CULTURE

Ancient tales inspire new books on a Platonic murder, a socially inept Minotaur and a suicidal Sappho

Last month at the 54th Frankfurt International Book Fair (October 9-12), Kathimerini English Edition visited agents and publishers to learn what books are out or forthcoming and found a number of thought-provoking, contemporary studies related to Greece amid the cookbooks, travel guides and Jungian archetypes. What follows is a smattering of reading across a variety of genres, starting with «Why Classics Matter» (MacMillan, 2003) by Simon Goldhill. The Cambridge University professor and author of such titles as «Who Needs Greek?: Contexts in the Cultural History of Hellenism» writes an accessible argument, much in the style of Alain De Botton, for the merits of a classical education in contemporary life. In one of the best overviews, Pierre Hadot presents «What is Ancient Philosophy?» First published in France in 1995 and now available in English (Belknap Press, May 2002, trans. Michael Chase), Hadot follows the inception of philosophy, mostly through Plato, and the Socratic tenet that an unexamined life is not worth living, with a definition of «philosopher,» a history of the Hellenistic Schools, an argument for philosophy as a way of life – as opposed to how it is «taught» today – and a third section linking ancient philosophy to the Middle Ages and modern times. In a more specific study, poet and McGill University classicist Anne Carson («Autobiography of Red,» 1998) offers a bilingual edition of the extant fragments of the songs of the seventh-century-BC poet from Lesvos in «If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho» (Knopf, August 2002). With the original Greek en face, some of it only fragmentary lines or words, translator Carson allows each phrase its due without heavy footnotes or embellishment. An interpretation and index follow at the end, allowing the words themselves to sing off the page. Canadian Professor Stephen Bertman (author of «Cultural Amnesia: America’s Future and the Crisis of Memory») uses examples drawn from Greek history and mythology to illustrate eight principles from the past that can enrich our lives today in «Climbing Olympus: Build a Better Life on the Eight Pillars of Ancient Wisdom» (Sourcebooks, USA, April 2003). This is a guide to a more a fruitful life that also reacquaints the reader with Greek myth and history. There are a number of big books in fiction this year with Greek themes. Jeffery Eugenides («The Virgin Suicides,» 1993) examines gender confusion with the engrossing story of protagonist Callie/Cal Stephanides, in «Middlesex» (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Sept. 2002 / Bloomsbury, UK). Beginning with her/his grandparents’ immigration from Asia Minor in the 1920s to second-generation 1960s Michigan, the book quickly becomes «Calliope’s» own story. Through a medical mix-up, the child is raised as a girl until early adolescence when she rediscovers herself as «Cal.» Though the hermaphrodite subject seems a bit odd, the ensuing saga quickly absorbs the reader, and the author’s abilities to tell the story in the alternating voices of his first female and then male character make this an absorbing, tender coming-of-age tale. From the Scottish publisher Cannongate, whose quirky «Life of Pi» by Canadian Yann Martel won the Man Booker Prize this year, comes another story of suspended belief: Author Steven Sherill has the Minotaur of Crete alive and well and working at Grub’s Bar and Grill in the southern USA in «The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break» (April 2003, Picador / US Oct. 2002). «M,» for short, yearns to be one of the crowd of waitresses and grill staff. The atmosphere and camaraderie of restaurant work are well drawn in this story of isolation and the need to be loved. «M» becomes all of us, embarrassed by our differences, our hidden or not-so-hidden faults, our inabilities to express our desires. The half-man, half-bull retains his legendary savage side, but this has long been subjugated to the need to survive in a world much changed from his mythic origins. Booker Prize-winning historical novelist Barry Unsworth («Sacred Hunger») retells the events as the Homeric Greeks ready to sail for Troy. In «The Songs of the Kings» (Hamish Hamilton UK, Sept. 2002 / Double Talk, US, April 2003), Unsworth forges a tight tragedy of very modern jealousies, intrigue and personal motives as Agamemnon is caught in the political cross fire while the Greek forces await the winds needed to embark. This up-to-date interpretation of the sacrifice of Iphigenia becomes an apt allegory for the momentum of warfare and the power of storytelling. In another tale of combat, «The Maze» (Jonathan Cape, UK, March 2003 / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, US), by Panos Karnezis, tells the story of a Greek brigade being routed by Turkish forces in Asia Minor in 1922. Having lost their way and «led by a nationalist brigadier with a passion for Greek mythology and an addiction to morphia and his second-in-command, a communist major who is torn between his ideological opposition to the expedition and his love for his men,» this is a «darkly funny depiction of the horrors and futility of war and man’s cruelty to man.» Greece-born Karnezis’s short story collection «Little Infamies» was translated into eight languages. This first novel promises to set him firmly on the list of talented young writers. American author Erica Jong, who helped popularize the feminist movement in the 1970s with the sexually liberating «Fear of Flying» by saucily and humorously expressing that erotic pleasure is not only the province of men, takes on the mantle of the «Lesbian» poet in «Sappho’s Leap» (Norton, US, April 2003). The story begins with an older woman standing on a cliff about to do herself in, hence the title. She is saved and goes traveling with Aesop in a female Odyssey with elements of magic realism. If the author’s previous work is anything to go by, this will be an intriguing, funny tale to bunk societal mores. In «The Cave» (Harcourt Brace, US, Nov. 2002 / Harvill Press UK trans. Margaret Jull Costa) the 1998 Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago of Portugal («Baltasar and Blimunda») has written a contemporary social critique based on Book VII of Plato’s «Republic.» Using the allegory of the cave as his central theme, Saramago tells of an aging potter living with his daughter and son-in-law and making ceramics he delivers to The Center, a huge complex of apartments, shops, discos, terraces, movie theaters and cafes, until his buyers there tell him they no longer require his pots, which are «worthless,» as people prefer plastic. When the actual cave of Plato’s text is discovered beneath The Center and becomes a tourist attraction, the family leaves to start a new life. Like Joni Mitchell’s song, «They Paved Paradise and Put up a Parking Lot,» Saramago explores contemporary values with light irony. Though those familiar with the Platonic text are likely to get more out of the book, Saramago’s modern parallels are clearly understandable and his characterization rich and human. Another title making its English debut is Jose Carlos Somoza’s literary mystery «The Athenian Murders» (trans. Sonia Soto, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, US, Abacus, UK). Spanish author Somoza presents a literary approach to crime fiction in the story of a murder at Plato’s Academy in Athens. The teacher believes a clue to the mystery can be found in an ancient text containing «eidesis,» a literary technique for encoding messages that may be linked to an ancient cult of ritual sacrifice and calls upon Heracles, the «Decipherer of Enigmas,» to investigate. As the «modern» story unfolds in parallel with the ancient narrative, the two overlap and the translator’s footnotes to the text become more lengthy as subplot overtakes reality in twists and turns leading to a punch of a finale. This highly original take on crime fiction has been compared to Umberto Eco’s «The Name of the Rose» and Arturo Perez-Reverte’s «The Dumas Club» and will appeal to both mystery fans and scholars. The book won the Macallen Gold Dagger for Fiction last week from the UK Crime Writers Association.