Boyd Tonkin: The Greek crisis tested culture as well as society. Can writers ride out the storm?

The Week in Books

As a packed audience at the Southbank Centre heard from economist Michael Jacobides, the drawn-out crisis in Greece has prompted as least as much "Schadenfreude" as "solidarity" among foreign observers. How apt, a cynic (good Greek word) might think: only a German concept can properly capture outsiders' pleasure in the afflicted nation's suffering.

Last weekend's "Greece is the Word!" mini-festival of Greek literature and arts was, however, the occasion for some long-overdue solidarity. Not least from me. During the good times, I happily accepted the hospitality of Ekebi – the recently-axed National Book Centre of Greece – and so met a selection of Greek writers in gorgeous locations on the islands of Rhodes and Paros. Like so many state entities, Ekebi is no more: yet another victim of the slash-and-burn policies that may – or may not – open the road to recovery.

One of those authors spoke at the South Bank, in conversation with Victoria Hislop – who, in many ways, goes on giving back to the country that nurtured her bestsellers The Island and The Thread. Ioanna Karystiani comes originally from Crete, but I first heard her in Rhodes discussing the novel entitled, in Greek, "Little England": Mikra Anglia. Set on the seafaring island of Andros in the northern Cyclades, where she lives and which has that nickname in Greece, this turbulent saga of a sailors' clan – as stormily dramatic as the seas they have to navigate – was translated as The Jasmine Isle. (I still prefer "Little England".) A film of the book opens soon in Greece.

Karystiani reports that, since the crisis struck, her notebooks are "full of the names of relatives and friends who have lost their jobs, who are losing their houses". As much as in the ancient world, the country is "still full of tragedies". Yet she retains a faith that "the best way to communicate between people of different countries is to exchange our stories". Her unsparing, compelling novel of a mother's tormented love for a criminal son, Back to Delphi (translated by Konstantine Matsoukas for Europa Editions), dates from 2010. Even at that edge-of-the-abyss moment, it depicts a Greece ill at ease with rudderless change, a place where "the smooth life" proves elusive.

After all the shutdowns and cutbacks, can Greek writers flourish? It was salutary to learn that, even prior to the crash, public funding seldom paid for much. "We don't need much money," said the poet Dionysis Kapsalis, "We just go and read. I've never been paid to read poetry – that would be the day."

Novelist Alexis Stamatis – check out his picaresque novel Bar Flaubert (Arcadia Books) – lamented that "We are completely alone. Nobody cares about us." Poet Katerina Iliopoulou confirmed that pre-crisis subsidy was "minimal". "We come from a culture of overcoming, of transcendence. We are used to doing things for ourselves rather than relying on institutions." By this time, I was thinking back to my Ekebi-supported symposia and feeling almost as guilty as Aeschylus' Orestes, pursued by the avenging Furies.

To appease their terrible wrath, the Furies were of course known as the Eumenides – the Kindly Ones. Might their harrowing of modern Greece in the form of savage austerity lead to good, just as those fatal goddesses eventually brought justice to Athens? Journalist Maria Margaronis sounded a genuinely tragic note when she commented that "Greece has been flayed to the bone and people have to face what they really are."

No one should wish meltdown and emergency on any land as a prelude to cultural renewal. Yet the authors sounded hopeful for their art, if not for the GDP. Ioanna Karystiani cited a sailors' proverb for stormy weather from Andros: "Whoever drowns will repent." In other words, the skies will clear. "After the rough seas, there will be calm again."

A sportsman's sketches: classics in the ring

Stirring news – War and Peace has hit the bestseller lists. No, forget Tolstoy: we're talking about the memoir by welterweight champ Ricky Hatton. Perhaps other sporting legends could nod to the Russian classics with their ghosted apologias. Given the inter-generational strife at Man Utd, Sir Alex Ferguson might opt for Fathers and Sons. Lance Armstrong? Well, Crime and Punishment awaits if he ever wants to publish an update. As for The Idiot – any number of pampered Premier League sociopaths would fit the bill.

Supersized: the mighty wimp

The book trade never did make much sense. Now it makes less than ever. At a time when truly excellent authors can sometimes struggle to achieve four-figure sales (yes, four not five) with a first edition, the rewards – and the numbers – available to a minute elite still soar. Next month, Penguin will publish Hard Luck, the eighth in Jeff Kinney's Dairy of a Wimpy Kid series, with an initial print-run of 800,000

– their largest ever for a children's title. Kinney, who has sold six million copies in the UK, will tour the country in a sort of junior rock-god progress around major venues. Do I protest? Not in the slightest. If even a fraction of those kids picks up the book bug, preferably in its actual rather than virtual form, he will be doing a power of good. As with Harry Potter, though, bookshops should plan to piggyback other authors on the wimp's mighty shoulders.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing