A Week In Books: Political thinker as creative writer

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The Independent Culture

Imagine a country where an Alastair Campbell-level adviser had - on top of his day-job, guiding the PM - written a bestselling trilogy of historical novels about the fate of the middle classes as their dream of empire crumbled. Unlikely? Not in Greece. The preferred holiday reading of Greek opinion-formers this summer will be Analambi by Nikos Themelis: the final volume of an acclaimed family saga that charts the fall and flight, between the 1880s and 1930s, of the Greek communities that once stretched from Odessa to Smyrna and Alexandria. Over two decades, Themelis has also served as the senior backroom strategist behind the policies of Costas Simitis, Greek prime minister since 1996.

This rare example of the political thinker as creative writer came to the island of Rhodes last week. He was there to take part in an equally rare encounter between a single nation's novelists and critics from around Europe. Under the aegis of Ekemel, the Athens-based European centre for literary translation, 10 leading Greek authors discussed their work. I confess that I went to Rhodes fearing some pretty dry sessions, sweetened by the glorious backdrop. (The island's International Centre for Writers and Translators occupies a restored Ottoman-period villa perched above the cobalt-blue Aegean.) In the event, the view from the seminar room matched that from the terrace in sparkle and scope.

Greek fiction flourishes across a broad span of genres, from excursions into the still-controversial era of occupation and civil war to futuristic satire, hard-boiled thrillers and (a strangely recurrent motif, this) the "gastronomic" novel that links the cult of fine food to sex, crime and consumerism. As ever, for a British observer, fascination with the writers' work was tempered by frustration that we can, so far, read little of it in English translation. Germans can discover the fiction of Themelis; and so, significantly, can Turks (as both author and adviser, he challenges the Greeks' obsession with their neighbour-rival). The British can't, which is sadly typical.

Yet our modern Greek cupboard is not quite bare. Arcadia has just published Pavlos Matesis's ground-breaking novel The Daughter (translated by Fred A Reed; £11.99). Its bitterly eloquent first-person narrative of a provincial childhood in the shadow of war should - like so much Greek fiction about the tragic 1940s and their aftermath - open the misty eyes of Captain Corelli followers. For a savoury taste of the Greek cookery-plus-conspiracy novel, you can sample Les Liaisons Culinaires by Ekemel's president Andreas Staikos (from Harvill, in Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife's delectable translation). Before too long, British readers may enjoy an introduction to the gritty, atmospheric Athenian thrillers of Petros Markaris, featuring the Rebus-like Inspector Haritos. Eventually, The Benefit of Doubt by Nikos Panayotopoulos should also land on these shores. This is a bold and witty dystopian fable based on the isolation of a special gene for artistic talent.

That still leaves plenty of important Greek novels with, as yet, no access to the English-language market. I left Rhodes itching to read - among others - Little England by Ioanna Karystiani, set among the seafaring families of Andhros (the community's nickname stems from its maritime links with the other end of Europe); and Eleni Yannakaki's sensational début, Of Taste and other Horrors. She adds some playful, postmodern spice to the cookery theme, with her gourmet-hero and the three women in his tangled life. Then there's Nikos Themelis. He may prefer international invisibility in politics, but certainly doesn't merit it in fiction. Perhaps our own Alastair Campbell could have a word in the right ear.

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