World » Europe » Greece

Books on the Real Greece

recommended by Christos Chomenidis

Niki by Christos Chomenidis

by Christos Chomenidis


Greek myths are not all classical tales of heroes and tempestuous gods. Here, the novelist Christos Chomenidis chooses five books that get to the heart of what it really means to hail from Greece, and why it's hard to live in the wake of the Ancients.

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

Niki by Christos Chomenidis

by Christos Chomenidis

Buy all books

Your chosen subject, “the real Greece”, implies that there is a false Greece. What constitutes the false Greece and how far can we trace it back?

What we call Greece began as the first nation of the Ottoman Empire to rebel and become an independent state in the early 19th century—Bulgaria, Serbia, and the other Balkan countries followed. The Greek war of independence was based on the idea that Greece would rise from the ashes and reconnect with the Ancients; the idea is that we are the great, great, great grandchildren of the Ancients and that we have to become free again in order to rebuild the ancient glory. This was a very trendy idea in Europe in the first decades of the 19th century and there were people—superstars of the era, such as Byron—who helped the Greeks to gain independence but in so doing gave them the idea that they could rebuild this ancient glory. It was a very effective vision, but also a trap.

It was big on romance and heroism, with little time for anything else.

Yes, back in the 19th century, romance and heroism were the main things—around this time, Greek families started to give their children ancient Greek names. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it hadn’t been the fashion to baptise your child Themistocles or Aristotle. They used Christian names. When the romantic trend came, they started to give ancient names, which forced the country to follow a tradition—I mean, of course there is a link between us and the ancients, even the language is more or less the same—but this super-ego became very heavy for the Greeks. It’s like having a grandmother who was a superstar beauty known around the world and, from the moment you are born, everybody tells you that you have to become like them – and so you start dressing like your grandmother. It’s a burden, isn’t it?

It seems very fitting that a country famous for weaving powerful myths should itself become wrapped up in them. And where Byron led, others followed, putting their own spin on things.

It’s a long story. Before the Second World War, many very significant persons came to Greece and captured it in their diaries and reminiscences. The most classic example is Henry Miller. In the early 1930s, Miller met very many people, among them the great poet Giorgos Seferis, who won the Nobel Prize in 1963, and the writer Giorgos Katsimbalis who was a central figure on the literary scene. He was very clever, gifted, rich and he gave money to poets and writers—he was a flamboyant personality. Miller was extremely enthusiastic about him and wrote The Colossus of Maroussi. Then there were the Durrell brothers, especially the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who spent summers in Corfu And some years later, after the war, James Merrill came, too, the son of the co-founder of the investment firm Merrill Lynch and a very gifted young, gay poet. He was charmed; he entered the circle of poets and writers, and he supported – economically – Kimon Friar, the first English translator of Nikos Kazantzakis [author of Zorba the Greek and other books]. Zorba started a trend and within the next five or ten years there was movie, with Anthony Quinn, then a musical, and this spread stories of tzatziki, retsina, the Greek way of living. It made it extremely trendy.

“In 1974 the dictatorship ended and democracy was back, and we returned to myth-making”

After the Zorba period of the fifties, in 1967, there is the coup d’état and the start of dictatorship. There follows a second wave of interest focused on Greek resistance. So we have this wonderful place, this magic place that is under a dictatorship, constructed by the Americans, let’s say—because that was the rumour—and we have this Greek goddess, the actress Melina Mercouri, who embodies the struggle against the dictatorship.

Then in 1974 the dictatorship ends and democracy is back in Greece, and we return to myth-making; a short time after, Greece enters the European Community. This is a critical moment for us. It is the first time that we are told that we officially belong to Europe, in every way.

So Greece becomes a part of a wider, European story.

