varying in depth but with interesting, sometimes offbeat prose and poetry translated from Greek with care. Published in the USA at a leisurely twice-yearly pace, everything from generous margins to quality paper to discreet photographs to the use of 21 translators for its 150 pages speaks to a relatively well-endowed publication – as do the scattered ads for various supporting Greek cultural foundations (and a rather in-your-face invitation to be a patron, with those listed by name, on the page opposite the contents). The three foci are interwoven in the text. The travel pieces are mostly brief sketches, opening with an eminent name, Odysseus Elytis, in his cryptic style and a sprinkling of cultural overtones old and modern. Nikos Fokas laments the loss of the old Argostoli, capital of Cephalonia (to a 1953 earthquake), and vents a diatribe against what he considers the monstrous urban development that replaced it. Manos Eleftheriou in «Memories from an Island» picks up on a similar theme of jumbled (but warmer) memories of Syros from the war years. A piece on the changes in Attica’s Mesogeia by John Zervos and reflections on Greekness by Greek-born, Aussie-bred and US-resident Maria Koundoura round it out. The fiction pieces are more substantial, including Yiannis Skaribas, a deceased comic writer, with a rollicking «Candy Hearts» which contains the following: «I heard her say that the deaf were driving her crazy! Do you know what she meant?» «She meant to say that the crazy people were making her deaf! She’s been suffering from it since last year. ‘Grammatical and mental reversal!’ according to the relevant medical terminology.» The longest piece (somehow labeled fiction), peppered with cultural, philosophical and political references, is Vassilikos’s notes on Glafkos Thrasakis, aka Lazarus Lazaridis, a writer exiled from Greece who died in mysterious circumstances in Berlin. Sophia Nicolaidou’s «Five Stories,» all different character sketches, faintly echo Italo Calvino’s «If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,» while Nikos Themelis (in another life a prime ministerial adviser) arrestingly relates life in cosmopolitan, fin-de-siecle Odessa, in one of the volume’s richest offerings. Popi Ioakim, in contrast, goes deeply personal in relating how an intimate moment leaves indelible traces and conflicting feelings behind. Natasha Hatzidakis’s myth-informed «Pilgrims» and the gritty realism of Christos Homenidis also appear. The poetry selections themselves vary in style and substance; for instance, Yiannis Varveris («Our wealth is / what we’ve lost»), Yiannis Efstathiadis, and George Veis use straight verse, while others adopt prose or stream – of – consciousness styles (Yiannis Tzanetakis, Takis Sinopoulos’s «Nightlogue»). Creative diversity, it seems, remains a hallmark of Mondo Greco. An economic focus The fall 2002 (No. 14; 7 euros) issue of the Hellenic Quarterly brings its usual mix of non-fiction, fiction, and imaginative artwork, and unlike MG, has an editorial statement. This edition actually has a triple theme: The main section focuses on the current state of the Greek economy, another looks at how the Aegean Sea has been represented in literature (with selections from, among others, Elytis); and a series of colorful, modernistic plates throughout from Cypriot painter Christos Petridis confirms the Quarterly’s efforts to be visually appealing. Once again, prominent public figures have been recruited for contributions: George Katiforis, MEP and Greece’s representative to (and writing on) the European convention on Europe’s future; Public Works Minister Vasso Papandreou on 2004 and the changes in Attica; Athens 2004 Managing Director Yiannis Spanoudakis on his organization; two New Democracy MPs (Giorgos Alagoskoufis on EMU and Greece, Yiannis Papathanasiou on Greek companies in the new economy); and, leading off, Finance Minister Nikos Christodoulakis on the EU’s current economic situation. The emphasis on political figures helps sketch the public outline of big issues, but makes it harder to justify the stated intent to offer genuinely different perspectives (or to do so in a fresh way). This section also includes a thoughtful essay by Sotiris Mousouris, a former UN assistant secretary-general, on September 11 and its international repercussions. The Aegean section contains some of the potentially more interesting material, plenty of labored paeans to its unique beauty but also lamentations over what one writer calls the «rampageous» development of the likes of Myconos and Santorini and the uncertainty that always hangs over seasonal-based economies. Book reviews, a essay by Roula Kakalamanaki on a brief island trip, and a new section called «Agenda,» noting upcoming concerts, conclude the volume. With tight resources, a hefty agenda and trimonthly production schedule, HQ’s cut corners include packing lots of information into 110 pages and translations that could use more time. As before, solid and readable prose stands between this effort and a positive reception by a potentially substantial English-speaking readership that otherwise stands to benefit from the things this publication is trying to do. Native-speaker translations and fuller use of good, old-fashioned English sentences, however written and/or edited, are always to be welcomed, and their absence is felt more keenly each successive issue. Writing history An altogether non-commercial focus comes from the Cultural and Intellectual History Society, with ties to the University of Athens’s history department and the European University Institute in Florence. It organized itself four years ago as a student group to bring together common interests and concerns about academic history studies and how their field represents itself. Out of this concern, and evident frustration, has come an annual review, called Historein: A Review of the Past and Other Stories, of which the third volume (dated 2001) is «European Ego-histoires: Historiography and the Self, 1970-2000.» It brings together eight historical biographies, with a broad remit for writers to examine the inter-relationship between their lives and their work – themes, methodologies, professional concerns and the like. The mainly non-Greek contributors include John Brewer, Barbara Taylor, Leonid Borodkin, Barbara Duden, Gareth Stedman Jones and Lutz Niethammer, with introductory note by Luisa Passerini and Alexander Geppert. The old debate over personality vs fact in the writing of history dates back to Herodotus and Thucydides. Friedrich Nietzsche’s defense of ad hominem critical style and E.H. Carr’s influential «What is History?» have lent plenty of modern intellectual firepower to the notion that it is not just what the historian writes that matters, but who the person is – that one’s experiences and outlook shape output no less than skills or training. This perceived need has even affected other fields, like international relations, where James Rosenau edited «intellectual histories» of IR scholars. What has changed is the growing popularization of history, its entry into fiction and new media and its increasing focus on autobiography and memoir that may have swung the pendulum too far away from self-effacing science and, in the process, possibly damaged rather than aided the discipline itself. The need for a happy medium between the two approaches lies at the heart of this effort, which takes its name from a 1987 Pierra Nora essay. The result is a series of occasionally digressional discussions about personal and intellectual development (mainly in the vivid 1960s), and becoming the historians they are today. As a publication, it has inherent limitatations for the reading public. It could appeal to those who studied history or try to keep up with the field. Like most academic publications, the layout is unadorned and its use of slightly icky paper betrays strict economies. Still, they are trying to expose popularity, not be popular, and some will enjoy and learn from these adventures of the mind.