Although ancient Greek literature used to be the province of any reasonably educated Western European male, the same cannot be said of contemporary Greek letters. If asked to name recent Greek writers, most people will be able to dredge up at most Kazantzakis, and him only because of the popularity of the movie version of Zorba the Greek. If they are intellectuals, they might be able to name several poets -- Kavafis, Elytis, Seferis, Ritsos. English-speaking readers can browse through translations of Israeli, Egyptian, Polish, Scandinavian, Hungarian, Turkish, even Albanian contemporary authors, not to mention the more accessible Irish, South African and Latin American ones. Yet translations of contemporary Greek prose have not been available to the general public.
The recent spate of translations from the prestigious Kedros publishing house is an attempt to fill this conspicuous gap. Among its choices is Tsirkas' trilogy, Drifting Cities, which consists of three linked novels -- The Club, Ariagne, The Bat. The choice is important for multiple reasons: the novels of the trilogy are literary achievements of the first order; Tsirkas, like several other luminaries of Greek literature, was a child of the diaspora, of the lost "Greater Greece"; and, like most of his generation, he was both morally and politically engaged, bearing witness in all his work to the multiple betrayals that have left contemporary Greece cynical, paranoid and bitter.
Egypt was the theater of extensive political machinations during World War II, the site of the right-wing Greek government in exile (opposing the left-wing resistance government within occupied Greece) as well as the stage where the resistance of the regular Greek army and navy took wing and was crushed when the allies decided that Greece would belong to the Western sphere of influence after the War. This unknown cultural and political history, doubly betrayed because it was chronically suppressed, is precisely what Tsirkas animates in both his short stories and the Drifting Cities trilogy. Tsirkas, an Egyptiot Greek like the better-known Kavafis, but unlike him an active member of the Greek communist party, was uniquely qualified to describe these events.
The Greek community of Egypt was of long standing: it began to expand in earnest when Alexander the Great founded the harbor city of Alexandria and endured until it was uprooted by Nasser in the fifties. Until the Romans turned the Mediterranean into Mare Nostrum, Alexandrian Greek was the lingua franca of the basin, the original language of the New Testament. The Egyptiot Greeks were primarily independent merchants. After the English enslaved Egypt in order to safeguard their interests in cotton and the Suez canal, many members of the Greek community collaborated with the British both financially and politically; this alliance earned them the enmity of the native Egyptians, leading to their final exile.
The three novels which comprise Drifting Cities take place respectively in Jerusalem (The Club), Cairo (Ariagne) and Alexandria (The Bat). There is a coda in mainland Greece (in Salonica), after the end of the civil war which left wounds that are imperfectly healed even today.
The main historical thread in the novels is the effort of the left-wing Greek movement to resist both external and internal reactionary forces and aid Greek resistance within mainland Greece. The events culminate with the destruction of the Greek navy in 1944 in the harbor of Alexandria, when the ships expressed their intention to join the mainland resistance. Hastening of the German withdrawal was not at the time in the best interests of the English, who were afraid of the increasing power of the left-wing resistance government. They treated their Greek allies, who had fought alongside them against Rommel, like enemies, starting a tradition which they handed to the Americans, the next generation of Greek "protectors".
However, history occurs in the background and primarily serves to illuminate the inner lives of the characters. The foreground is occupied not by historical figures but by the lives of lesser people, noble and base, engaged or merely surviving. Although Drifting Cities is often considered akin to Lawrence Durrell's Alexandrian Quartet, its structure places it closer to War and Peace. It displays a panoramic view of a fragmented society, riven by pressures, laboring to produce the next era.
The focus of all three stories is the pilgrim's progress of the main character, Manos Simonidis, a communist intellectual divided between loyalty to the left-wing cause (which, however, dictates blind obedience to narrow, inhumane, Stalinist precepts) and attraction to more cosmopolitan, "decadent" values (which carry with them the taint of existential meaninglessness). In the end, as a committed Greek, Manos cannot but choose action, even though he despises the movement leaders, even after the cause is doomed. As in Greek tragedy, fate has him in her indifferent hands: both his thoughts and actions are noble, yet his sacrifice is meaningless except as a measure of his intrinsic worth. The ideals he struggles for have already been betrayed by the "talking heads", the party hacks who put their own power-mongering above either Greece or justice.
In The Club, Manos is doubly exiled, in hiding from the English who are looking for him and censured by the party machinery for his independence. While hiding in a Jerusalem pension run by a German-Jewish refugee, he falls in love with Emmy, the wife of an Austrian minister-in-exile. Although his love is reciprocated, it is never consummated; like another Persephone, Emmy is snatched by someone else, while Manos is recalled to action by his party's ideological "leader". The latter is known throughout the trilogy as The Little Man, and embodies the worst extremes of the parasite, the stealer of souls -- someone who will use anyone and anything to augment his personal power while hiding under the flag of ideology, and who leaves corpses and smoking ruins in his wake.
