Letter from Germany

Last Wednesday, as I was wandering in the grounds of Gazi (the former gasworks of Athens now transformed into an exhibition center called Technopolis) on the occasion of the celebrations of German unification, I came across Gerhard Bluemlein, whom I had not seen for many years. Along with some thousands of guests, he was at the reception offered by the German Ambassador Karl Heinz Kuhna to inaugurate a German week in Athens. It was a rather chilly venue – a place in the process of renovation where it was still possible to make out real, worn, but nonetheless impressive gaswork machinery sitting on the lawn of the gasworks complex on Pireos Street. Gerhard Bluemlein was an old acquaintance from the Goethe Institute. (By now it seems that I have known almost all of my friends for ages!) He spoke of his children (who had grown up in the meantime) and, with immense enthusiasm, of Aris Alexandrou’s novel The Box (1974). This is a powerful work about the machinations of power and the absurdity of ideologically disguised human behavior. I found this book so interesting that I said to myself, ‘I have to translate it into German,’ said Gerhard, whose Greek is probably better than most educated natives. Published by Kunstman Editions, The Box is one of the works which will represent Greek literature at the Frankfurt International Book Fair, starting next Wednesday and running until October 15th. Founded in 1949, the Frankfurt Book Fair is the world’s largest marketplace for ideas. With over 6,000 exhibitors from over 100 countries, Frankfurt is, for the publishing community, the largest yearly event for trading rights and permits, a global platform for PR and marketing, and an observatory for analyzing trends and innovative ideas. The fact that the 21st century is ushered in by this important event with Greece as the Gastland (i.e. the guest of honor) at the International Frankfurt Book Fair is quite significant. Surveying the seasonal flood of first novels of promise, is illustrative, if not of our enlightenment, at any rate of our wealth. In Greece, the expansion of computers has coincided with the flourishing of book production and the transition to a ‘mature’ book market. According to research on family budgets by the Greek National Statistics Service, processed by the Book Monitoring Unit, Greek household spending on books increased to 133 billion drachmas (more than 390 million euro) in 1999 from 74.7 billion drachmas in 1994. This means that compared to 1988, Greek household spending on books increased tenfold on average in 1999 (by current prices). The charts are explicit. During the last five years, the average annual increase in household spending on books has been 12.2 percent, which indicates that the development of the book market in our country is on a healthy basis. Nevertheless, doubts remain whether people read what they buy. To strike an optimistic note, albeit a faint one, it may well be the case that out of total household spending, book purchases increased from 0.26 percent in 1988 to 0.71 percent in 1999, exceeding the amounts spent on newspapers, magazines, cinemas – and the lottery! In a country (Greece) where majority tastes are the measure of all things, detective novels, bitter-sweet romances and superficial histories have cast aside their downmarket image and become respectable. Furthermore, they are now the scriptwriters’ domain by right of conquest. The best books are all transformed into television series. Out of all this awful abundance, one should be able to expect some sort of renaissance, which, however, has not yet dawned on our literary horizon. At a press conference in Frankfurt, Vassilis Vassilikos, whose political crime-drama Z (1966) became a great international success during the military dictatorship, uttered the following exaggeration: My experiences from my weekly literary program on Greek television (ET-3) lead me to confirm that at least one in five of the books I read each week ought to become known beyond our linguistic borders. However, as there are no authors who work as guest workers, there are no books which, like guest workers, travel to foreign countries. This time round, quite a few Greek artists will travel to Frankfurt next week. In the days and weeks following, until the end of this month, the metropolis on the Main River will be transformed into a focal point of Greek culture. To be exact, not strictly Greek culture. According to the program yesterday, the choir of the Jewish Museum in Athens is to perform songs from the Greek repertoire at the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt. Singer Savina Yiannatou, who was once overrated as the most beautiful voice of the Mediterranean by Die Welt newspaper, will interpret songs by the Sephardic Jews of Thessaloniki. All this looks like our own version of Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung, as the Germans call it, or coming to terms with the past. Many of Frankfurt’s museums and exhibition halls have already presented exhibits of Greek art and culture. A huge retrospective of Greek film- over 60 features and short films – is already being shown at the German Film Museum (Deutsches Filmmuseum). On the other hand, the German film I saw last week in the Panorama of European Film at the Apollon Cinema in Athens strongly reminded me of current tensions. Too radical for her fellow Social Democrats, Rosa Luxemburg – in the homonymous film by Maragrethe von Trotta – makes speeches denouncing war and militarism as the First World War approaches. Talking to the brilliant Berlin-born director Margarethe von Trotta, who accompanied her retrospective to Athens, I was glad to find out that German humor is no longer an oxymoron. In writing about Rosa Luxemburg, the Frankfurt Book Fair, and German reunification, I should mention the existence of another book fair, the quite underrated one in Leipzig, in the former East Germany, which takes place every spring. I remember how renowned film-maker Volker Schlondorff (Margarethe von Trotta’s ex-husband) once observed with respect to the divisions of the new Germany: There’s this idea now that East Germans had the wrong ideas and lived the wrong life. And vice versa, there’s this assumption that Westerners just did everything right. To me, this tension is a richness, rather than a problem. People from the former East Germany don’t necessarily want to return to socialism. But they feel a loss of belief, and they’re more able to question the system they joined. So much for German unity.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.