Boyd Tonkin: The Greek crisis tested culture as well as society. Can writers ride out the storm?
The Week in Books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Friday 25 October 2013
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.
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