Greek, Israeli writers on heroes

THESSALONIKI – The official topic of last week’s meeting of Greek and Israeli writers, translators and publishers was heroes. Not surprisingly, the gathering of creative spirits took very different approaches to the subject, often steering the discussion away to the nuts and bolts of writing or the combustible sphere of politics. Some speakers treated heroes as a springboard into other fields, others as something to reject, react against or restate. Sparks flew occasionally, as deeply held convictions clashed, and as befits a frank exchange of views among friends. And friendship is what is slowly being built as this series of encounters, now in its third year, introduces people who might otherwise never meet, making them sit down together to thrash out big issues. And taking the group out of town, this time to Pelion, Volos, and Thessaloniki, allows ample time for informal mingling. Stereotypes Such cross-cultural events are vital in «a frightened society that is turning in more and more on itself,» said Dimitris Nollas, president of the National Book Center of Greece, opening the event in Volos on February 20. Savyon Liebrecht and Evgenia Fakinou used examples from their own work to talk about problematic characters and the violation of literary norms. Liebrecht wrote about the misunderstandings that arose when she employed some Palestinians to do work on her house. The issue was never resolved, because the workers disappeared forever one day, but «the stereotype was smashed,» she said, «when a human being emerged.» Fakinou cited her characters’ habits of wandering from book to book as an example of violating literary norms. She commented on the shared experience of exile, a theme later mentioned by other speakers, but the assumption of equivalence was not scrutinized. In Portaria the following day, a large panel discussed whether literary stereotypes change along with society. Translator Maggie Cohen compared caricatures of Jews in the work of Dostoevsky and Simenon with the outsider in the work of Camus, who is «a foreigner inside the character, an existential exile,» and ambivalent responses – including love – to the other in the work of A.B. Jehosuah. Poet Haris Vlavianos sparked debate by suggesting that postmodernism had thrown out the baby with the bathwater: «It rejects the past,» he claimed, «which is lethal for literature.» Poet Amir Or dismissed the set topic, saying that as a member of the «republic of writers» he was interested in the creative process. «Where do characters come from? Do they say anything about the writer? What kind of reality do you create? Where do you take it from?» he asked. «You look into the mirror and dramatize what you see inside of you.» He wanted to know «if a poem can teach me something bigger than myself.» Perhaps because he is also a high school teacher, novelist Costas Akrivos took the topic to heart, tracing stereotypes back to Homer, with special emphasis on Greek family stereotypes. Among ways of breaking stereotypes he mentioned irony, satire, parody and deconstruction from within, giving examples from «The Murderess» by Alexandros Papadiamantis and «Story of Love and Darkness» by Amos Oz. Poet and translator Rami Saari dealt with shifting meanings of words from biblical to modern Hebrew. On shaking off the past, author and translator Amir Tsukerman said writers «have to kill their fathers every year at least.» Aptly, the theme of transgression got some participants at loggerheads. «Transgression implies a moral code,» said Moshe Ron, professor of English and comparative literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who moderated the session. «In primitive societies, transgression can only be against the group itself,» he explained, tracing the development from tribal ideals to the Romantic era, when people within the group began to challenge received ideas. Novelist Alexis Stamatis argued that literature is transgressive in nature: «Good fiction is never about moral instruction.» Evil «At first I wanted him to be punished, but then I fell in love with him,» said Alon Hilu about the hero of his novel, «Death of a Monk,» based on a true story of blood libel in 19th century Damascus. Evil is within us, Hilu believes, and emerges at certain moments, such as war. On depicting evil, Shimon Adaf compared the approach of film directors like Quentin Tarantino to that of writers: Some films, he claimed, reduce evil to a matter of aesthetics, anesthetizing us, whereas «in literature we are intrigued by evil, but we don’t worship it.» The hero of his novel «One Mile and Two Days Before Sunset,» he said, was a contemporary hero: «He is morally paralyzed. He doesn’t know what to do with the killer when he finds him.» The issue is not transgression at all, declared Amos Oz, «but why readers and viewers are fascinated by evil.» «We must distinguish between literature and life,» countered Or. «The ancient Greek myths were full of murder and incest but that was not the norm. The myths were an outlet for the human psyche.» After Agi Mishol’s powerful explicated reading of her poem «Woman Martyr» about a suicide bomber, the subject of Arabs in Israeli literature produced its share of fireworks. Arab-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua objected to stereotypes of Arabs in Israeli television programs and literature and what he saw as an emphasis on the Israelis themselves. Avirama Golan protested that the Israeli portrayal of Arabs was far more complex than Kashua allowed. Katerina Schina surveyed the presentation of Turks in Greek literature. Oz spoke in favor of stereotypes: «The problem is when they become stale,» he said. «Our job is to keep them fresh.» The final session, held at the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki, was open to the public. Oz, Golan, Petros Markaris, Takis Theodoropoulos and Petros Tsatsopoulos asked whether the old rightist/reactionary, leftist/progressive dichotomy still applies to literary heroes. Markaris noted that the left/right label is political and progressive/reactionary is social. Primeval need Oz said right- and left-wing heroes were only interesting to the extent that they were well written. The subjects of literature never change, he said, and «telling stories is a primeval need.» A full program ended with the feeling that there is still plenty to talk about. The Israelis, notably the translators, have certainly familiarized themselves with Greek literature, and many are enamored of modern Greek music to the point of learning Greek to understand the lyrics. As more books are translated from Hebrew, the Greek writers will have a chance to see what their Israeli counterparts are writing. Suggestions for future meetings? What about smaller panels to allow deeper discussions, and more energetic matchmaking of publishers and writers? The meeting was organized by the National Book Center of Greece, the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, and Kastaniotis and Patakis publishers, under the auspices of Volos Municipality and the Embassy of Israel in Greece with the support of Olympic Airlines and the University of Macedonia.