The Evolution of Present-Day Greece: Talking with Nanos Valaoritis

By

Ioannos (Nanos) Valaoritis has been widely published as a poet, novelist, and playwright. The grandson of Aristotle Valaoritis, a famous nineteenth-century poet, Valaoritis escaped German-occupied Greece for London, where he met T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and W. H. Auden. He translated George Seferis’s poetry collection, The King Asine, as well as work by Odysseus Elytis and Andreas Embiriko.

In 1954, he moved the Paris. Here he became closely associated with Andre Breton’s Surrealist
group. Eventually, Valaoritis returned to Greece, but left again in 1968 after the military junta came to power. For a quarter century, he taught at San Francisco State University, where he and a colleague, Thanasis Maskaleris, edited An Anthology of Modern Greek Poetry. After his retirement from the University, he returned for good to Greece.

He is a prolific writer. His writing can be sensual and fantastic, with a certain quality of amusement and lightness, and then again, it can entirely change in tone and be quite lyrical.

A hot June day. I leave the crowded Plaka district that surrounds the Acropolis and make my way on foot towards leafy green Kolonaki Square. The crowds have thinned. There are only a few solitary walkers. Elegant upscale shops line the street where Nanos Valaoritis lives. I have not seen him in over twenty years. I ring the bell at the entrance of an older, gated building. A tiny old-fashioned elevator with wooden doors slowly lifts me to the second floor. Katerina, his oldest daughter, ushers me inside. Marie Wilson, his wife, died only a few months ago, and since then Katerina has taken charge of the household.

Nanos is in a wheelchair, white-haired, hunched over a laptop in a small room heaped with books. Books are heaped on shelves, tables, and the dining table where he sits. His dark eyes, beneath bushy white brows, sparkle with life. Despite the frailty of his body, his mind is diamond sharp.

Nanos and I begin to talk. Katerina, who is charming and who has a strong, melodious voice, helps to facilitate the conversation because he has recently grown very hard of hearing.

***

The Rumpus: Nanos, you say that Greece has evolved. Is this in terms of the cultural situation?

Nanos Valaoritis: In the 1930s and 40s, and partly in the 50s, there was a small cultural renaissance in Greece.

Rumpus: And now?

Valaoritis: The latter half of the twentieth century we saw something of a renaissance [among Greek writers, artists, and intellectuals]. But in the twenty-first century all this has dissolved because of the economic and cultural crisis and because of the domination of Germany. Germany has inflicted a second occupation, this time economic and cultural in the negative sense.

Rumpus: Please explain.

Valaoritis: I realized this in 2010 when an article in a well-known German magazine—I forget the name—showed a photograph on the cover of Venus de Milo with her middle finger raised. We know that she has no hands, so they gave her hands. This was accompanied by an article that treated us as subhuman and as cheats who live at the expense of the poor Germans.

The Bild, the magazine was called the Bild. We were living off them… and they had the gall to write about this when they had destroyed the whole of Greece during the War.

Rumpus: And never any mention of that?

Valaoritis: They never have given any war reparations—never—not a single penny. So we are at this moment run by a pseudo-leftist government that has given in to all the demands of the Germans. [Valaoritis is referring to Alex Tsipris, the current Prime Minister, and his Socialist party.] They have also abandoned our claim to war reparations and abandoned efforts to get paid back for the loan that Hitler received.

Rumpus: What loan?

Valaoritis: Money that Hitler forced Greece to loan Germany during the War. We didn’t want to loan them money, but they forced us. He started to repay it. Can you imagine—Hitler?

Then they ask us for enormous sums that we supposedly owe them and off their products and the loan that they give us from the European Union.

Rumpus: How could it be that they don’t repay the money?

Valaoritis: They are the greatest cheats in Europe. They have never paid any of the reparations of the two wars. They always get away with it for some reason or other. They manage. It’s not us who are the cheats. It’s them.

I began writing political articles in 2010. I foresaw the onslaught. And I wrote, beware, the Germans are going to do a cultural blitzkrieg, and indeed it happened as I foresaw it because they haven’t changed. They have the same mentality that they had during the war.

So you realize how popular I am in Germany. Where they never mention me. Because they know very well that I have written these articles because they have a very good information service in Greece and in other countries.

So we find ourselves in dire poverty with an enormous amount of unemployment. Almost two million people are unemployed. The best minds, doctors, and all kinds of specialists, scientists, etc., leave Greece for other countries.

Strangely enough, the biggest exodus of Greek small businesses has gone to Bulgaria. This government, the supposed Socialist left, has imposed so many taxes that there has been a mass exodus of small businesses to Bulgaria. The taxes were so high that they couldn’t function here. The small businesses here were the backbone of the economy. Now they have all gone to Bulgaria where they were received with open arms. Out of a population of ten million, two hundred thousand people have left [in order to make a living].

Rumpus: It must be very difficult for people here.

Valaoritis: The current Prime Minister declared that we have given Bulgaria something like 250,000 jobs. So this government [has done nothing] either economically or culturally for Greece to develop. They have made no effort whatsoever. They only want to hold onto power.

Rumpus: How has this affected literature, the reading public?

Valaoritis: In this situation, the Greek people are turning towards reading more books. Not the right kind of books. However, there has been a remarkable higher level of books for secondary schools, which we didn’t have in our times. Now we have that. But that is just about all.

