Greece booked to play leading role at Frankfurt

Born into a well-known family, Alexandros Schinas wasted part of his infinite youth and his finite wealth wandering around Europe and falling passionately in love with language, among other things. He studied physics and mathematics in Athens, but the Greek civil war did not allow him to complete his studies. In Germany, having realized that the family inheritance did not have much left in it, he sought a living as a contributor to German newspapers and radio stations. For years he was the correspondent for EIR (Greek Radio) and later ERT (Greek Radio and Television). From 1969 until last year, he had a radio program on Deutsche Welle. He wrote thousands of pages, which were broadcast over the airwaves. But one of his books became a reference point for the world of Greek letters: Anafora periptoseon (Report on Circumstances) in 1966. Three years later it was published by the German publishing house Suhrkamp. The book was reissued in 1989, in a much expanded version, and distributed by Estia publishers. In 1977, when the continental shelf became a priority issue for Greeks, his book Gia tin yperaspisi tis ellinikis enkefalokripidas (In Defense of the Greek Brain Shelf), on the so-called language question, was published by Kedros. In 1991 Partida was published, also by Estia. The interview which follows was conducted on the occasion of the 53rd Book Fair in Frankfurt, where Greece is guest of honor this year. The exhibition will be opened on October 9 by the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Greek President Costis Stephanopoulos. We spoke to Alexandros Schinas at his house in Essen, among yellowed walls and several thousand books. He was a polite and genial host, and at the same time a clear and charming narrator. How and when did Greece first participate in the Frankfurt Book Fair? First, I’ll tell you when Greece did not participate in the fair. The International Book Fair was reopened after the war in 1949. Greece first took part only in 1966. In other words, for 17 years the publishing world was busy while Greece was proudly absent. I had already been living in Germany for a few years by then and went to the fair every year. And of course, I was greatly distressed by Greece’s conspicuous absence every single time. When it got too much for me, I decided to do something about it and went to the organizers of the fair to discuss Greece’s possible participation. The people were very willing, and they said to me, This is not just an idea of yours, but an idea we have had for many years. Every time we send out formal invitations but they remain unanswered. On one of my trips to Greece, I went to the people who were supposed to be responsible for the matter, which at that time was the Ministry of the Presidency. They were interested but they didn’t have a clue about what went on in Frankfurt. I told them that they had received invitations. They denied all responsibility, laid the blame on others, but they set to work and began to prepare for Greece’s participation. That was in 1965. Let’s move on to 1966, when Greece first appeared. Which books and authors took part? And on what criteria were they chosen? According to the Ministry of the Presidency, the publishers were not interested. The ministry informed them, it invited them, but they didn’t reply. So, the choice was made by the ministry rather than by the publishers or the writers. As a result, we had a medley of publishing organizations, banks and foundations. Even the Piraeus Port Authority represented Greek cultural activity. There was little literature. A year later, however, in 1967, came the dictatorship. What happened then? The junta was intelligent enough to imitate some of the practices of previous governments. Somebody wised them up to the fact that there was this book fair in Frankfurt and the colonels thought: Ah, how nice, we will take part as well. And they actually had the gall to appear there with their own national stand where they had thrown in, along with everything else, some collections of Ritsos’s poetry. At that time, Ritsos was in exile. I quickly informed the German progressives, student organizations, intellectuals and trade unions, and there was a huge protest, one they weren’t expecting. Thousands of people were shouting in the corridors of the fair, Ka-to o fa-si-smos (down with fascism), which I had written down for them in Latin characters. This great crowd moved toward the junta’s stand and smashed everything up. This was a wonderful demonstration of German solidarity with the Greek people. And what were the results of the protest? The junta did not dare show their face for the next two years. In 1970 they emerged again in a crafty way, as a supposed association of some publishers and booksellers, who stated in their brochures that they supported the government; they also distributed a leaflet promoting it. So this again provoked large crowds of outraged German citizens who once again smashed up the junta’s stand. This was broadcast not only on German radio stations, but also on the Greek program of Deutsche Welle and the whole of Greece learned about it – the new, definitive removal of the junta from the Frankfurt Book Fair. Of course, the junta was not wholly absent; until its fall the dictatorship was indirectly present by allowing some publishers who were pro-junta to attend. Let’s now turn to democratic Greece. How did the nature of Greek participation become established? When did publishers and authors start to take things into their own hands? In Greece, the State always dominates and does everything without the interested parties. But this is a tragic mistake for the book fair. This exhibition is a giant book bazaar and plays by the rules of the international economic game. It is a private affair between publishers and writers. For years, then, Greece appeared only with a national stand. Now, some publishers are appearing with their own stands and doing their own deals with publishers from all over the world. There is a huge range of books on offer at the fair, but the focus is on literature. How is Greek literature presented in Germany? Despite the enterprising presentations of authors, especially of the Thirties Generation, by Isidora Rosenthal-Camarinea and of some excellent Greek books, such as Pope Joan, by others, Greek literature had the name of Kazantzakis as its trademark until the 1960s. Helped, of course, by Anthony Quinn, Alexis Zorbas, just like Onassis, epitomized the typical modern Greek in the eyes of the wider tourist readership. Thankfully, in the past few years Cavafy has been translated again and is now the most prominent Greek writer, although his idiosyncratic and refined poetry appeals to a narrow and cultivated circle in Germany. His poems are not made to be best sellers. Subconsciously, the average German reader still expects some kind of exotic virility from the heroes of a Greek author. That’s until our entry into the literary eurozone is acknowledged. There is also something else which is missing from Greece: a Greek steam engine author, as the Germans put it, like Umberto Eco in Italy. Of course, this isn’t due to a lack of literature but to chance. There is a need for one person who can make waves internationally. Greek literature as a whole is quite remarkable, a literature which has the potential to compete successfully with any foreign literature. At the least, it deserves a dignified appearance in every respect. Today, and by whatever route, Greece has ended up as the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. How do you feel about this? This also happened as the result of private initiative. Some people went to the organizers of the fair and suggested that Greece be the guest of honor. The Greek State then took over and is trying to reap the anticipated glory. But it’s nothing special. It has caused a disproportionate fuss in Greece, and been a stimulus for authors, publishers and everyone. As though our future depended on it. It’s quite straightforward. Each year the fair formally elects a guest of honor without necessarily evaluating country’s cultural output. But this distinction is good for the promotion of Greek books. It doesn’t do any harm. Of course it promotes them and it certainly does no harm. But even without it, the literature of each country goes its own ways on the international market. We should have accepted this distinction like the other countries which have been honored so far, with a calm smile, and not with all this hysteria.