Daring book reflects quest for expression

Opinions are sharply divided about Sotiris Dimitriou’s latest book, «Ta oporofora tis Athinas» («The Fruit Trees of Athens»), published by Patakis. Some readers love the book, seeing in it a work of literature that takes the reader inside the writer’s workshop. Others dislike it, seeing it as a pose by a primitive naturalist pretending to be a scholarly writer. I am unreservedly on the side of the admirers. The Epirote writer’s earlier work revealed a nostalgia for ex-urban communities and a compassion for the physically and mentally ill and social misfits. Solitary wanderer The hero of this book is an outsider, a man who roams the city of Athens. During his long rambles he sees fruit trees. From Mets to Palaio Faliron and from the National Gardens to the shores of the Saronic Gulf he has mapped out wild plums, bitter oranges, olives, pomegranates, mulberries, jujube, prickly pears and figs – not just well-known trees, but ones which city dwellers do not know exist. The hero, who knows in which blind alley or empty block of land the trees grow, visits them and observes them as they blossom and bear fruit. The hero belongs to the same family as Dimitriou’s earlier fictional characters. He is one of the thousands of people displaced by internal migration after the war. In the inhospitable Athenian landscape, he feels a fierce nostalgia and searches unremittingly for something that is connected to his past, his roots, his genetic makeup. Another noticeable feature of this book is the sarcasm, merrymaking and humor – elements that are new elements in the work of Dimitriou. Attempting to connect with other passers-by, the hero resorts to making jokes and playing tricks on people. The author creates delightful comic characters, such as a priest who keeps buying wafer biscuits in the hope of finding a piece of paper depicting the Ivory Coast so as to complete the collection in his album, in addition to hilarious scenes, such as the pensioners assembling in the National Gardens. We have often admired Dimitriou’s skill at reproducing the suppleness of the vernacular and its internal rhythm. That brings us to the third element in the book. By donning many different masks, the hero allows the author to experiment with the expressive potential of writing. His Athenian wanderings are exercises which the narrator employs to explain the way he thinks, and how he sees the uses of words, their overtones and echoes in the infinity of combinations that language offers. With his antenna alert, ready to pick up infinitesimal changes of meaning, and by almost forcing the multiple acoustic potential of each word, the author opens up the door to his workshop. An enemy of the businesslike language of the city from which, as he notes, all opacity is missing, Dimitriou is seeking – in his own words – the strange flashes of language, the unprecedented warbling and the beautiful mistakes that run counter to normality and homogeneity. At the same time, the author raises important questions. How do we make the everyday seem unprecedented? How does one render nascent, non-verbal sounds – the trills and groans? How does one record singularity, oddity, the divergent, the erratic, the ineffable and the dark? Can literature convey disgust effectively? Dimitriou also writes about death and love, and about the things one is ashamed of admitting, taking courage from the fact that «life doesn’t last for a thousand years.» This is a continuous, relentless struggle with expression, which reveals the artist (like his peripatetic hero) as a creature who is emotionally and intellectually deficient, a person who is maladjusted and unsociable. «The Fruit Trees of Athens» would make an ideal manual for students of creative writing.