CULTURE

Seafaring author a hit in Germany

The influential German daily Die Zeit called it a journey to the end of the sea. The review also compares the novel’s Greek author to Conrad, Brecht, Cendrars, Genet and Duras. The critique is one of the early reviews of the first German edition of the only novel, The Watch, written by the late great Greek poet Nikos Kavvadias. [The novel unfolds] in story after story, little pearl after little pearl, read Martina Dervis from the same review. Of the London-based literary agency of Imrie and Dervis, she has acquired the rights to sell Kavvadias’s novel abroad. At a meeting with Kathimerini English Edition during the 53rd annual Frankfurt International Book Fair, Dervis told of her excitement at having the opportunity to bring one of Greece’s great postwar poets to a wider international audience. The favorable review in this and other media will assist in bringing potential readers closer to this most accessible of Greek poets. Nikos Kavvadias, who was born in 1910 in Manchuria and spent much of his life in the merchant marine, has long been loved and lauded in Greece for the storytelling acumen in his poetry, in which the sea and those who people its ports were frequent subjects. His stanzas became lyrics when the composer Thanos Mikroutsikos set 11 of the poems to music under the general title The Southern Cross, songs that can be heard sung from the most remote tavernas to the Athens Concert Hall. Kavvadias ran away from the port of Piraeus as a teenager and spent almost his entire life at sea until his death in Athens in 1975. The subjects of his works are urchins, exotic strangers, unlikely friends and acquaintances and quixotic episodes. His poems read like fascinating stories, imbued with a sadness and a tenderness for the common lot, rough justice and the unpredictability of fate, for many of his subjects were both cruelly treated by life and invariably self-destructive. A stiletto I wear tightly clinched in my belt which in some way won me, and I made mine. And since there’s no one in the world I hate, enough to kill I fear some moment I may turn it upon myself. This extract is from Kavvadias’s poem A Knife published in 1933 in Marabou, his first collection of poetry. The collection’s title is a reference to the large African stork but is also said to be the nickname Kavvadias chose for himself. A second poetry collection, Fog, was published in 1947. And then the single novel, The Watch, appeared in 1954. A last collection of poetry, Traverso appeared much later in the year of his death. One of Kavvadias’s short stories, Li, was filmed as The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, directed by Marion Hansel and starring Stephen Rea. The only novel that Nikos Kavvadias wrote is clearly autobiographical. In The Watch (Vardia), set in the late 1940s, the protagonist and narrator, a wireless operator named Nikos, relates the adventures of the crew on the cargo ship Pytheas as it heads for the Far East. Stories within stories, the novel evokes the years spent at sea, the hours of night watch, the long sloughs of ennui. To dispel the boredom, Nikos and the first mate spice it with tales of whoring and drinking and friends they have lost. Kavvadias’s prose, like his poetry, is rich in imagery. In succinct, everyday language, except for a number of difficult nautical terms, he describes the characters who peopled his travels as if seeing them from their hearts outward. There is an innocence to his descriptions of strong deckhands fallen on hard times or women of ill repute with honorable natures. Kavvadias, though slight and impish, was reputably a notorious womanizer, though his own works imply that he was often the butt of jokes for not having a woman in every port. There is a legend that says that he boasted he could tell a woman’s nationality from the scent of her skin, a claim his fellow crew members repeatedly tried to contest. A Decameron of seafaring… as it was called by Die Zeit, referring to the 14th-century Boccaccio classic, the novel is about to embark on a new and well-deserved voyage. The wireless operator Nikos will again relate his adventures to a captivated audience, those extraordinary stories, funny, erotic, dreamlike, managing to evoke the life of the sea in a way that few writers have ever done, as says Dervis. With its mixture of earthy realism and the surreal, it is, quite simply, a masterpiece. The rights stuff: Now the work begins The German translation of Kavvadias’s The Watch was published a little more than a month ago by Alexander Fest Verlag, a distinguished literary house, to critical acclaim. The good reviews will facilitate Martina Dervis’s job of selling the rights to translation of the novel into other languages around the world, and may gain the book the attention of acquisitions editors from major publishing houses in other countries. A French edition by Climats was published during the author’s lifetime and Kavvadias himself assisted in the translation, which is considered excellent. The French edition is a best seller in that country. A Dutch edition is now out of print, though a Spanish translation exists, published by a small publishing house, as does the original Greek, still in print with its current publisher, Agra, almost 50 years since it first appeared. The agents Martina Dervis and her partner Malcolm Imrie have taken on a number of Greek authors recently and have made headway into promoting those authors in the wider international market. They had a major success last year with Andreas Staikos’s Les Liaisons Culinaires, which was sold into 13 territories (not countries or languages, as Latin America, Spain, and the Catalan language can all be negotiated separately). English-language rights to that book were some of the last sold, to one of the best houses translating foreign writers into English, Harvill Press in the UK. Few books written in foreign languages make their way into English translations. The English-language market has such a rich, multicultural base of its own and can draw on so many other English-language markets – England, the USA, India, Australia, the Caribbean, Scotland and Ireland, to name a few – that it is a difficult market for foreign-language books. And the hard truth is that unless the author is world-renowned or has won a major award, books translated into English don’t sell, often requiring the concentrated efforts of someone with the right contacts and knowledge of the industry to place a book with a publisher of prominence. The most promising route is to have a novel go into another of the other major European languages, French, Spanish or German, whose readers are more accustomed to books translated from other languages, and then publishers of English might take notice. Martina Dervis is confident that in the case of Kavvadias, she’ll eventually find a publisher in English worthy of the book. But as with Staikos’s novel, it is often the case that rights are sold around the world before a book attracts the interest of an English-language publisher. With an edition of The Watch just out in German and positive reviews, the book has multiplied its chances of going further abroad as publishers who may not have been able to find a trustworthy reader for the Greek novel can more easily find someone to read the French or German version. During the Frankfurt fair this month, Imrie and Dervis heard serious expressions of interest from publishing houses in Turkey and Japan. And Dervis reports that in the six weeks since the German edition has been in circulation, its sales have reached five figures.