A ‘Passport’ to the story of everyman
Often referred to as the Greek Kafka, Antonis Samarakis is credited with being the most widely translated Greek author after Nikos Kazantzakis. Still, the recently released collection «The Passport and Other Selected Short Stories» by Antonis Samarakis (translated by Andrew Horton, Cosmos Publishing, 2006) is only the second time his stories have appeared in English. That hardly seems representative of one of the most widely read Greek writers, both in his native land and around the world, where his books have been translated into 30 languages. So it is doubly significant that Cosmos Publishing and translator Horton have made the effort to rectify the oversight. This collection contains eight of his best-known short stories in a slim volume of 110 pages, including the 42-page story «The Passport,» and an explanation of Samarakis’s craft by Horton. Those who knew Samarakis say he was something of a contradiction: a gentle, approachable man comfortable in the company of ministers and diplomats but also the first to take up a cause against the system. After his death in 2003, «European Day of Languages 2006» was dedicated to Samarakis, «a global man.» The irony is that the global man grew out of «the everyman,» as Horton writes in his notes. Trapped by the System Antonis Samarakis created characters who were artless and unsophisticated, simple everyday people trapped in circumstances not of their own making. In the collection’s title story «The Passport,» a man who has worked 20 years at the Decorum soap factory decides to take his first vacation abroad but is denied a passport. He learns that he has been classified as dangerous by the Subdivision of Microbiological Research of Emotions for some poetry he wrote in his youth. He is ordered to make reparation by taking a Loyalty Oath and write a new poem in support of the System. Thus the story spirals, in truly Kafkaesque fashion, into the tragicomic as our hero, or our anti-hero, tries to amend the situation. He is ordered to recite his poem on the state TV program «Popular Muse for the System,» where our contrite everyman finally finds the place beyond which he cannot be pushed. The characters in his stories appeal, in part, because they represent the common person, each one of us. The other significant element in Samarakis’s fiction is that his heroes must often wage a frustrating, futile battle against a large, faceless, all-powerful state apparatus. «The Passport» was written in 1973 when Samarakis was denied a passport to travel during the colonels’ junta dictatorship, which he had openly criticized. He was refused the travel document due to work he had written before the junta came to power. But rather than say this outright in the story, Samarakis creates a para-reality, an unnamed country, the catch-all, Catch-22 System, and by clever use of irony shows the situation as utterly ridiculous. In another story, «Anatomy Lesson, Etc.,» an unnamed «tenured professor of anatomy at the medical school of the university in the capital… with his little paunch, rheumatism, and general arthritis, his cholesterol, myopia, astigmatism and farsightedness» has an assignation for a romantic tryst in an unused storage laboratory. When he loses his glasses, he is netted in a sweep by the Black Trenchcoats against a group of revolutionary students holding their own meeting in the maze of unused rooms. The story is terribly funny: Our bumbling professor hero is afraid at first he’s been caught for his peccadillos. That Samarakis is able to turn our meek Romeo into a bona fide champion shows the mastery of his writing. Translator Andrew Horton writes that Samarakis «resembles numerous contemporary writers who have found humor and satire a more effective route of deflating hypocrisy and futility than direct invective.» And though Samarakis is often tongue-in-cheek, the tales are frequently horrific. The fact that the action could be taking place at anytime, anywhere, under any totalitarian regime or fascist state, gives it a universal abhorrence precisely because the reader is unable to pinpoint it. Samarakis reminds one of Orwell or J.M. Coetzee’s «Waiting for the Barbarians» (yes, inspired by the Cavafy poem), one of the most hair-raising novels on the allegory of the oppressor and the oppressed, and also set beyond any specific time or place. In the tale «Mama,» a woman carefully ironing her son’s trousers learns he has been in a mine accident. Upon entering the morgue, she lifts the sheet over each of four corpses and identifies each body underneath as «my Yannis.» In such a situation they are all her children. Thus, the common man is identified with global man, and shows the universality of all tragedy. Horton’s translation of the stories reads without effort. It is to his credit that the collection feels as if it could have been written in English. A bit of copyediting would have dispensed with a few typos, but the book has an attractive cover and Horton’s introduction and prologue provide much information about the man, his talent, time and place.