Yes, and this is OK until 2010 when the Greek state goes bankrupt; and from then life in Greece changed. We had a very nice way of life – the middle-class was giant; you never saw poor people or unemployed people in Greece; we had lots of people coming from other countries, from the Balkans, Albania, ex-Soviet countries, to work. It was a paradise of consumption. It was a belle époque, and this époque, all of a sudden, stopped, and the politicians—Greeks and Europeans—tell us that the party is over, that we have bankrupted the state. They tell us we don’t produce anything; we spend too much, more than we produce. And so we have to find another way of living. This is highly traumatic. You don’t go bankrupt from one day to the next—clearly there had been problems with our image for many years, but nobody rang a bell for us. We were like sleepwalkers.

In effect you were being told that the “real” Greece that you thought you lived in was a dream and what has followed—consecutive financial crises, austerity, closed up shops, evictions, the rise of the far-Right—was in fact the “real” Greece.

Right, but there is no one “real” Greece, just like there is no one version of you or me. It was very nice to fantasise that there were men like Alex Zorba, that Greece is a place of happiness, consumption and easy-going life. This didn’t work out. When the Greek state went bankrupt, there was the first wave of populism bringing many new fantasies. For example, from comedian economists like Yannis Varoufakis [who went on to become, briefly, in 2015, Finance Minister of Alexis Tsipras’s left-wing government], we hear that it is all a conspiracy by the Germans and the rich Europeans in order to buy Greece or to turn Greeks into slaves. This was very charming to the ears of the Greeks. And at the same time the neo-Nazis [Chrysí Avgí; Golden Dawn] did very well at the elections.

So what you’re offering here, in the books you’ve chosen, is an end to simplistic, totalizing Greek narratives; instead we have variety, multiplicity, contradiction. The first book you’ve chosen is a memoir, Markos Vamvakaris: The Man and the Bouzouki, published in Greece in 1972. (A new English translation, by Noonie Minogue, appeared last year.)

This is one of the greatest books I have ever read. It’s greater than another more famous memoir, by Yannis Makriyannis, a hero of the war of independence, which has been, for more than a century, like a Holy Bible to the Greeks. But Vamvakaris’s memoirs are the most earnest and honest descriptions of his life, of the life of somebody who belongs to the underworld, who was born a Roman Catholic in 1905 on the small island of Syros. He was very poor and worked as a slaughterer, but at the same time he was a musician.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

He played the bouzouki [a then-unpopular mandolin-like instrument brought to Greece in the 1900s by immigrants from Asia Minor]. He was very gifted and he created Rebetiko – a whole new musical style. It’s something like the blues in America – the melody is very simple. The spirit is: ‘we belong to the underworld, we live against, or beneath, the law; we like to stroll around and smoke marijuana; we love women’, and the women in Rebetiko are much more liberated than women in other songs. You could say that Vamvakaris’s memoirs are like The Greek Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday.

It’s the voice of a person, or group, that hasn’t been heard before.

But on top of that, when Vamvakaris dictated his memoir, when he was 70 years old, he turned out to be a gifted narrator. The memoir is extremely good, extremely significant. He describes real life in Greece at the point where the working-class meets the underworld, before the Second World War. The writing is raw, straightforward – not lyrical or poetical in a stylistic way, but poetical in a cultural way: it’s about the way he lived his life.

How is he remembered in Greece?

The book is not very well-known. But Vamvakaris is remembered as the patriarch of folk music. He is a giant. Look him up on YouTube—one song, ‘The Roman Catholic Girl from Syros’, is like the second national anthem.

Next we have a novel by Costas Taktsis, To Trito Stefani, first published in 1962 [The Third Wedding in English]. It’s a family saga that was not immediately popular with Greek readers. Why was that?

People don’t like the whole truth. In the real world and in art as well.

Was he washing the country’s dirty linen in public?

You could say that. People like to believe that they are better or more heroic than they really are. Let’s say that Kazantzakis, who is a great novelist, presents us with Alex Zorba, who is a great man. But there is a saying that every man is a hybrid of bird and snake. Kazantzakis describes only the bird and says nearly nothing about the snake. Taktsis gives us both.