In Ariagne, Manos is wounded in a random bomber attack and recovers in the house of Ariagne Saridis, head of a working-class family in a poor Cairo neighborhood. Manos continues writing pamphlets for the cause, but it is Ariagne who is in the foreground: her family is a microcosm of the turbulence outside, as some of its members belong to the right, some to the left, some are black marketeers and some are fighters either in the regular or the resistance army. Ariagne gives Manos the strength he requires to carry on with his mission, overcoming his doubts about The Little Man, who has already betrayed the cause at least once.
In The Bat, after he survives a forced death march of his brigade through the desert, Manos continues his writing in Alexandria. There he gets involved on one hand with Nancy Campbell, a Scottish noblewoman who eventually becomes active in the resistance, and on the other hand with the 1944 uprising of the Greek navy. In the background is a multi-generational story of unrequited love and betrayal, with Julia, a close friend of Nancy's, at its center. The story closes with the crushing of the uprising and the realization of the movement members that civil war has become inevitable.
In the coda of the trilogy, the survivors of the movement come together and hold a wake for their comrades who were tortured, executed or slain during the civil war and the ensuing right-wing wave of terror. All the worthy men are dead; the women have been left to mourn, struggle to survive and raise the next generation of gun fodder without paternal aid.
Not merely a mouthpiece, Manos Simonidis is a complex figure: an active and brave member of the movement, a gifted and persuasive writer, a believer in universal justice who cares about the means employed to get to the desired ends, a womanizer capable of loyalty once he meets a "worthy" woman (although his uncanny irresistibility to women is excessively emphasized and diminishes him as both a character and a man). He is clearly an idealized projection of the author. Like Tsirkas, Manos questions the ideological rigidity and hypocrisy of the communist leadership, which in fact led to the betrayal of the movement from within and the wholesale slaughter of its ablest members; in the case of Tsirkas, the ideological "unorthodoxy" of the trilogy led to his expulsion from the Egyptiot Communisty party and lifelong vilification by most party intellectuals. Lastly, by his name Manos is clearly destined for trial and sacrifice -- Manos is a shortened form of Emmanuel, the given name of Christ.
There is a veritable flood of secondary characters, some vivid, some formulaic. Several break free of their bounds and become three-dimensional -- occasionally by a few deft strokes, or even one characteristic sentence. Tsirkas gives them all their own life and fate, regardless of their relative importance in the plot. The enormous cast includes fighters, spies, bureaucrats of the left and the right, politicians, workers, refugees, fellaheen; Greeks, Egyptians, Jews, Europeans. Besides Manos, the most rounded figure is that of Ariagne Saridis, the pole of the second novel. Like the Great Goddess after whom she is named (Ariagne means "The Purest"), she holds out life or death; a figure of wisdom and authority beyond her immediate family, she acts with overwhelming dignity and humanity without the ulterior second thoughts that often contaminate the decisions of lesser humans.
The events are related by a chorus of narrators, employing the first, second or third person; Manos always speaks in the first. What is mentioned by one character is often later completed or even contradicted by another. Caleidoscopic, jigsaw-like, filled with monologues, flashbacks, its time flow uneven and subjective, the trilogy is considerably indebted to Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf and Eliot's Waste Land -- whereas the elements of suspense and intrigue lend the writing the cinematic capabilities of John le Carré's Smiley sagas. However the overall sensibility is closest to that of Albert Camus, another engaged expatriot to whom humans were more important than ideas and whose "exiled" status made him cosmopolitan and inclusive, rather than provincial and isolationist.
The trilogy is multilayered not only because of its multiple narrators. It has additional subtexts, both emotional and intellectual: when Tsirkas describes Alexandria, the reader catches the strong whiff of nostalgia and enormous loss, the unique anguish of the diaspora Greeks, who have turned Greece into a potent and hence unattainable ideal and to whom the loss of Greater Greece has been an ever-open wound. The trilogy is saturated with the smells, colors and textures of Egypt and the Middle East, always alluring, mysterious, erotic yet threatening presences in European literature, with civilizations as old and complicated as that of Greece.
Within the stories one also senses palpably the enormous bitterness of describing a golden moment that went to waste, when Greeks briefly believed that they might stop being a client state of any great power. There are also both obvious and subtle connections to Greek literary precedents -- most directly Kavafis, whose broad view of Hellenism and Egypt Tsirkas adopted in the trilogy and Seferis, whose mythical subtexts Tsirkas modified for the novels.
