A childhood revisited with a new tongue

Going from strength to strength, the respected Paris-based Greek writer Vassilis Alexakis has received favorable press coverage in France for his latest novel, «Mots Etrangers,» to be published here as «Xenes Lexeis» (Foreign Words) by Exanta Press in December. An article published in the influential daily Le Monde this week cited the writer’s unwaning vitality as a quality. «Though he was born in 1943 and will soon bid farewell to a decade of being 50-something, he has the eagerness of an eternally roving youth that likes to chat away, observe people on the streets, life’s events, the absurdities of daily life, and smoke his pipe,» the Le Monde article noted in its lead-in. «He is a narrative writer, a storyteller, a conscious dreamer,» it added. Having developed a particular affinity for French ways of life over the years, Alexakis, a Parisian resident for decades, often writes directly in French before translating his work into Greek. In «Mots Etrangers,» the novelist’s 16th book, the main character echoes – in many ways – Alexakis himself, which gives the work an autobiographical feel. Named Nikolaidis, and also a writer, the novel’s main character is attracted and spellbound by Sango – an African dialect primarily spoken in the Central African Republic – with a passion usually reserved for love. Alexakis, a fluent speaker of this dialect, applies it regularly throughout his new book’s text, forcing the reader to become increasingly acquainted with it as the story develops. The dialect’s usage becomes more frequent toward the book’s finale. Commenting on his affection for Sango in the Le Monde article, Alexakis noted that the dialect helped him maintain a balance between Greek and French. External factors and their impact on his own emotional world, Alexakis says, determine which language he chooses when faced by a new writing venture. «I couldn’t have written ‘Mots Etrangers’ in anything other than French, perhaps because French is the language spoken in central Africa, and for personal reasons,» Alexakis told Le Monde. «Following my mother’s death, I began writing ‘Mitriki Glossa’ (Native Tongue) in Greek. It was a kind of reconciliation with my mother’s language – the Greek tongue. On the contrary, I felt that the Greek language had betrayed me after my father’s death. I no longer had parents which spoke the language. To rediscover my childhood, I turned to a new language, Sango.»