Most of the inspiration comes from the French New Theories about literature and art. French New Theory is a complicated thing which began with James Frazer and with Claude Levi Strauss, who treat myths in a marvelous manner. From them came Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. They are the two main ones. Then there are a number of others, including Gerard Genette. They have analyzed literary narratives. These theories have been taken up by the Greek school.

Rumpus: This is not a literature of the people.

Valaoritis: No, this is for the university.

Rumpus: And so the university has evolved.

Valaoritis: We have the direct opposite of this in the government we have chosen. The government doesn’t help at all.

Rumpus: So you say it’s not really left wing?

Valaoritis: It’s a false socialism. They are afraid of the people [who question and who think]. They would prefer to have them leave. 200,000 people have left out of a population of ten million. So you can imagine that with having fewer editors that publish our work, the level of the books they offer is usually very low or for a very small public. However, is not always in my case. My latest book of poems, Bitter Carnival, sold out in a few months. This is unheard of. So much so that the publisher has asked for a second book of poems. And this is a book of two hundred pages in each case.

In general, other poets don’t do so well. And they generally pay for publication. However, there are some people who have a good level. But there are not many left here who have good ears. This is a big problem.

Rumpus: What about Greek novels?

Valaoritis: They are insignificant at this moment. They don’t say anything, with the exception of one or two books. The rest is rubbish or very mediocre stuff.

We also have the problem of translation. Not all my books are translated because we lack good translators. The ones that are Greek demand money, a lot of money. In the old days they did it out of their own admiration for whatever work they were translating.

In the 40s and 50s there were many Greek intellectuals and poets. Greece had played a greater role in the War, and it was welcome. Now there is no one left in England to really welcome the Greeks. Nor in America.

The only country that translates us is France again. In France we have some translators. I have quite a few books in France, but not my novels. Now my novels will take some time. One of my important novels, The Broken Arms of Venus de Milo, scares them because they have the impression that it accuses them for doing the same kind of thing the British did with the Elgin Marbles. The French also did a lot of looting with the Venus de Milo and so on with other pieces, whatever they could find. Although they did so to a lesser extent than the British, they are still scared.

This novel was rejected by Gallimard and other important French publishers. Even the French State gave no help. So although a publisher had signed a contract for the novel, he abandoned the project.

Rumpus: You told me that this story connects with your own family.

Valaoritis: My father’s family was in the shipping business, and the story goes—whether legend or true—that my great uncle, Prince Nicolas Mourouzi, had purchased the famous statue from the islanders of Melos. Then the French came. They offered more money. The islanders said they already sold the statue. A fight broke out. The French seized the Venus de Milo, but in the struggle, her arms broke off. They were never found.

The French have always been very close [to the Greeks] intellectually and in their way of thinking. They owe a lot to Greece, of course. And they have restored the study of ancient Greek in their schools.

Rumpus: And not the Germans?

Valaoritis: No, nothing. Not a word.

Rumpus: Your work has gone the United States and France and Spain and Italy.

Valaoritis: America has one anthology, which you know, and that’s it. [He is referring to the Anthology, which he and Thanassis Maskaleris edited.] And that one is from a small publisher. Now it’s out of print.

Rumpus: You gave me a book of your poems translated from Greek into Spanish.

Valaoritis: I have translated some of my own pieces into English. Some so there is stuff there.

There have been very short pieces published by City Lights. My Afterlife Guaranteed. They printed 5,000 copies.

Rumpus: You gave me a copy of one of your recent books, Homer and the Alphabet, a Study in Thematic Acriphony, which the Hellenic American Union published in English. What is “acriphony?” I had trouble finding it in a dictionary.

Valaoritis: Acrophony refers to the naming of letters in an alphabet so that the letter’s name begins with the letter itself.

Rumpus: What inspired you to write the book?

Valaoritis: Robert Graves’s treatment of Greek myths that were originally written in Mycenean script intrigued me. My interest grew when I came across the work of Michael Ventris, a brilliant British architect and classicist who built on Graves’s earlier Linear B translation of the Mycenean script. Self-taught, he deciphered Mycenean ideograms of symbols and sounds.

I develop a theory, first brought forth by Michael Ventris, about the creation of the written Greek alphabet in the Homeric epics. There are alphabetic letters which recur over and over again both as chapter headings and as words—thalassa [sea], theos [gods], thetos/themos [spirit, them], Thetis [the son of Aphodite]. Each alphabetic letter repeats over and over again in a particular pattern.

Ventris was a brilliant British linguist and archeologist. We became friends. We took an excursion to Poros and other nearby islands. I owe this book to him and to Graves, with his studies of Mycenean written recording of Greek myths. He understood the ancient Mycenean symbolic text as transitional to classic Greek.

Rumpus: What are you writing now?

Valaoritis: I’m very glad I wrote this book. I’m developing it now and I am showing how the two epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, mirror each other.


MARIA ESPINOSA grew up on Long Island and had lived most of her adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area. For many years she taught English as a Second Language and creative writing. A recent transplant to New Mexico, she feels that her roots are finally beginning to penetrate the hard, dry desert earth. Maria has published four novels. Among these, Longing received an American Book Award, while Dying Unfinished received an PEN Oakland Award for Literary Excellence. She also published a critically acclaimed translation of George Sand’s Lélia. For more information, see her website: www.mariaespinosa.com. More from this author →