CULTURE

Theodoropoulos sifts the evidence to find truth about a hero

Takis Theodoropoulos brings his skills as a journalist and his talent as a novelist to his latest book «The Novel of Xenophon,» published by Oceanida. Sifting the evidence, he weighs up conflicting versions of events, and sets his imagination to work to create an unforgettable picture of Xenophon and the turbulent times in which his hero played a unique part. A member of Socrates’ circle, Xenophon was a pro-Spartan Athenian who preferred the rule of the Thirty Tyrants to what he saw as the tyranny of democracy. When the tyrants were overthrown and democracy reinstated, he fled Athens and joined Cyrus the Younger, who had embarked on a campaign to depose his brother Artaxerxes, Emperor of Persia. But Cyrus was defeated and Xenophon led the remnant of the Ten Thousand Greeks mercenaries who had participated in the expedition back through the hinterland of Asia to the Black Sea, an exploit recorded in his book «Anabasis.» Returning to Greece, he fought for Sparta against the Athenians and Thebans. He retired in the Peloponnese, writing on subjects ranging from history and philosophy to hunting and household economics. Those are the bare bones of an eventful career replete with seeming contradictions. Theodoropoulos enlivens them, using his hero’s life to speculate on history, politics, philosophy and the beginnings of autobiography, portraying with dry humor the ambitions and rivalries of great figures at a time that has never ceased to inspire admiration. What sort of reaction have you had to «The Novel of Xenophon?» What is interesting is that people who buy the book think they will rediscover a person they already know very well. Xenophon, without being a star of classical culture, like Plato or Sophocles, has always been considered a first-class personality. Having read the book, they have the feeling that they have been introduced to the life and deeds of a hero whom they ignored. This boring military writer, conservative and «wanna-be» philosopher, the defective historian, has become a sort of hero of our times, an adventurer who is trying to find out what is going on with his life, daring to face the most extreme situations. That’s how most of the press reviews saw the book, and I believe that is how most of the readers did. In a way that is what I wanted to do with Xenophon, create a kind of existentialist hero avant la lettre who goes through a world in constant crises conscious that he has to face them by himself, that he has to invent his intellectual weapons if he wants to deal with them, and by inventing them, reinvents his own world. I wanted also to prove that if we read his own writings from a certain point of view. this Xenophon is not an invented person but one possible version of the real one. This is why I think that ancient Greek thought is still interesting. They knew how to deal with crises. They invented intellectual crises, which is a value at risk of extinction. Your book is not strictly fiction nor historical fiction. Is it a new genre? In a way it is historical fiction. It is not conventional historical fiction, if there is such a genre. I do not want to create the illusion that the narrator, and through him the reader, live in Xenophon’s times, in the fourth century BC. They participate in the events as witnesses from a certain distance, as inhabitants of the 21st century who came here to watch the show, or investigate the crime – because history as a show is never innocent; there is always a crime behind the scenes. And only literature can translate into words this idea of «participating from a certain distance.» If you are a historian, despite all post-modern theories, you have to admit the distance as a fact, before even beginning to collect all other facts. If you write fiction, you have to invent the distance. And I decided to be honest and treat the invention as an episode of the novel. In the final chapter, you describe being drawn to Xenophon almost against your will. How did you arrive at your treatment of the subject? I had studied «Anabasis» at school. I cannot say I was enthusiastic about it. I had no taste for all those battles described in detail, the logistics of the campaign, and furthermore we had to learn by heart all those past perfects and study all kinds of irregularities in syntax. When I read «Anabasis» again, many years after school, I was hit by the kind of personal breath that the text exhales. I was facing a writer who was referring to his own life, not as a lyric poet, but as a prose writer. He is the first one to do it. That’s how it all started. Then I discovered his friendship with Plato. They were such good friends that they totally ignored each other when they wrote, a situation that is rich in ingredients for any fiction. In all Plato’s works, the name Xenophon does not appear and Xenophon refers to Plato once, while speaking of his brother Glaucon. That is interesting if you know that they were the same age, and were both Socrates’ friends, Athenian aristocrats, oligarchs. It is even more interesting if you know that they both wrote an «Apology,» a «Symposium» and Socratic dialogues. It looks like a very familiar situation. It could happen to anyone of us. It is not easy, of course, to put on paper a name like Plato or Xenophon, especially plotting against one another. It’s not like John divorcing Sophie, but from a certain point of view, it has to be like that. They have to look familiar but at the same time they have to carry some weight, as Xenophon and Plato do, otherwise they seem meaningless. While I was writing, I kept Cavafy in mind; his sarcastic subtleties can teach you how to deal with such heavyweights. Writing itself, being a writer and even getting published all play an important part in the book. Was that a conscious choice from the beginning? Conscious, yes and no. When you write you always have a certain public in mind, some kind of human horizon that you address. What I can say is that I knew from the beginning what I wanted to do with «The Novel of Xenophon.» I did not want to write a conventional historical novel, for example. There are some very good ones and I did not want to try to add another to the list. I wanted my Xenophon to be based on historical facts: That is, I wanted him to be plausible and recognizable without being boring and predictable. I knew what I wanted to do, because this was the kind of novel I would like to read, but I didn’t know how to do it. After seven years of work I cannot say I know a lot more, but to a certain point the book you read is the book I wanted to write. Takis Theodoropoulos Takis Theodoropoulos was born in Athens in 1954 and studied in Paris. He worked for many years as a journalist and was the original editor of To Tetarto, a cultural magazine published by Manos Hadjidakis. Since 1996 he has worked in publishing and is a regular contributor to Ta Nea newspaper. His novels «Inconceivable Landscape,» «The Fall of Narcissus» and «Midday Madness» and his philosophical parody «The Cats of Athens» have been translated into several languages (French, Italian, Dutch, Serbian, Turkish and Bulgarian). His novel «The Power of the Dark God» won the Athens Academy’s Costas and Eleni Ouranis Prize in 1999. In 2004 the Academie Francaise awarded him its medal for the promotion of French language and literature abroad.