It would be reductive to lump Ikonomou’s book into a simplified “Greek Crisis” category because, like all good writers whose strength lies in a regionalism and in knowing that region well, his stories are much more than well-written chronicles of Athenian poverty during a recession. Actually, I haven’t read such brutal, honest prose since Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit or Hemingway’s dialogues in the short stories. Ikonomou is a quiet existentialist whose work is imbued with a brooding silence and repressed emotion, continuing in his manner the traditions of Sartre, Camus, and Beckett. He writes in that borderless country of existence that may appear meaningless but is still punctuated by flashes of great beauty, tenderness, and the occasional sliver of hope. In this short collection of stories, Ikonomou has managed to bring the tragic poverty of Greece’s working population into sharp focus, and has gone further by elevating this from a very specific political environment into a dark and compassionate meditation on the human condition.
The book was originally published in 2010 at the very early stages of the Greek economic crisis, before poverty, homelessness, suicide, and endless rounds of taxation were the daily news. This is important, because Ikonomou did not set out to exploit the very public humiliation of the Greek working class. He wrote about an unchanging aspect of being human: that poverty, loneliness, discontent, and the struggle for survival are omnipresent, and that truly understanding the bizarre inexplicable machinations of the world is always slightly beyond our reach. I admire him for dredging up the “invisible class,” not the Athens of exclusive shop facades, but the Athens of failing refineries, steelyards, and dwindling expectations. I often hear people remark that Greece appears to be fine, that the cafes are full, the bars hopping, and it’s business as usual — minus the complete collapse of the economy. But the picture is not complete. I recently had a construction worker tell me, with eyes full of tears, that his son was punished in school for not having an art book he was required to buy for 23 euros. “Twenty-three euros,” he said, “is what I feed my family with this week.” These are the people who inhabit Ikonomou’s stories.
Greece suffers under the weight of an absurd relationship to its past, that subtle mix of inferiority and superiority doled out in equal measure. It has been in one crisis or another for a few thousand years, whether it was invading Persians, a war of independence from the Ottomans, a German occupation, or a civil war. Throughout these endlessly tumultuous years, there has been one constant: the poor get screwed. Everyone seems to know this, and there are often murmurs of solidarity, empathy, even occasional aid, but the reality of what goes on in Greece, and the disparity between that and the image it projects abroad, is vast. In the story “The Things They Carried,” a group of men are already lined up in the street at three a.m., waiting for a medical clinic to open. Their names are numbers, a nod to every Greek who has waited in interminable lines clutching a numbered ticket in another faceless ministry. One of the men in line tells a story about how he witnessed a man’s girlfriend throw his violin off the top of a building in a fit of fury. Everyone wants to know what happens next. The power of the story is that nothing happens next; the other men’s anger is palpable as the lines blur between the story and their own desperation. The rage they feel when they are cheated by his words is the rage they feel at being cheated by life.
Nothing happened, I’m telling you. I waited there in the fog for about ten minutes and smoked a cigarette but nothing happened. Then I left but I didn’t go straight home. I was so shaken up that I couldn’t sit still. So I started walking down toward the port. On the way I thought about what the young guy had said about falling and the sudden stop. I had lots of ready answers in my head but none of them suited the situation. As I walked I watched the lights down at the port grow in the mist. At first they were beautiful. Then they got frightening.
Ikonomou’s gift is a pragmatic, almost flat narrative of everyday snapshots which builds on small, seemingly insignificant acts. He is a writer unafraid of deep silences and of holding us there. It would be easy to merely dismiss his stories as hopeless, terrifying vignettes of poverty, violence, and racism; he doesn’t avoid these, which is heartening because the accuracy of his language and his depictions is unflinching. But underneath the narratives, buried in a phrase or a thought, is a glimpse of humor, the scent of bitter oranges, the smell of fresh rain after a drought — through small but powerful images of beauty, he manages to connect us with something greater than human misery, and that is simply the fact of being human.
For example, here is an excerpt from the story titled “Mao”:
At night Mao doesn’t sleep. He sits on the steps outside the house and drinks and smokes and talks to Augustus the cat. It’s a great comfort in the middle of the night to hear his voice and the tinkling of the cat’s bell. A great comfort. Every so often he gets up and walks back and forth like a watchman. Down to Ikoniou Street and then back again to Kastamoni and Tzavelas. Back and forth all night every night. On October nights when it rains and all you can hear is the water running through the drain pipes and emptying into the grates on street corners. On December nights when the wind whistles through the electrical wires and the branches of the mulberry tree scratch the window like hands frozen with cold. In March when the nights are cool and you stick your head out the window and inhale the scent of the bitter orange trees and look up at the stars in the sky and the scattered clouds and wonder if something might happen after all — if something might happen so the world doesn’t vanish and all the people with it.
Translation is by nature an act of literary criticism as well as an act of transformation — by selecting a work to translate, the translator implies it is worth being transformed into another language. Karen Emmerich is quickly establishing herself as one of our finest contemporary translators from Greek to English. Her collaboration with Edmund Keeley on Yiannis Ritsos’s Diaries of Exile was a remarkably translated collection, and this latest effort in prose establishes her as the best Greek-English translator I know. It is not an easy task transforming the subtle, working-class colloquialisms of Ikonomou’s often foul-mouthed characters. There are accents to be navigated, idioms relative to the region, insults, twisted humor — she manages to capture all of this with great technical facility and ease. I am used to reading English translations in which I can hear the English struggling to mask an awkward leap into English idiom. A dockworker’s curse in Salamina can easily come across as artificial or anachronistic in English; a neighborhood Pontic dialect can sound like an English sea captain from the 1800s — and great misunderstandings ensue. I once discovered a Greek translation of a book of poems by Joseph Brodsky in which his Shakespearean allusion to the “two-backed beast” (a couple making love) was translated as “the monster with two spinal cords.”
There are other difficulties, such as the repeated use of the word “faggot.” In English, this might signal a wildly homophobic angle. But in Greek, especially in working-class colloquialisms, “faggot” is used constantly with little, if any, conscious reference to homosexuality, and can be neutral or even used endearingly. To make matters worse, it can also be used very pointedly and disdainfully toward a homosexual. The word “commies” in English carries hints of McCarthyism and the American obsession with capitalism. In Greece, the word evokes much more vivid political lines — it inadvertently delineates social status, income, union stances, and all the historical trauma of the Greek Civil War and the subsequent junta.
Navigating this elaborately tricky landscape is both the joy and the hellishly difficult work of the translator. Ultimately though, the goal is to do the writing justice and bring the book alive — this she has done with accuracy and elegance. If someone is interested in understanding the very human face of Greece’s working class, and discovering a very talented and unsettling writer, I’d say buy this book.
Stephanos Papadopoulos is the author of three poetry collections: The Black Sea (Sheep Meadow Press, November 2012), Hôtel-Dieu (Sheep Meadow Press, 2009), and Lost Days (Leviathan Press, UK / Rattapallax Press, NY; 2001).