Literary encounters that span different languages and cultures

The discussion kept drifting back to the vexed issue of identity, though the five writers who appeared at the Athens Concert Hall Tuesday evening were ready to branch out to other topics. The five, all of Greek origin, have made their names abroad as prolific authors, winners of numerous prizes for work that has been widely translated. They had come to talk about literature, their own work and their relation to Greece for the latest event in the Megaron Plus series that consistently attracts more than capacity crowds. Varied paths Rather different paths led each of the group to their careers and choice of a working language, and their attitudes reflect it. Three of the writers, Theodor Kallifatides, Vassilis Alexakis and Panos Karnezis, were born in Greece and went abroad in early adulthood – Alexakis in self-exile from the junta in Greece, the other two to study. All three write in the language of their adopted country. Some years ago Kallifatides started rewriting his novels in Greek and found himself having to make changes. «There were some things I couldn’t say in Greek.» Notions such as solitude, for instance, which «has a connotation of strength in Swedish, just wouldn’t work in Greek, where it is not valued and nobody would want to be alone.» Alexakis, who wrote in the language of the country he found himself in, acknowledged the benefit of writing in French in Paris in 1968. He also writes in Greek, working on it in tandem with the French text before publication. Karnezis translates his own work from English into Greek: «It’s the irony that’s hardest to convey.» Perikles Monioudis, born in the German-speaking part of Switzerland to Greek parents who had emigrated from Alexandria, writes in German, while Aris Fioretos, born in Sweden to a Greek father and an Austrian mother, writes in Swedish. As Fioretos said, «it’s a completely different experience to get to know a foreign language and to grow up in a place with parents who speak different languages.» Though competent in Greek, he and Monioudis felt more comfortable making their contributions to the discussion in English and German respectively. «Language does go hand in hand with culture,» said Fioretos. «The second generation of migrants feel foreign wherever they go. The third generation don’t have this problem as they have been incorporated into society.» For Theodor Kallifatides, born in 1938, the relationship with one’s mother tongue goes very deep. The public he initially wanted to reach was in Sweden, however, and for many years he wrote in Swedish. Having left a country where the tensions of civil war left their mark even in the language of newspapers, with partisans referred to as bandits, he recalled the great relief of «living in a country where yes means yes and no means no.» Something comes from the encounter of two languages, said Kallifatides, who described it as «like being married to two very demanding women,» an experience which he said «was difficult but not lacking in excitement.» He recalled a conference he had attended where a Russian speaker stated that there were no writers who wrote in a language other than their own, and if there were any, they were swine. When his turn came to speak, Kallifatides thanked the man for proving «that I didn’t exist, and if I did I was a swine.» The freedom of working in another language struck a common chord in the group. For a start, Alexakis said, «it’s like a fantastic new toy, and it’s great to write in a language your parents don’t understand.» Karnezis relishes the opportunity to be daring with the language. «With another language there’s an emotional distance, a chance to see things differently. Words in a foreign language don’t have the same weight as they do in your own, and I don’t mean just the curse words.» He sets his work «in a place that might or might not be Greece» and consciously omits from it anything that might be incomprehensible to a reader not familiar with Greek reality. In any case, as he pointed out, he likes to write about archetypal characters and situations, so cultural specificity is not an impediment. «People say you should write about what you know,» he added, but writing about fictional characters is about «finding somebody different, getting to know them, and to love them.» Asked by the moderator, journalist Mikela Hartoulari, about the relation of one’s mother tongue to identity, Alexakis responded: «The issue is not the mother tongue, but authorial identity. Is this a novel? Is this the author’s language?» «But doesn’t language carry with it an attitude to life?» insisted Hartoulari. Commenting that your mother tongue was «not the language your mother spoke but the mother of your languages,» Monioudis said the identity issue was outdated for German-language literature, which had tackled the matter intensively in the 1980s. Growing up in a small Swiss village, Monioudis was 2 before he heard German. Until then he had only heard Greek, a language he later came to associate purely with his parents and sister. At school his teachers felt sorry for him, assuming he would never do well in either language. Now, of course, having more than one language is a huge advantage in Europe. The discussion reached no conclusions, but it offered welcome exposure to five Greeks who are exemplary, cosmopolitan, European writers.