Encounters with writers and their ideas

Highlights of the Thessaloniki Book Fair included opportunities to hear writers and other book professionals from Greece and abroad in conversations that illuminated their own work and much more. One such occasion was the tribute to Greek writer Thanassis Valtinos, a winner of the State Award for Literature, much esteemed for his spare, powerful literary voice. Presenting him were Panayiotis Moullas, professor emeritus at Aristotle University, and Giorgos Skambardonis, journalist and novelist. Moullas spoke of the extraordinary moment he had as young man in 1963, when he was writing reviews for the Epoches literary review and he read the text of Valtinos’s «Kathodos ton ennia» (The Descent of the Nine). «I knew with absolute certainty that a writer had been born, a strong new writer presenting his credentials. Though I have often read new things that I like, I have never felt such sensational certainty,» said Moullas. Set during the civil war, the book relates the attempt by nine partisans, cut off from all support, to cross enemy territory and reach the sea. Moullas focused on the language of the final scene as one of the men, who has witnessed horrors, struggles through thick vegetation. «All the verbs indicate action,» he noted. «There are no feelings except for the sensation of the branches striking the man’s face. There are no reactions, yet the reader feels it. It is easy to impress your reader, but harder to spark the reader’s own creativity.» Commenting on the wide range of genres Valtinos has worked in, Moullas described him as a master of the language. Skambardonis contrasted the luxuriant vegetation of the setting, representing life itself, with the men’s tragic situation: «encircled, like prey in a game park. Wells have been poisoned and mined, and nature becomes like a quicksand.» Another language Dutch literary critic Margot Dijkgraaf did a model presentation of three young authors who write in languages other than their mother tongues, bringing out contrasts and similarities and stimulating debate. Periklis Monioudis, of Greek descent, talked about growing up in the Swiss mountains with Swiss German, learning German with its «huge cultural archive you can walk around in» and becoming interested in adulthood in what Greece might mean to him. Gazmend Kapllani, an Albanian who writes in Greek, described learning foreign languages in haste and secrecy as an intellectual escape from the totalitarian regime in which he grew up. He felt one’s relation to a foreign language depends on whether you are a traveler or there to stay. Abdelkader Benali, an Algerian Berber who writes in Dutch, joked about the totalitarian regime of his family, where his father had absolute control. As a child translating things learnt at school to his parents at home, he had the sense he was bringing the world to them, and wondered who would bring the world to him. «Books,» he said: «They gave me attention, they translated me; they gave me images.» Nitty-gritty Two discussions organized by Literature Across Frontiers tackled practical issues. The first, which deserved to be heard by more people in a larger space with microphones, got down to the nitty-gritty of why more Greek literature is not translated. The fault certainly doesn’t lie with the extraordinarily dedicated translators from various languages who persist, often unpaid, in working on Greek literature. One serious impediment is the Greek Culture Ministry, whose committee for funding translations has been inactive for years, leaving many commitments unmet. Every translator present had a tale to tell of papers supposedly lost, requests to call back next Christmas, next Easter, next year. Simply activating the committee and disbursing funds, which as someone in the audience pointed out, cost far less than the dress for Greece’s Eurovision entrant last year, would put dozens of Greek books in foreign markets. The second discussion explored innovative ways of using the Internet to promote literature. LAF Director Alexandra Buchler and journalist Vassilis Rouvalis talked about their experiences, in particular with their websites Transcript and Poema.