Letter from Thessaloniki

All of a sudden, Maximos Mansion, the Greek prime minister’s residence, is starting to panic over the prospect of a general election due before long. So, this summer, knowing only too well that Greeks do not like holidays to be interrupted by politics, politicians and pundits try to avoid holding an election in the same week as an important saint’s day or some liberation anniversary. Thus what we now know for sure is when we are not going to have elections. Certainly not on March 28, a Sunday – it would be unthinkable to celebrate our liberation from the Ottomans on March 25 amid electoral speeches. This goes for the following Sunday, April 4, 2004 as well. April 11 is completely out of question: It’s Greek Easter. Earlier dates, say this autumn, are not completely ruled out either. With all eyes fixed on the ballot, this will be a significant week. Prime Minister Costas Simitis – who is not a saint but a descendant of that glorious PASOK generation that was established on September 3, 29 years ago – will be making a host of announcements, described by some as publicity stunts, at the opening of the 68th Thessaloniki International Fair next weekend. In all probability we shall, once again, be instructed that the battle will be decided between «left» and «right» – concepts tragically outdated. Nevertheless, myth-making seems to be endemic to our nation. Oh God, how horribly boring this all is! Anyway, we’ll have to refer to all that jazz next week – if we survive. I’ll come back to it, if I can get a taxi at the Athens – or Thessaloniki – railroad station. They always seem to disappear when my train arrives in the early evening hours. Sure, they are there, but will not take anyone going to the center of the city instead of Kalamata or Kavala. I wonder how the ignorant Olympics visitors will ever manage to see the Games if they imprudently opt to travel by rail the way I do. Now, let’s concentrate on something more substantial than tedious contemporary Greek politics. Let’s speak of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who ruled in Latin but thought in Greek, as impersonated last Friday and Saturday at the Herod Atticus Theater by a magnificent actor: 80-year-old Giorgio Albertazzi, whom we have admired in major films by Joseph Losey, Luchino Visconti, Franco Zefirelli and Alain Resnais. The performance’s power lay mainly in the monologues, which were superb. Part historical novel and part general reflection about life, based on Marguerite Yourcenar’s best seller – in Greece as well – «Memoirs of Hadrian» (the Roman who lived between AD 76 and 138 and reigned from 117 to 138), this astonishing work depicts a Hadrian who is approaching death and explains the philosophy that informed his rule. Sounding like a self-composed obituary, the emperor is portrayed on the eve of his death. Here is the final phrase: «…Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes.» The English translation (1951) is by Grace Frick with whom the Belgian-born Yourcenar lived on Mount Desert Island, Maine, when at the outbreak of World War II she moved to the United States. The preparation for death (certainly the biggest taboo in our culture, not sex) at a time when the ancient gods were no more and Christ did not really exist (and before Pauline Christianity tried to put the lid on sex), and the emperor’s passion for the Greek boy Antinous, make this work unique. Well, almost unique. Personally, I also like the description of Lord Marchmain’s death in «Brideshead Revisited» by Evelyn Waugh. I also cherish the hilarious way death is treated in «The Loved One» by the same British author, who got the idea of this book after a visit to America. Now, let’s cheer up a bit. Here is a small sample from «The Loved One,» which among its main characters has a Miss A. Thanatogenos: «He produced a card and handed it to Dennis. It read: ‘Squadron Leader the Rev. Dennis Barlow begs to announce that he is shortly starting business at 1154 Arbuckle Avenue, Los Angeles. All non-sectarian services expeditiously conducted at competitive prices. Funerals a speciality. Panegyrics in prose or poetry. Confessions heard in strict confidence.” Admittedly, this book was written more than 50 years ago, yet the basic idea is still around. Only a few months back, with impressive curiosity, I discovered an article in The New Yorker – appropriately titled «The Death Beat» by Mark Singer – which informed me of the existence of an International Association of Obituary Writers and that the members meet regularly at annual obituary writers’ conferences. The last one took place a year ago in Las Vegas, New Mexico. As to what they confer about at such meetings, the reader is instructed on the huge compendium of euphemisms for «died» – «was gathered to the angels,» «passed from this plane to a higher plane,» «made his transition,» «passed into life’s next adventure,» «received his final marching orders,» «departed this life on his Harley-Davidson,» «graduated to phase two of God’s eternal plan,» «became a handmaiden of God,» «was royally escorted into her heavenly home,» «teed up for Golf in the Kingdom,» and – the author’s favorite – «went fishing with Christ on Friday.» Now, since we started this column speaking of politics, here is an appropriate quote attributed to Mark Twain. The occasion he was referring to was the death of a politician. «I did not attend his funeral; but I wrote a nice letter saying I approved of it.»

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