Two Greek authors in London

LONDON – An engineer by training, formerly a journalist, now a scriptwriter by profession, Nikos Panayotopoulos uses his day job to buy himself time to write fiction. One of the younger generation of authors whose work has met with acclaim in other countries (with work translated into English, French, Italian and German), Panayotopoulos was an obvious choice as a member of the lean but effective Greek mission to the London Book Fair. So was Eleni Yannakakis, who teaches at Oxford University. In London, both authors talked to Kathimerini English Edition about their work. Though Panayotopoulos says that he wants each book to be different from the previous one, certain themes recur in his work, notably that of alienation. In «Ziggy from Marfan – Diary of an Extra-terrestrial» (Polis, 1998), Panayotopoulos depicts the world of a boy who doesn’t understand anything that is going on around him. «The boy comes to believe he’s an extra-terrestrial,» says the author, «and he keeps a diary of the time spent waiting for the spaceship to come and collect him.»   «The Benefit of Doubt» (Polis, 1999), set in the 21st century, is «officially science fiction,» says the writer. In the world of the book, a DNA test is able to predict if a person has the genetic ability to be a good writer or artist. Should a subject fail the test, he must relinquish his career as an author. The hero, who has already produced a number of books, but in diminishing quality, is obliged to take the test, but refuses to do so partly from fear of failure. The book shows what happens when he insists on continuing to write, refusing to allow the test to determine his personal and professional destiny. Again, this book addresses the issue of the outsider. Panayotopoulos’s current work in progress, with the working title of «Icon,» recounts the story of a 20th century Orthodox priest who has become a candidate for sainthood. It will reveal the ties between religion and money: «the ways,» he says, «that religion is used to exercise power.» This touches on a question that exercises the author, regarding the uses of fanaticism, whether it be in religion or football. «Commonly held beliefs are always an illusion,» he says. He singles out the example of football fanaticism as an example of «satanic mechanisms for manipulating the lower instincts of people. Instead of protesting about their way of life, they protest about a foul. The passion and rage that people feel is defused, and football becomes their goal in life.» That book is due out in November, and Panayotopoulos is at work on what he says is the hardest part of any book – revision. Other ideas are always fermenting; the author keeps a notebook of ideas, choosing those which «demand to be written.» Theory and practice Eleni Yannakakis, whose fictional debut «On Appetite and Other Horrors» won her the diavazo prize for a first novel, came to write fiction by way of academia. She teaches modern Greek literature at Oxford University and relished the challenge of putting theory into practice. «I’ve been writing theory for 15-20 years, and I always apply this theory to novels. What I find fascinating is when the theory fits the novel,» she told Kathimerini English Edition in London. The desire, as the author phrased it, «to write creative literature and not just teach literature written by other people» has resulted in an allegory of contemporary Greek life, where gastronomy functions as a metaphor for the ills of an affluent society. Theory was very much at the back of her mind as she wrote the novel, Yannakakis explained, adding that she had this in common with most contemporary Greek writers: «Most of them read literary theory and you can find aspects of it in the work, if not of the majority, then of a great number of them.» Asked to comment on the tendency of some writers to incorporate elements of the postmodern, sometimes to the detriment of their work, Yannakakis said: «We live in a postmodern culture, so I don’t think one has to try hard to apply postmodernism in fiction.» Though she does not claim her own work is postmodern, she lists her influences as «feminist theory, deconstructionism, the application of psychology to literary theory, and cultural politics.» «If you read all that,» she says, «you don’t have to try to put it into your work, it’s all there.» Her novel started in her kitchen, says Yannakakis: «I love cooking for my family and friends. I just realized that everything was a matter of proportion and literature is something similar – you have to put in the right proportion of ingredients so that you have a successful outcome.» «On Appetite [or «On Taste,» as the author prefers] and Other Horrors,» satirizes the hedonism of contemporary Greek culture «which has gone a bit too far,» in her view. As to whether the proportions are right in her novel, Eleni Yannakakis leaves that for the reader to decide.