A shave, a haircut and a story

With so few texts from Greek making the jump into the English-language market, it is important to take note of worthwhile exceptions: The Birmingham Modern Greek Translations series’ publication of Menis Koumandareas’s «Their Smell Makes Me Want to Cry» is one of these. Since 1995, the University of Birmingham Center for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies has published a number of major Greek authors in English translation. From Dimitris Hatzis and Haris Vlavianos to Stratis Doukas and Sotiris Dimitriou, the series, under General Editor Dimitris Tziovas, includes some of the most prominent names in modern Greek letters. And this year’s addition, Menis Koumandareas, is one of the best-loved and most respected of Greek authors still writing today. From his first appearance in 1962 with «The Pinball Machines» and 1967’s «Sailing» – for which he was tried by the junta – Koumandareas has cemented a reputation as a keen observer of the human condition and its dilemmas. He has twice won the National Book Award for Fiction, in 1975 for «The Glass Factory» and in 2001 for «A Greek Twice Over.» His novel «Koula» (1978) became a best seller after it was adapted for television and «The Jersey with the No. 9» (1986) was turned into a film by Pantelis Voulgaris (also director of «Brides,» currently playing at cinemas). His latest novel «Noah» (2003) is in its eighth edition and has sold 16,000 copies in Greece. The title published in the University of Birmingham series, «Their Smell Makes Me Want to Cry,» won him the National Book Award for Short Story (1996). But this isn’t really a collection of short stories, it is more a novel of linked and interwoven vignettes, all centered on a local barbershop and Euripides, its owner. The barbershop and its patrons act as the springboard for Koumandareas’s insightful and detailed examination of the souls who populate urban 1990s Athens. Customers arrive, sit in Euripides’s chair and bare their hearts to him. The men in these stories, and it is mostly men, bond with the barber and tell him of local gossip, strange happenings, great adventures and even greater loves. «It is easier to open up to one’s barber than to one’s psychotherapist,» says Euripides, who considers this another aspect of his craft. His quiet shop – flanked by a funeral parlor with purple-tinted windows and the shop of the «Old Fox» who sells women’s undergarments («every time that woman steps into my shop, something bad happens») – is the setting in which a chaotic contemporary Athens plays out its complicated dramas. There are young hooligans and gigolos, immigrants struggling to stay afloat, Greeks just waiting to make it big in a foreign country and those who have lost their greatest love. In «The Caretaker’s Son,» the second «story,» Koumandareas takes on the contemporary tragedy of the number of motorcycle and road accidents that have plagued Athens for decades with the story of an old man mistaking a young blood in the shop for his lost – and presumed dead – son. There is also the underbelly of life in the tales of sex for hire in poorly lit squares, other forms of prostitution, allusions to AIDS, and even cannibalism. Euripides acts as the foil, glancing in the mirror, questioning or drawing his customers out, sometimes providing commentary, or reacting with disbelief to reported hearsay – by its nature exaggerated. Many of the stories have a supernatural element, a suggestion of the occult, as if life’s struggles are futile, with death – symbolized by the dark-tinted funeral parlor or a customer’s sunglasses – just waiting to swoop down on the protagonists. In describing one man, Euripides says: «From what I hear, he lives alone with his sister in a two-room flat in the building next door. They say there’s something wrong with the sister. What exactly, I wouldn’t know. As if there’s not something wrong with all of us – me, you, him – in one way or another.» Koumandareas is a most accessible author. His writing is clear, amusing, the language of everyman. His gift is in his ability to weave the details together, to suggest his characters’ personas through the minutiae of their movements and what they reveal about themselves. And the translation by Patricia Felisa Barbeito and Vangelis Calotychos flows smoothly, idiomatically, capturing the irony, surrealism and humor of Koumandareas’s confessional prose and dialogue. There’s often quick repartee, and rendering it in English, without the gender and number endings of the Greek, must have proved quite a challenge for the translators. Sometimes the stories come too fast, one wound up in another, and by the end of the book the reader is a bit jaded by what they’ve learnt of the secret lives of these Athenians. Euripides just puts down his scissors, takes the towel from his clients’ shoulders, flicks off the loose hairs, and sees them to the door. The book’s title comes from a poem by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda: «The smell of their barbershops makes me want to cry.» For Koumandareas, it made him want to narrate. An introduction to Greek literature Greek titles available in English in the University of Birmingham’s series of Modern Greek translations are: – «The End of Our Small Town,» Dimitris Hatzis, trans. David Vere, ’95. – «Adieu,» Haris Vlavianos, trans. David Connolly, ’98. – «A Prisoner of War’s Story,» Stratis Doukas, trans. Petro Alexiou, ’99. – «May Your Name Be Blessed,» Sotiris Dimitriou, trans. Leo Marshall, 2000. – «Their Smell Makes Me Want to Cry,» Menis Koumandareas, trans. Patricia Felisa Barbeito and Vangelis Calotychos, 2004.