Dec/Jan 2009


An overlooked locale of surrealism explored

Karen Emmerich

Nikos Stabakis introduces this anthology by noting the conspicuous absence of Greece—its classical tradition a symbol of the “insipid rationality” against which André Breton and his circle rebelled—from the “Surrealist Map of the World” printed in Variétés in 1929. For most viewers of that map, the omission of Greece from a minuscule Europe comprising only Germany, an anachronistic Austro-Hungary, and a bull’s-eye dot for Paris is probably far less noticeable than that of, say, the United States, or the fact that New Guinea is roughly four times the size of Australia. It is true, though, that to this day Greek writers and artists, even those personally acquainted with Breton, are neglected in anthologies and critical accounts of international Surrealism. Seeking to fill that gap, Stabakis has put together Surrealism in Greece, the first English-language anthology of Greek Surrealist poetry, prose, and theory. (The less extensive but nonetheless significant visual side of the movement is given a brief nod, in the form of several black-and-white reproductions of collages by Nanos Valaoritis and paintings by Nikos Engonopoulos.)

The book also redraws the map of modern Greek literature in English, by presenting an important aspect of twentieth-century Greek literary production that has been largely overlooked and undertranslated here. Stabakis has translated dozens of texts by eighteen writers, grouping them into three generations: the “founders,” who introduced the methods and ideology of the Surrealist movement to Greece in the mid-1930s; the “second generation,” postwar writers who were influenced by Surrealist thought and practice, as well as by the horrors of the occupation and the subsequent civil war; and the “Pali group,” a handful of writers associated with the short-lived literary magazine Pali (meaning “again”), the publication of which was curtailed by the junta of 1967.

Each generation is given its own section, and all three are packed with fascinating texts. The first opens with Andreas Embirikos, who became acquainted with the French Surrealists while living in Paris in the late ’20s and whose 1935 volume of prose poems, Blast Furnace, is considered the first Surrealist book in Greek. Also included are Nicolas Calas, an early advocate of the movement, whose subsequent career as an art theorist in France and the United States earned him a broader standing than most of his peers; Engonopoulos, whose poetry (like that of Embirikos) initially met with derision in the popular press but who has since been acknowledged as one of the major Greek poets and painters of his century; Nikos Gatsos, whose reputation as a poet rests on a single book, Amorgos (1943), the long title poem of which is included here; and Odysseus Elytis, the Nobel laureate of 1979, another early defender of Surrealism, though his own poetry soon moved in other directions.

Debates concerning inclusions and exclusions are as old as Surrealism itself, and this is no less true in the Greek context. The presence of the postwar poet Miltos Sahtouris, despite his own explicit rejection of the Surrealist label, appears to rest on what Stabakis describes as the writer’s “quasi-nightmarish repertory of images”:

Inside the room
a rain of urine
pure winged maids are flying
cadavers with a pink heaven in their heart
and people with a heaven full of rotten blood
are hanging waving their white feet
knives emerge from their eyes
enormous black anemones grow
on their chests
as they fly slaughter and embrace
the pure maids the cadavers the rotten people
under a pissed-on heaven

Sahtouris’s inclusion here seems to reflect the tendency, which Calas decried in a 1937 text (presented in this volume), to assume “that two striking images make up a surrealist poem.”

But even those who might question some of Stabakis’s decisions will be happy to see so many theoretical writings with such varying takes on what Surrealism is. These range from Calas’s insistence that it “is more than theory, it is also act”; to Elytis’s ecumenical understanding of it as “a certain perception of life, the world and its objects, one that always did, and always will, exist . . . one that Breton’s ‘School’ merely systematized, organized, and invested with a distinctive name”; to Valaoritis’s similarly open definition as a “perpetually readjustable ‘method’ of thinking and facing life.”

Particularly striking later texts are Hector Kaknavatos’s 1976 lecture “Why Surrealism Cannot Die,” Valaoritis’s critical writings on the dense, difficult work of Embirikos, and Yorgos Makris’s 1944 declaration, on behalf of the Society of Aesthetic Saboteurs of Antiquities, that ancient monuments should be demolished (first and foremost the Parthenon, which, he writes, “has literally suffocated us”). Equally arresting are the poems of Matsi Hatzilazarou, Embirikos’s first wife, and the phrase collages of Alexander Skinas, whose tract in favor of “hyperlexism”—which calls for the “opening, stretching, forcing of the current language up to the extreme point of its semantic endurance”—must have been a treat to translate, given its “soundless pandemonium” of neologisms such as bellytoothickings, deatholuptiolosty, and alternapthifying.

Stabakis’s critical introductions to each section and to the volume as a whole provide valuable information about the authors and the historical circumstances in which they worked. Nonspecialist readers, however, might have preferred that he spend less time taking critics and academics to task for their involvement in the “mechanism of suppression” that has kept Greek Surrealism out of the limelight, and even more time describing the atmosphere in which Surrealism unfolded in Greece. One central issue, which he only discusses in an endnote, is the so-called language question that divided the Greek intellectual world in the early part of the twentieth century, pitting demoticists against those in favor of katharevousa, the “purified,” archaizing imitation of ancient Greek that was the country’s official language until 1976. This debate is particularly important given Embirikos’s explosive combination of sexual explicitness and katharevousa, which opened doors for other writers while setting his work dramatically apart from the stodgier but demotic brand of modernism being written by many of his contemporaries, including the future Nobel laureate George Seferis.

Discussion of the political valence, or lack thereof, of Surrealism in Greece also gets short shrift. Some scholars argue that Surrealism entered Greek letters as a purely aesthetic movement, stripped of its political aspect by the repressive reality of the Metaxas dictatorship of 1936– 41. Others contend that this is too narrow an understanding of what constitutes the political and that in Greece, as elsewhere, Surrealism offered a radical, potentially revolutionary critique of established values. Stabakis, cofounder of the Athens Surrealist Group, unquestionably holds the latter opinion, and the tripartite organization of his anthology reflects his belief in the movement’s continuing relevance.

Finally, the decision to abridge texts is understandable, given space constraints, but Stabakis fails to identify where cuts have been made, and his excerpting from poetic sequences sometimes creates misleading impressions of the originals. Similarly, his translation of Hatzilazarou’s “Dedication in Reverse” actually represents, he notes, an “amalgam” of two versions, one written primarily in Greek with scattered phrases in French, the other in French with phrases in English (though not always the French phrases from the Greek version). This choice to translate an amalgamated form—a kind of eclectic edition of two distinct originals—involves the creation, in a sense, of a poem that never was.

But these are minor complaints about a tremendous resource. As Stabakis declares in the final sentence of his afterword, “the future is still open-ended”—and we can hope that Surrealism in Greece will spark fresh interest in and spur future translations of these eloquently adventurous writers.

Karen Emmerich is a translator of modern Greek poetry and prose. Her translation of Miltos Sahtouris’s Poems (1945–1971) (Archipelago, 2006) was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.