Either Side of the Barbed-Wire Border

Maria Margaronis

  • May Your Name Be Blessed by Sotiris Dimitriou, translated by Leo Marshall
    Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, University of Birmingham, 84 pp, £8.00, May 2000, ISBN 0 7044 2189 5

Sotiris Dimitriou is best known in Greece as a writer of compact, sometimes brutal stories about people pushed aside by modern life. Distracted by obsessions and false hopes, his migrants, rent boys and heartbroken mothers are unaware of the forces that derail their lives. They might find momentary pleasure in a song, or in fragmented memories of the countryside – ‘meadows, daisies, nights and sweet eyes, dreams of youth, dim winters, old griefs, lost suns’ – but nostalgia for village life is only a trick of the trap that holds them.

The stories are widely read in Greece partly because they give a voice to people who are not often heard from, though their familiar presence is both a reproach to the country’s new prosperity and a reminder of the collective loss brought about by decades of rapid change. But the primary impulse in Dimitriou’s work is not documentary. The calamitous decline that one character after another suffers is sometimes melodramatic, sometimes moving, sometimes a vehicle for the reader’s instruction. Its persistence gives it an almost formal function, like sadness in the blues. Through their content, the stories force something new into Greek consciousness: aesthetically, they are part of an old tradition. The compression of feeling in the characters’ speech echoes the economy of oral literature.

That resonance, along with Dimitriou’s exact ear for the registers of language, lifts his work out of the swamp of ‘dirty realism’ which sometimes threatens to engulf it. Through regional dialect, urban argot and migrants’ broken grammar, he brings the irreducibly local to his cosmopolitan readers, tapping the emotional force and social precision of different vernaculars: ‘You’re in a Carolina rice household now,’ one Greek woman sneers to her despised Albanian sister-in-law. For all these reasons the stories are almost untranslatable, though Leo Marshall’s English versions in Woof, Woof, Dear Lord (Kedros, 1995) give something of their flavour.

Dimitriou’s first novel, May Your Name Be Blessed, is a more likely candidate for cultural migration: history is more explicitly present than it is in the stories, offering a handhold for foreign readers. The displacements that followed World War Two and the collapse of Communism in Europe are seen from the point of view of a family from Povla in Epiros, near the Albanian border. (Povla – now officially Hellenised as Ambelonas – is Dimitriou’s ancestral village.) But some of the novel’s background will be obscure even to Greeks, since it does not form part of the country’s public narrative.

The wooded mountains of Epiros became part of the Greek kingdom in 1913, after the Balkan Wars fought by Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria first against the Ottomans and then among themselves. Like Macedonia, annexed at the same time, Western Epiros had a mixed population not easily assimilated into a mono-ethnic nation state. The most fertile land remained in the hands of about twenty thousand Muslim Albanians or ‘Chams’ – in Greek, Turkotsamides – who had been the local beys under Ottoman rule. The Treaty of Bucharest which gave Greece its northern provinces also created the state of Albania, with a hundred or so Greek-speaking Orthodox villages inside its southern border. The two nations were officially at war from 1940 – when Italy attacked Greece from the Albanian mountains – until 1987, partly because of tension over these minorities.

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[*] Translated by Petro Alexiou (Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, University of Birmingham, 1999).