Award ‘came at the right time’

Greek novelist talks about his early days as a writer, his inspiration, and his reaction to winning the European Book Prize

Award ‘came at the right time’

Christos Chomenidis was awarded the European Book Prize (Prix du Livre Europeen) for his novel “Niki” on November 15. He celebrated the news over dinner in the capital’s Kypseli neighborhood with his wife, actress Gogo Brebou, and one of her theater colleagues. “I picked Gogo up from the theater after the show and we just went out to eat. We hadn’t made any plans,” he says. “It came at a price, though; my stomach can’t handle an 11 o’clock dinner.”

We meet a few days later at his home, a fifth-floor apartment overlooking the Evelpidon Street court complex from a hillside in Polygono, right on the border with his beloved Kypseli. Brebou runs around making room for Kathimerini photographer Nikos Kokkalias and me. “My house is in chaos,” Chomenidis had warned me over the phone earlier as we agreed it was best to avoid meeting at a restaurant due to the Covid pandemic. “Come over, we’ll order some food,” he insisted.

As per usual, Chomenidis is wearing a loose white button-down shirt over a pair of trousers and walks around the apartment in his socks, moving constantly albeit not erratically. At some point, he takes out his laptop to order food.

Asked later by friends if Chomenidis was excited about the prize, I had to pause for a moment: Well, he seemed pleased – with moral satisfaction, mostly – but was still very much himself: constantly enthusiastic about some inexplicable thing. “Look,” he tells me, “I won it at the right time: not too young to let it go to my head, nor too old to be written off.”

It was a Monday and he had woken up from an afternoon nap to find 11 missed calls from his publisher Anna Pataki. “I was afraid someone had died,” he says. “I wasn’t expecting news about the award because I had the impression the prize list would be announced in December.” “So, what did Anna say?” I ask. “‘You won,’ that’s all she said. I admit I was a bit stunned with joy afterward and couldn’t eat a bite, which is why I had dinner at 11 p.m. Not to mention that I froze because we sat outside because of Covid.”

So what’s life like after the award? “When you receive such a distinction, it makes you think about your entire life, about your mom, your dad. I also thought about my teachers. I had a literature teacher I loved in third grade called Critonas Panygiris. He was a great man who taught us how to read modern poetry. And, of course, [the prize] made me think about little Niki, my daughter. This is what it’s all about for me: the extension into the future. And also about debunking the stereotypes of Greece among foreigners. I spent some time in Marseille in 2013 when it was the European Capital of Culture. [The organizers] had put me up in a space to write a novel in three weeks. So, I went to a bookshop in Marseille and came across a French copy of Kostas Mourselas’ ‘Red Dyed Hair.’ Can you guess what the French title was? It was ‘Les enfants du Pirée’ [The Children of Piraeus]. Let me say this, though: Our ancient legacy, our language, even Zorbas, we consist of all these things. I’m not saying we should divest ourselves of it all, but, rather, we should transform it, superimpose our own version, include the past in a new version of Greece, instead of an adolescent rebellion against the past.”

Chomenidis adores Greece; it is obvious in his books. As we sit down for a bite – his wife rushing around bringing platters of food – he says thoughtfully: “It seems that, as a writer, you sit down to write a book and half-consciously, half-unconsciously you’re at the peak of your potential. That is what the foreign critics probably saw in ‘Niki.’ If you ask me, though, I achieved this with ‘The Phoenix.’ I see it as my personal bible. It is the book in which I expose myself more than in any other. People also still talk about ‘The Voice.’ What was, artistically speaking, a failure was ‘Past Perfect,’ in the sense that the outcome was far from what I originally intended. ‘The Phoenix’ is my best book, in my mind at least.”

As we enjoy our dinner, going through two bottles of red, I ask him what he would be doing if writing hadn’t been a success. He responds right away. “I would have become a criminal lawyer, and I would have been very good at it. I’m interested in storytelling and practicing law has that. My calling is not writing, but narration. Ideally, this happens when you are writing books but it can also happen defending a case. I remember what a great storyteller my mom’s oncologist was: He would talk about the disease in a way that made her want to fight it.”

We raise our glasses to toast Chomenidis’ award and wish him more of the same. “To good health,” he retorts. His discomfort in talking about his achievement is evident. “I like to say that the award is for Greece. This gets me out of the tough spot, saves me embarrassment.” “Yes, but it’s true,” I insist. “Of course it is,” he says. “After all, I got emotional every time I heard that Greek song in ‘The Exorcist.’”

Life after death

In 1986, at the age of 26 and a complete unknown, Chomenidis knocked on the door of Playboy Greece’s late executive editor Antaios Chrysostomidis. He handed him a short story in which the narrator is not a cancer patient but, rather, the disease itself. Chrysostomidis was excited with the piece but publication stalled, so Chomenidis set up camp outside the magazine’s office near Athens’ First Cemetery. “I became friends with his secretary. I waited for him to come out of his office to jog his memory. The story was eventually published in February 1988. He gave me a 40,000-drachma check which I photocopied before cashing. The cover of that issue featured Brigitte Nielsen. Back then, people would rush to Omonia Square late on Saturday night to buy early edition magazines and newspapers and they would read them on the spot. I peeked over their shoulders to see if they were reading my story.”

What did the experience teach him? “I was determined from the very beginning that my earliest work should not appear in a literary journal but in a mainstream magazine. And that I would get paid. I am a popular writer, you know, of the people. I admire writers like [Nikos] Tsiforos and Bost – amazing craftsmen that are snubbed by literary circles.”

That said, his first book, “The Wise Kid,” published in 1993, was warmly received by both critics and the wider public. “I am grateful to Theofilos Frangopoulos and Dimitris Daskalopoulos. Frangopoulos described the book in Mesimvrini newspaper as the first postmodern Greek novel. Daskalopoulos wondered whether the literary world was looking at the new M. Karagatsis. A lot of people still mention that comment today, but they forget that there was a question mark at the end. I bring that question mark to everyone’s attention,” he says, before popping out to pick up Niki from the school bus.

By the time we get to know each other, and she has a toasted sandwich, night has already fallen. “Stay, don’t go just yet,” Chomenidis says.

I seize the opportunity to ask him why he never wrote a book about the execution of his grandfather, one of the founding members of the National Liberation Front, EAM, by the Germans. “This story gets me all excited… but my father died too soon, he never spoke of Christos Chomenidis. If there is such a thing as life after death, I want to find him and talk to him. That’s the first thing I will do after I die.”

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