The mythical subtexts are mixed Christian and pagan -- as is wont with Greeks, who are always torn between the irreconcilable demands of Hellenism and Orthodoxy. In The Club, Manos is a resident of the Babel Tower, a participant in a reenactment of the biblical Fall and Orpheus losing Eurydice. In Ariagne, he is Sindbad or Odysseus, lost in his travels, aided by a woman's magic thread when pursued by the Minotaurs (enemies from either within or without the movement); he is also Oedipus, in dialogue with the Sphinx. In The Bat he almost falls into the clutches of a malevolent Proteus-like figure, a spider who catches many unwary in his web. And of course, the movement is portrayed eating its own children, a very common metaphor in Greek mythology, folklore -- and history. At the end of Ariagne, the heroic forced march of the Second Brigade in the desert brings to mind the Greek soldiers walking through enemy territory to the sea in Xenophon's Anabasis as well as the repetition of this incredible feat by the Pontian Greeks, who walked all the way from the eastern shores of the Black Sea to the Greek mainland in 1922, during the exchange of populations.
Sometimes, the myths weaken the characters: In a stereotyped role division, men are Apollonian, women Dionysian: men (minds) become great by action and destruction, women (bodies) by endurance and loss. Yet by having Nancy Campbell, a member of the despised "upper class", become not just Manos' lover but his partner in action, Tsirkas finally allows women a role beyond their strict biological functions. And by showing and endorsing the forbidden love between Ariagne and Younes, a fellah and a fighter in Egyptian uprisings against the British, Tsirkas demolishes the cultural/racial barriers that prevented the Greek expatriate community from making common cause with the Egyptians, to their destruction.
The trilogy is difficult for both Greeks and non-Greeks to read, and length is the least of its problems. For Greeks, regardless of political position, this is a painful book: history has already written its own coda to this story -- and although the right ostensibly won, Greece definitely lost, and since then has been decisively relegated to the sidelines of the world. For non-Greeks to fully appreciate the importance of the events described in the book, they need to know some of the history that ever lurks below the top layer. Enormously important events go by in evanescent, throwaway sentences.
Reading is also not aided by the translation, which is conscientious but, unfortunately, pedestrian. Greek is awash in words that cannot be translated, yet whose essence can be captured if the translator's inner ear is sensitive enough. Compared to the original Greek, the English version is like a faulty Fourier transform that has completely lost the phase component: the words have been retained, but not their higher-order meaning. In its present incarnation, Drifting Cities rings curiously flat and devoid of all nuances. Erotic scenes become almost grotesque, heroic passages melodramatic. The peculiar, artificial-sounding translation, more than the political position of the book, may explain why it failed so thoroughly in the American market.
When he decided to tell the truth as an artist, a citizen of the world and a principled intellectual, Tsirkas wrote a book which, although imperfect, was decades ahead of anything else written in Greek in style, scope, maturity, complexity and daring. His daring cost him so dearly politically and artistically that Drifting Cities was effectively his last work: Lost Spring, the first third of a projected trilogy, is so inferior as to make the reader wonder if it was written by the same author. Tsirkas died before he had time to revise it or complete the second trilogy.
After the stormy reception of The Club, particularly by the left-wing critics who attacked it on the basis of its "decadence", "defeatism" and "subjectivism", Ariagne and The Bat clearly bear the traces of Tsirkas' struggle to reach a viable compromise between his integrity and the demands of party orthodoxy. The style of the novels becomes increasingly conventional and Manos' loyalties gradually shift closer to the norm desired by the party (the Greek communist party is an amazing fossil, the only one in the world to proudly consider itself still "Stalinist"; as a result, Greece is also the only country in the world to have two communist parties, orthodox and reformed, so to speak).
This destructive censure, another case of the movement eating its children, led to the paralysis of left-wing artists; Greek prose was condemned to isolationism and provincialism, thus permanently losing its international standing. It would require almost thirty years and many earth-shaking political events before descendants gathered enough courage to repeat Tsirkas' feat in a minor mode, with Aris Alexandrou's The Box and Alki Zei's Achilles' Fiancée.
Yet the Greek reading public brought in a verdict very different from that of the party "talking heads": Drifting Cities continues to be one of the most popular and widely read pieces of literature in Greece, still a vital part of the ongoing debate about the role of art and the intellectual in society. The question of self versus society, of whether action can change the status quo, is as relevant today as it was when both the events and the writing of the trilogy happened. Tsirkas has been validated and vindicated by the only court that matters. His unique trilogy stands close to the pinnacle of Greek literary creation and has ensured his immortality.
Copyright © 1998 Athena Andreadis
click here for more writings