It was perhaps more successful with Anglophone readers: it was the first modern Greek novel to be published by Penguin, in 1971, in a translation by Leslie Finer. It was described by a San Francisco Chronicle reviewer as, “By far the greatest novel Greece has produced”. What was its appeal?

After the critics, it still didn’t sell many copies. But The Third Wedding offers a picture to those who really want to understand how the bourgeoisie in Greece was. It’s real people, in real situations without heroism and poetic narrations. There was a critic who said that if life itself were talking, it would talk like Taktsis in this novel. It is a masterpiece and in fact he became stuck after it. He wrote just this one novel, and about 20 very nice short stories. Nothing else. He was trapped by the significance of this novel. When a writer starts with a masterpiece it is very different to continue because of the fear that people will say the second novel is not as good.

And presumably, given the novel’s weak domestic reception, there wasn’t much encouragement from the Greek establishment?

No. They were suspicious of his personality. He had a double life. He was a writer and journalist, and a transvestite who would walk the streets and have sex for money.

That makes him sounds a bit like a Greek Pasolini – an enfant terrible and denizen of the underworld. And like Pasolini, Taktsis was murdered in mysterious circumstances, in 1988.

Except that Pasolini was paying for sex, or love, whereas Taktsis was being paid. He was a professional whore. It was very radical, to say the least. But don’t imagine that his novel is sexy or pornographic like his life; it isn’t at all – it’s about the ordinary life of an ordinary family in Athens, from the 1920s to the 60s.

An eventful period…

Yes. We may say that Greek history is full of wars and revolutions and coups and other great political incidents; but real life went on. Ordinary people didn’t always experience the turbulence in their daily life. History is a backdrop to daily dramas and this is what Taktsis shows.

Is his legacy a strong one?

Every Greek who is interested in Greek literature has read, or has to read, The Third Wedding. It belongs to the canon.

Andreas Empeirikos, the author of Oktana (1975), a volume of poems and short stories, is another flamboyant character: as well as being a writer, he was a practicing psychoanalyst, who hung around with Marguerite Yourcenar and René Laforgue, and is credited with introducing the country to surrealism. How did that go down in Greece?

Empeirikos was the member of a very rich family of ship owners. The Greek ship owners are internationalists. He was born in Romania and moved soon after to a small island in the Aegean Sea. He didn’t want to become just a ship owner. He followed Trotsky’s ideas and so he couldn’t allow himself to be the boss—he wrote a letter to his family telling them all this and that he was quitting the family business. So he went to Paris where he met Marie Bonaparte, who was a very prominent (and the first woman) psychoanalyst.

“People don’t like the whole truth. In the real world, and in art as well”

She was married to a Greek prince, and so was in fact princess of Greece. She was very close to Freud. Empeirikos was attracted by Freudian theory and was analysed himself—by Bonaparte, I imagine—and he became an analyst himself. And at the same time he started writing surrealist poems. When he came back to Greece in the late 1930s, he gave a lecture about surrealism, and it caused a big scandal in Athenian society. Imagine: he was a member of the famous Empeirikos family, and many people went expecting to hear a ship-owner’s boy talking about the economy, or developments in the shipping industry, or something. They heard him reading these poems! They were shocked. They mocked him. He became in their eyes an anecdote, a funny character.

And yet the 1979 Nobel Prize winner Odysseas Elytis called him “a visionary and a prophet.” He was a prominent member, alongside Giorgos Seferis, of the ‘Generation of the Thirties’, a group of Modernist Greek writers who forced a break with the previous generation of writers. But not everyone was on-board with his vision?

He was a prominent figure in many ways. He was not just a poet; he was an analyst and a great photographer, too. But, to make you understand the bias of Greek society, in order to prevent him for practicing as an analyst, they voted through a law that said that to work as an analyst, you had to be a doctor. He was not a doctor, and so he was forbidden from practicing.

