A Week in Books: Missing out on the Greeks is a tragedy

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The Independent Culture

A great event for Greece took place on Sunday evening, and I was lucky enough to witness it. I'm referring to the inauguration of the House of Literature - a converted hotel in the lovely village of Lefkes, on Paros, where authors and translators can stay to work amid the peace and beauty of the Cycladic isle. The village ladies had baked mouthwatering cakes; the parish priest gave a long, sonorous Orthodox blessing; and the island's dynamic new mayor, Yannis Ragoussis, welcomed the advent of the centre as part of his far-sighted plans to move Paros beyond the era of mass tourism. By sunset, the party was over. The people of Lefkes retired to observe something else of interest to Greece. You know the rest.

A great event for Greece took place on Sunday evening, and I was lucky enough to witness it. I'm referring to the inauguration of the House of Literature - a converted hotel in the lovely village of Lefkes, on Paros, where authors and translators can stay to work amid the peace and beauty of the Cycladic isle. The village ladies had baked mouthwatering cakes; the parish priest gave a long, sonorous Orthodox blessing; and the island's dynamic new mayor, Yannis Ragoussis, welcomed the advent of the centre as part of his far-sighted plans to move Paros beyond the era of mass tourism. By sunset, the party was over. The people of Lefkes retired to observe something else of interest to Greece. You know the rest.

As the Euro 2004 final unfolded, enthusiasm gave way to euphoria, and euphoria to ecstasy. (Without a Greek vocabulary, one can't even begin to describe the reaction in English.) After the whistle blew, the church bells of Lefkes rang as a huge moon climbed above the mountain.

I had watched the victory with some leading Greek writers, part of a group who came to Paros for the second encounter between local authors and foreign critics organised by Ekemel - the European centre for translation in Athens. Like writers everywhere, Greek novelists are hardly flag-waving nationalists. Much of their work explores troubling fault lines: between urban and rural life, the Greek emigrant diaspora and the homeland, men's and women's experience, right- and left-wing politics. Yet the triumph did foster a mood of unity that everyone happily shared in for a while. It was left to the veteran provocateur Vassilis Vassilikos (best-known abroad as the author of Z, filmed by Costa-Gavras) to point out that, just as German thinkers had forged a noble ideal of Greece, so a German coach had given the country's footballers "wings on their feet".

We can at least hope that the soccer miracle, with the Olympics in Athens hard on its heels, spurs publishers in Britain to take an interest in Greece that extends from the pitch to the page. On Paros, I found out about a shelf-full of recent Greek novels that deserve immediate translation. Take the work of Cretan novelist Rhea Galanaki, whose historical fiction prompts comparisons with Woolf and Byatt. A Century of Labyrinths, her latest, begins with the figure of the Cretan businessman who first excavated Knossos - only to have his discoveries eclipsed by Sir Arthur Evans. Then there's Thanassis Valtinos, whose intense and dramatic novels of wartime conflict - The Descent of the Nine and Orthokosta - count as landmarks in his country's literature. In Britain, 2.5 million bought Captain Corelli's Mandolin, which touches on some of the same raw wounds; surely a few might feel curious about a definitive Greek take on that period? As for Zyranna Zateli, revered for her village-based magic realism - this iconic novelist lacks a single English translation.

The Ekemel meeting did host a couple of writers whom you can meet in British bookshops. Arcadia publishes The Seventh Elephant by Alexis Stamatis (it's set partly on Paros), and plans a translation of his city-hopping quest novel, Bar Flaubert. With Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture (Faber), Apostolos Doxiadis led the trend for fiction with mathematical motifs. More common, sadly, is the case of Eugenia Fakinou, the acclaimed chronicler of Greek women's lives. Her The Seventh Garment appeared in translation a dozen years ago. Since then - nothing. By and large, British readers whose appetite for things Greek is whetted by the summer's heroics will have to make do with a thin diet of guidebooks. And, this week, one phrase above all sums up the casual negligence of our publishers: "own goal".

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