Obituary: Alexandros Kotzias
Friday 25 September 1992
Alexandros Kotzias, widely regarded as the most important Greek novelist of the postwar generation, leaves behind an impressive literary oeuvre spanning four decades. His seven novels (1953-85) and four masterly nouvelles (1987-91) - the fourth, To sokaki ('The Alleyway'), is due for publication this year - have given new impetus to contemporary Greek literature. His plays, translations, historical narratives, literary and critical essays provide ample evidence of his proficiency in all these genres, a considerable achievement for a family man who made his living as a professional journalist and wrote in his spare time. It was only during the last 10 pensionable years of his life that Kotzias was able to work without the strictures and deadlines of the daily press to which he devoted 30 working years of his life.
Invited to speak at the Goulandris-Horn Foundation in Athens last February on his personal experiences as a writer, he described the novelist as the victim of an inexorable inspirational force which demands his complete devotion to the creative task: 'You are commanded - seven days a week, as many hours each day as you possibly can, instead of resting or going out as other men do, in spite of pressing family, professional, even health requirements - to sit with pen and paper to write a story. This story will eventually assume such shape and form on the printed page that you - and a few others, mostly unknown to you - will instinctively, in the privacy of reading, recognise it as the real thing: a novel.'
Kotzias was fortunate to have enlisted early in his life a silent, resourceful partner to his tyrannical Muse. His wife, Eleni, proved as selfless and hard-working for his sake as he for the Muse's. They were devoted to each other and shared a happy family life.
Kotzias has at times been singled out for the roughness of his style, the garish expressionism of his prose. His heroes are often outcasts, underdogs, down-and-outs, social misfits. Their language is the language of terror, betrayal, sexual violence, physical or psychological abuse. Yet his realism, based invariably on dense, suggestive plot structures, achieves in his major novels accurate, almost clairvoyant renderings of contemporary Greek history. The English reader may gain a glimpse of Kotzias's style in Jaguar, his only translated work (published 1991 in the Kedros Modern Greek Writers Series); the translation of his major novels remains a daunting if not impossible task.
Kotzias was 14 when the Second World War broke out and Greece was occupied by the Germans (1939-44). His father's business was destroyed and during the civil insurrection of December 1944 his family home, situated in the no-man's land between the Communist and right-wing defence lines, was set on fire and looted repeatedly by gangs belonging to both sides. He joined for a time the EAM (National Liberation Front) but withdrew soon after. Following a successful recovery from tuberculosis, he enrolled at the Athens Law School.
In 1947 Kotzias published his first short story, 'The Woman with Fake Pearls', in the literary journal Neos Logos. He began to earn a living by translating Dostoevsky's novels and later George Finlay's famous History of the Greek Revolution (1954). He joined several newspapers as a reporting journalist and wrote freelance theatrical and literary reviews. His first novel, Poliorkia ('Siege', 1953, revised 1961), created a controversy that has remained peripheral to his work since then.
At a time when the doctrines of 'social realism' held sway over Greek fiction, the hero of Siege, a partisan of the Right who is ambushed by the Communists and dies bravely, broke the standard literary norm. Kotzias was branded 'an apologist of the Right' and pilloried by the all-powerful literary establishment of the Left. The wounds of Greece's bloody Civil War (1944-49) had barely begun to heal.
His second novel, Mia skotini hypothesi ('A Dark Case', 1954, revised 1963), is a Dostoevskyan tale of loneliness, introspection and forbidden love while O Eosforos ('Lucifer', 1959, revised 1981) tells the tragic story of a group of young men and women involved in revolutionary politics most of whom sacrifice their personal happiness for the sake of rigid, destructive ideologies. E apopeira ('The Attempt', 1964) received the Group of 12 Prize for best novel.