Presumably, his literature met with just as much resistance.

Yes, the Greek establishment in general is not progressive.

His first collection, Ipsikaminos (Blast Furnace), from 1935, was very much what you might expect of a young surrealist breaking onto the scene: unpunctuated, unconventional and erotic, with plenty of heresy thrown in for good measure. It made his name. Did Oktana continue in that vein?

He started as a pure surrealist, like Andre Breton, but, as the years passed, he found his own voice. When you read these late poems, you understand that there is a unique style that only Empeirikos has. In Oktana you find something that is somewhere between poems, short stories and prophesies. If my English were much better I would translate them myself because I think, even today, they would be understood by English readers as something special. He talks like a prophet.

“In Oktana you find something that is somewhere between poems, short stories and prophesies”

But what I really want to emphasize with this book choice is that Empeirikos has nothing to do with archetypes; he doesn’t talk about ancient Greek traditions or political dramas in Greece. He talks about everything, globally. He has an extremely good poem/short-story where the main character is an American Mormon; another, takes place in South America, another in Africa. He has even written a novel, 3,000 pages long, about a steamboat that goes from Liverpool to New York and during the trip there are sexual orgies of all kinds between men and women, men and men, women and women. In some ways, he’s similar to the Marquis de Sade but there is also a vast difference: de Sade is a sadist, of course, while Empeirikos believed that love and sex was happiness.

And that by freeing the body you could free the mind and begin a new way of being?

Yes, and this is universal. Not just for Greece. He is writing about the human condition.

After Empeirikos’s literary offerings let’s dip into the murky world of crime fiction. Your next book is Deadline in Athens by Petros Markaris (2000; translated by David Connolly in 2004). Markaris is famed for intricate Athens-based plots and corrupt characters that are all-too believable. Tell us about the historical context of this novel and the society it portrays.

The significance of Petros Markaris is not that he writes crime novels that are very mysterious. His career rests on the way that he describes everyday life in Athens. The mystery is an alibi, a way of talking about ordinary people in an ordinary city that is not New York, London or Paris. He knows and loves the city itself. He’s a very urban novelist, and the fact that so many people in so many counties read Markaris proves that Athens and the Athenian life can attract foreigners.

This novel, the first in a series, focuses on the murder of a prominent TV journalist, struck down in the studio just before she was due to break some very sensitive news. Inspector Costas Haritos, a junta-trained homicide squad leader, is called to the scene. He’s a very conflicted character, racked with regrets over a dark past in which he almost certainly assisted the military regime in the torture of leftist prisoners; married to a woman with no aim apart from to watch the next soap opera but father to a fiercely ambitious daughter at law school; and bemoans the loss of Greek traditions while loving imported foods. He seems in many ways to be an embodiment of the awkward symbiosis of past and present, idealism or myths and reality you’ve described.

“Really, though, the main character of Markaris’s novel is Athens, the city itself”

He’s a typical Greek character, a middle-aged guy. You can’t say he’s extremely well educated but he knows many things. He’s an ordinary person, not especially good-looking or brave. He lives like a petit-bourgeois in Greece. He’s a nice person, over all, with a wife and daughter. And at the same time, he solves mysteries. He has these small passions, you know, like Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple; and one of these small passions is for dictionaries. He collects dictionaries and tries to learn all the meanings of words. Really, though, the main character of Markaris’s novel is Athens, the city itself. It’s the city liberated from its myths: the Athens of small flats, narrow roads where you can’t find where to park your car, and kiosks where you buy papers and cigarettes, and many, many cafes. Where people live so close to Acropolis and yet so far from it. Here, someone can spend all his life a kilometre from the hill of Acropolis and seldom look at it. You forget where you are—as with the pyramids of Cairo. If you are so close to such a monument you have not other choice but to become blind to it.

A bit like living with your superstar grandmother?

Exactly the same.

