Antonis Samarakis, writer: born Athens 16 August 1919; married; died Pilos, Greece 8 August 2003.
The Greek writer Antonis Samarakis, in his novel To Lathos (The Flaw), in 1965 predicted the imposition of dictatorship in his country; the book became a bestseller in 25 languages and an international film.
Born in Athens in 1919, Samarakis entered the Ministry of Labour in 1935. During the dictatorship of General Ioannis Metaxas in the late Thirties, he resigned his post; during the Second World War, when his country was occupied by Germany and Italy, he was condemned to death but escaped. In 1945 he returned to the Ministry. By this time he had already begun writing. His early interest, as has often been the case in Greece, was in poetry; Samarakis' first significant publication, a group of 50 poems written for children, included in an anthology of 1947, already bears witness to the other great commitment in his life besides writing, to the predicament of the young in preparing for adult life in the post-war world.
Between 1954 and 1973 Samarakis published two novels and four collections of short stories. Unusually for a writer in Greece at this time, his early works did well enough commercially to allow him to leave the ministry in 1963. Two years later came his most spectacular success: his second novel, The Flaw, is set in an unnamed, unidentifiable country where the military dictatorship and its agents are at once brutal and unprecedentedly crass.
The book had already become a bestseller when, in 1967, the military dictatorship of the "Colonels" was imposed in Greece, at a stroke turning Samarakis's caricature into a reality. As the Colonels continued to hold on to power for the next seven years, The Flaw came to be translated into more than 25 languages and in 1974 was filmed.
In 1970 the regime punished Samarakis by refusing to renew his passport. He promptly turned the humiliating experience into bitter comedy in one of his last short stories, which gives its title to the collection To Diavatirio ("The Passport", 1973). Already, Samarakis had begun to offer his interests and expertise from the Greek Ministry of Labour to international bodies, and was becoming an indefatigable traveller. In 1968 and 1969 he had taken part in an International Labour Organisation mission to several African nations including Guinea. After civilian rule had returned to Greece in 1974 (and with his passport now restored to him), Samarakis went on to work for Unicef and Unesco.
Under the aegis of Unicef, he became well known as a champion of children's rights, and at home in Greece instituted the "children's parliament", when youngsters from all over the country take over the debating chamber for a day. For Unesco, he became involved in famine relief in Ethiopia, a topic on which he also wrote vividly in the Greek press. Although active in these spheres well into his seventies, Samarakis published no new fiction after the end of the dictatorship.
In English, The Flaw has long been out of print; in Greece Samarakis continues to be read, and his death drew forth an affectionate tribute from the Greek prime minister, Kostas Simitis. But Greek fiction has experienced enormous changes since the 1960s, and Samarakis' engaging but undemanding championship of good causes, and of a bland middle road between the self-consciously literary and the popular, has been upstaged by the advent of postmodernism since the 1980s.
Samarakis' fiction stands up robustly for the little people, the ordinary people and their everyday concerns. Usually his characters do not even have names. One of these, in "Ziteitai Elpis" ("Wanted: hope"), the title story of his first collection, in 1954, finds himself adrift and implicitly threatened by the madness of the world around him, conveyed through the clichéd headlines of his afternoon newspaper. A later story ends with the film title blazoned on a local Athens cinema: It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Whether they know it or not, the characters in Samarakis's fiction are victims of a system over which they have no control and often understand little either; in one memorable instance, in a spectacular coup de théâtre, the protagonist turns out after several pages to be a stray horse.
Like Heinrich Böll, Samarakis in his fiction invariably found the best in people: the "flaw", in the novel of that title, turns out to lie in innate human goodness, for which the "perfect" totalitaritan system had failed to allow. As happens with some of Böll's novels too, the reader comes away warmed by the imagination that could create these people, but not always convinced that the world can be so neatly divided between decent individuals and inhuman systems.
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