O gennaios Telemachos ('Brave Telemachos', 1972) delves into the fate of a family divided and betrayed by the overweening pride of the father, an Athenian technocrat, corrupt businessman and Nazi sympathiser. Antipoesis archis ('False Personation', 1979) is considered Kotzias's masterpiece, a highly successful, highly complex novel now into its eighth edition. Its tight plot encompasses three days of political turmoil in November 1974 which brought down the military dictatorship. The hero, a wretched thug working for the Athens police, schemes and blackmails his way into a position of responsibility; he is issued with a gun and ordered to defend the state against the students barricaded within the Polytechnic Institute. Menios Katsandonis knows that his own children are among the rebels and vows to turn them in - this, after all, is part and parcel of his lifelong occupation.
The novel's subplot works as an intelligent parody of Menios's compulsive childhood reading, a 19th-century heroic romance in which a fearless Greek chieftain persistently triumphs over a host of inept Ottoman pashas. In this archetypal if simplistic struggle of Good versus Evil, Menios pathetically identifies with the good chieftain with whom he shares the same glorious surname. (A case of, say, John Roy Esq appropriating the fame of Rob.)
Fantastiki Peripeteia ('An Imaginary Adventure', 1985), which won the National Book Award, comes closer than any other of Kotzias's novels to social satire. A literary impostor attempts to cash in his poetic bombast for fame and glory in the real world; the real world being Greek society, he succeeds with a fair degree of impunity.
Kotzias's novelistic memory has an affinity with 19th-century masters of the genre: he revises, rewrites, expands on old material, works new characters or events into his old plots. Kotzias's Athens resembles in this respect Dickens's London - a realistic cityscape where turns and twists of the imagination germinate plots with historical antecedents. During the last decade of his life, he embarked upon a series of nouvelles, each working itself delicately into the plots of his previous novels, in chronological order. He completed four in this projected 'heptalogy' under the general title 'The Children of Kronos': Iaguaros ('Jaguar', 1987), E michani ('The Machine', 1990), O pygmachos ('The Boxer', 1991) and To sokaki ('The Alley-way'), each set within a 24-hour time cocoon postdating events in the novel by one generation and each interpreting the preceding novel as a roman a clef. The three nouvelles published to date have been major successes and have stimulated new interest in Kotzias's early novels.
Kotzias's literary criticism, collected in four volumes (1983, 1984, 1986, 1992), always kept a keen eye for new, original writing and particularly encouraged young novelists. Kotzias's exceptional achievement was the creation and editorship of the Kathimerini Literary Section (1976-82), a Thursday supplement to this prestigious daily newspaper. His expansive literary supplement allowed for conflicting viewpoints, generated lively debate and set high standards. Everybody who was anybody in Greek letters contributed to it. Its eight-year lease of life came to an end because, it was argued, it had increased circulation by a mere 3,000 copies and was not worth the trouble.
Kotzias's translations (mostly from English) included Koestler, Flannery O'Connor, Robert Graves and, perhaps surprisingly, Nicholas Gage's recent bestseller Eleni. Translated for the nation where this real-life story of war and betrayal happened, the Greek Eleni (1983) landed Kotzias in the middle of yet another literary feud between conflicting sides of the Civil War. The Greek edition went into several printings and Kotzias liked to observe that it had sold more copies than any of his own novels.
Kotzias was a determined opponent of the dictatorship that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974 and a warm supporter of the metapolitefsis, the return to parliamentary democracy reinstated in 1974-75 by Constantine Karamanlis. During the junta years he signed the 'Declaration of Eighteen Authors' against the colonels, contributed to three subversive volumes (Eighteen Texts, 1969; New Texts, 1970; New Texts II, 1971) and was one of the founding editors of the democratic journal Synecheia. He was put in prison, violently interrogated and barred from earning a living through journalistic work.
Following a brief sojourn at the press office of the Greek Embassy in London (1975), he served as cultural adviser and press secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1976-81). In 1982 he was instrumental in creating the Society of Greek Authors, a new body representing authors' rights, independent of government interference. He was elected its vice-president (1982-84) and since then has had consistently polled the highest number of votes in all society elections.
A measure of the unequivocal praise elicited by Kotzias's work is reflected in statements issued by both the prime minister and the leader of the left coalition: the former praised his independence of mind and democratic principles; the latter his literary achievements. He remained at the time of his untimely death the pre-eminent representative of the literature of a whole generation.
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