From one strange scenario to the next. Your last book is No! I’m a Stork! (2006) by the comic artist Arkás, an allegorical gem of a story about a little sparrow who rejects his own kind because he sees no future in the species.

It is hilarious. Very to the point. His characters are so well and funnily designed. He has a special talent for animals – most of his characters are animals. I would pay money to make Arkas into an honored, national figure.

He’s an interesting figure as it is. No one knows who he is. Do you think this helps to make his wit almost universal, evergreen?

Yes, it’s very funny that nobody knows who he is. To tell you the truth I have met him once… But he’s not the kind of guy who gives interviews or who talks in any other way than in his strips. He doesn’t care about status. He doesn’t need to care. His work is so hilarious and significant that it speaks for itself.

What are his subjects? Is he satirizing a particular person or group in No! I’m a Stork, for example?

When somebody creates art—books, paintings, movies, whatever—he has to talk about the human condition. If you asked me what is the subject of Dostoyevsky I would tell you it is the human condition.

The strips do seem to work a bit like ancient Greek dialogues, with two characters (one generally better informed than the other) working their way through a big question. That continues a pretty important lesson in modern society – how to ask questions, work through an issue, think analytically, and so on.

There’s a very good strip about a very disappointed rooster. He’s in psychoanalysis. He’s the only rooster among twenty chickens but none of the chickens like him. He tries to make love to them but they tell him he’s awful. And in the same place, there’s a pig who is very fat and very dirty, doesn’t care how he talks—and all the chickens are in love with him. And the rooster just doesn’t know how to continue life in this condition, where the fat pig is so attractive. It’s funny, and it’s international. It’s a picture of the human condition, not just the Greek condition. Life is at the same time ridiculous and poetic, high and low, all together.

We’ve travelled a long way, from a musician’s memoir, via psycho-surrealism and crime fiction, to a comic book. There’s clearly a tension between how Greeks see themselves and want to be seen, and how foreigners want to see them; between what interests Greek people about Greece and what interests foreigners about Greece.

Well, here’s my punch-line: I believe that if foreigners had the chance to get to know the real Greece they would be much more enthusiastic, much more charmed than by the archetypes of Zorba or the resistance against the Germans, the Colonels, or the bankruptcy.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

And what about the image-making going on in Greece itself at the moment—there’s a “false Greece” for the Greeks, too, which has quite different traits to those foreigners might enjoy, traits which political parties, especially the far-right Golden Dawn party, have been quick to capitalise on. Which do you think is winning at the moment, myth or reality?

I’m afraid that all around, from America to Italy and Greece, it’s the same. Trump was elected because he sold the American Dream, a myth. Populism and nationalism and the idea that you can be against globalisation—and I perfectly understand that globalisation is a harsh thing, hard on many people—are myths. And they are stronger nowadays, more persuasive than a glance at the real situation. But I also think that with these kinds of myths, if you try them, if you put them to the test, you can overcome them rather easily.

So in a sense, the books on your list are recommended reading not just for foreign readers but for any Greeks who have forgotten the variety of their own country.

Yes, these books give us the chance to re-see, to re-watch our lives. Reading a very good book is a bit like being baptised; you look around you and see differently. That’s the magic thing. They give you the ability to see your own life again.

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

January 5, 2017

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by .

Christos Chomenidis

Christos Chomenidis

Christos Chomenidis is a Greek novelist who worked as a lawyer before he became an author. His work includes The Wise Kid (1993) and The House and the Cell (2005). His books have sold more than 400,000 copies and been translated into French, English, Spanish, Czech, Lithuanian, Turkish and Hebrew.

Christos Chomenidis

Christos Chomenidis

Christos Chomenidis is a Greek novelist who worked as a lawyer before he became an author. His work includes The Wise Kid (1993) and The House and the Cell (2005). His books have sold more than 400,000 copies and been translated into French, English, Spanish, Czech, Lithuanian, Turkish and Hebrew.