The Dedalus book of Greek fantasy
[ bookreviews ]
A splendid collection, beginning with its very cover-design, reproduced from Theseus and the Minotaur by Nikos Engonopoulos. That notable poet is not actually represented herein, but his bold and striking painting expresses certain of the mythic and metamorphic preoccupations and richly poetic themes gathered together by this substantial prose anthology.
There are thirty contributions from as many authors - complete stories, as opposed to extracts from longer works - and of the writers included, the earliest was born in 1811, the youngest in 1963. In effect, these authors span the period dating from several years prior to Greek Independence through to the era just before the most recent (and let's hope the last!) military dictatorship imposed upon Greece... Lately, however, this small, often ill-starred, but always obstinately creative country has been relishing some undoubted national triumphs: achieving Republicanism, winning the European Cup, hosting the 2004 Olympics. Yet despite such significant and encouraging achievements, and the general tradition and influence of British Philhellenism notwithstanding, all too few Greek writers are ever translated into English.
So the exceptionally resourceful editor-translator David Connolly should be congratulated first and foremost: he's made available to English readers a lively, remarkably wide-ranging selection of work in a variety of styles and voices, with scarcely a dud in the entire book. But then Dr. Connolly, apart from being a distinguished academic, is an award-winning translator and, best of all, according to his biography given here, he "has lived in Greece since 1979" and is "a naturalized Greek". (The latter breed is a rare species among Anglophone writers: the late Kevin Andrews, author of The Flight of Ikaros  - one of the best books ever on Greece and the Greeks - is one such; there are few others.) Connolly's anthology, "the first collection of its kind... almost all... translated into English for the first time", is therefore something of a milestone on various counts: it provides and contrasts old and new texts, with useful information and biographical notes on numerous writers who deserve to be better known, and is preceded by a brief if enlightening literary-historical Introduction. As the back-cover blurb justly states, "the richness and diversity of the stories reflects the long tradition of fantasy in ancient and mediaeval Greek literature, ranging from Homer to Lucian and from the medieval romances to the popular folk song."
Indeed, very many poets and authors better known for their work in other genres seem fascinated by the liberating effect of the fantastic, the transforming power of dreams and memory, and all those myriad shapes and routes the restless imagination can assume, follow or explore. Here, naturally, are the influential and pioneering Greek Surrealists, Embiricos and Valaoritis, but so too, less expectedly, is the great poet of Alexandria, Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) telling a short tall tale of an encounter with the devil. Other narratives in the collection deal with death and damnation, vampires, hauntings, alchemists, interplanetary travel, witchery, curses, enchantment, obsession, ill-fated quests and every variety of the grotesque and the curious.
But Connolly also helps to explain how and why "fantasy literature has begun to interest a wider readership in Greece only in the last couple of decades". Since the 1821 Greek War of Independence and well on into the 20th century, Greek literature has itself been influenced, perhaps all too often, largely "by foreign models or dominated by the depiction of Greek manners and customs, culminating in writing characterised by a search for national identity, by the search for Greekness". The result has been that for quite a long period fantasy literature in the broadest sense was "marginalized and relegated to the realm of non-serious literature".
As for what constitutes 'serious' literature, 21st century readers aren't so quick to make or trust narrow categories, and are less likely to be taken in by undue solemnity and intellectual pretensions. How pleasing, therefore, to find that the second piece here is a witty, satirical fairytale by Emmanuel Royidis (1836-1904). I knew of Royidis previously only through the 1950's version of his 19th century novel, Pope Joan, which its translator Lawrence Durrell rightly called "a masterpiece of irreverence". Royidis, later the Director of the National Library, was excommunicated as a result of his brilliant anti-clerical satire! Connolly's anthology in fact gets off to a flying (or flaying) start, since the first story, too, is by another excommunicated satirist, the poet and travel-writer Lascaratos.
I now believe - as an ex-Greek Orthodox author who saw the light of reason in adolescence and thereafter hopefully progressed toward being a confirmed anti-religionist - that excommunication confers its own special distinction. It is effectively a significant mark of quality, subversion and originality, an unintentional prize rather than an intended stigma. Witness, in the 20th century, two other great Hellenic creative spirits, the Cretan-born Nikos Kazantzakis and film-director Theo Angelopoulos... I don't know if Yorgos Yatromanolakis (b.1940), another Cretan, winner of both the Kazantzakis and Greek State Prizes, and here represented by a cunningly satirical take on religious orthodoxy, 'Period of Grace', is himself in danger of excommunication, but I wouldn't bet on it. He's well worth reading, anyhow, like almost all the other writers in the book - the better known names from an earlier era, such as Papadiamantis and the painter Kontoglou, fittingly alongside newer or less familiar ones, Panorios, Houliaras and Kourtovik. (Incidentally, Yatromanolakis has several novels also published in the UK by Dedalus: among them the excellent Story of a Vendetta . Another, Eroticon, is translated by David Connolly, in itself now recommendation enough.)
Whatever one's level of credulity, though, there's religious fanaticism and superstition aplenty still to be found in most countries: much persists in Greece to this day, as Connolly's excellent anthology suggests. More serious alas, and fantastic too, are those horrible fabulations and ever weirder suspensions of reason currently proliferating among the so-called Great Leaders of this world. Yet the old pagan and Greek myths endure also - in many ways far more poetic, powerful and attractive visions. And they endure even as, via the latest advances of science and technology, new mythologies are being born and described daily. Let's hope our world has time enough left to appreciate and assess such wonders and that, meanwhile, open-minded readers take this chance to discover some ancient and modern Hellenic journeys into realms of the marvellous.