Articles of interest
02nd June 2021
Book in Focus
The Eye of the Xenos, Letters about Greece
(Durrell Studies 3)
By Richard Pine with Vera Konidari
The fulcrum of the book is ‘loving and mourning’. One cannot love Greece without also regretting the imperfections of a system of governance which seems a misfit between itself and the citizens it is designed to serve. This dichotomy pervades every aspect of Greek life. I first became aware of this on a visit in 1969, during the military junta of 1967-74. How could a people whose entire existence seems to embody freedom be enslaved to a fascism which denies that freedom? Today, how can a people whose lives celebrate honour and family be indentured to the labyrinth of bureaucracy that presents obstacles to almost every aspect of those lives?
My starting-point with Greece and Greek values was classical: by the time I first visited the country as a fifteen-year-old schoolboy in 1965, I could read, write and speak classical Greek. The most inspiring and humbling moments on that trip were the experience of speaking the lines of Euripides on the stage at Epidauros and standing in awe before the Lion-gate at Mycenae. However, this is not an advantage when it comes to living in modern Greece: the vocabulary may be much the same, but the grammar has changed utterly, and there is hardly any connection between what Aeschylus wrote and the demotic speech of today.
However, that first visit was an eye-opener, and the second, in 1969, was a steep learning-curve in political realities. Moving to live here in 2001 was not as severe a strophe as one might expect, since my thirty-five years living in Ireland had familiarised me with many of the values and ways of life that the Irish seem to share with the Greeks.
My ‘love-mourn’ affair with Greece has been one of coincidences: in 1970 (the year after my ‘rude awakening’ to life under fascism), I was elected president of the Philosophical Society of Trinity College, Dublin, and I invited as a guest speaker Helen Vlachos, the proprietor of the leading Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini, at that time living in self-imposed exile from her country and from the fascism that had made her close down her paper. Almost fifty years later, I would find myself writing a monthly column for that same Kathimerini, with the title “The Eye of the Xenos”—xenos being the word for a guest or stranger.
In between, again by accident, I had become a monthly columnist on Greek affairs for The Irish Times. This enabled me to put together a reasonably coherent set of ideas about Greece—both the loving and the mourning—which resulted in my 2015 book Greece through Irish Eyes. The title puzzled the Greeks, who couldn’t accommodate the word ‘through’—seeing the world ‘through’ one’s eyes is a vision too far. So when I decided to put the Irish Times column together with the “Eye of the Xenos”, the Greek version reads «Με τα μάτια του ξένου»—with the eye of the Xenos, rather than ‘through’, which makes more sense in Greek.
Denis Staunton, who has graciously endorsed this book, was at one time the Foreign Editor of The Irish Times to whom I submitted my copy. In relation to the massive economic collapse of Greece in 2010, Denis wrote: “Richard was among the first international commentators to understand that the Greek debt crisis was not so much about economics as about national identity, and that the measures imposed from outside threatened to undermine something more profound even than national sovereignty, something he calls Greekness”. Denis’s generous judgement underlines the fact it is possible, if one looks and listens enough, to realise that there are strata of the Greek character which may be less affected by ‘austerity’ or ‘catastrophe’, with which the Greek mind has lived in perpetuity, than by more disturbing threats to their identity—continuing relations (or lack thereof) with the old enemy, Turkey, being one of the most aggravating, which I have tried to address in this book (again, my experience in Ireland, with its neighbour and former ‘landlord’, Britain, prepared me for this encounter).
Another accident: as the author of a book on the novelist Lawrence Durrell (Lawrence Durrell: The Mindscape, 1994/2005), I had the ambition to leave my job in Irish broadcasting to establish a ‘Durrell School’ for the study of the lives and works of both Lawrence Durrell and his brother Gerald, the world-famous zoologist. Corfu had been home to both of them in the 1930s, so it seemed the natural place to position the school, which opened in 2002 and, after one or two hiccups, continues to operate as an international symposium, website and online journal. One result of our activities has been the publication by Cambridge Scholars of several volumes of our discussions: Creativity, Madness and Civilisation (2007), The Literatures of War (2008), The Ionian Islands: Aspects of Their History and Culture (2014), Islands of the Mind (2020) and Borders and Borderlands (2021). In addition, we have, in partnership with CSP, launched a Durrell Studies series, with three titles in print (including this one) and more on the way.
There was one major incident which exemplifies the two sides of Greek life: I ran into editorial trouble with Kathimerini when I wrote a column criticising the prime minister and several of his colleagues for steamrolling a ‘development’ project in Corfu which—as I write—is destroying a pristine headland in order to build a hotel, villas and marina. I was told that criticising the government was not the job of a xenos (even one who lives here permanently and pays his taxes) and, resenting this editorial rejection, I parted company with Kathimerini. This episode is described in the Epilogue to this book.
In the meantime, I decided that the “Eye” column, which had been published in the English-language edition of Kathimerini, should also be available in Greek. This translation was undertaken by my collaborator Vera Konidari who, in addition to co-editing Islands of the Mind and Borders and Borderlands, is a distinguished translator into Greek of Theodore Stephanides, Lawrence Durrell and others, and is writing a much-awaited biography of Stephanides, who was such a vital element in the lives of both Lawrence and Gerald Durrell.
Research? Well, the best research anyone can undertake, in order to get an insight into Greek life and thought, is to sit at a cafe, watching and listening like an undercover agent. You gradually form a mental picture of the world in which you live. We are lucky that we have a ‘cafe society’ rather than the more northerly ‘pub culture’: drinking—whether beer, liquor or coffee—and talking—whether it is politics or sport—have a different aspect when they are conducted out of doors and in full view. The ambience creates a quite different mindset to the linear, logical direction of northern talk and behaviour. Indeed, when you realise that you are at a crossroads of east and west, embodying the qualities of both but belonging to neither, it is both sobering and exhilarating. Living as I do in a Corfiot village that looks across the straits at the mountains of Albania is yet another dimension to this experience.
Reading newspapers helps a bit, but not as much as reading the fiction: the Greek word for a novel is ‘mythistorema’ and this meeting-point of myth and history, of ideas and events, of aspirations and experience, seems to pervade the Greek character. A Greek novel—whether it is the world-famous Zorba the Greek by Kazantzakis or the relatively obscure May Your Name be Blessed by Sotiris Dimitriou—is not so much ‘about’ the storyline and the characters as it is ‘about’ the emotions, values and perceptions of Greece itself; as if, in these stories, Greece is writing its own autobiography. Read them, then sit at a cafe and find the match between them and the life around you. It’s not difficult. And it’s immensely rewarding.
“Richard Pine was among the first international commentators to understand that the Greek debt crisis was not so much about economics as about national identity, and that the measures imposed from outside threatened to undermine something more profound even than national sovereignty, something he calls Greekness. This book is at its heart an exploration of this concept of Greekness, the essential spirit that distinguishes the Greeks.”
London Editor, The Irish Times
“With his roving ‘xenos’ eye, Richard Pine captures the essential spirit of Greece and, in so doing, evokes the schisms and strains of his adopted homeland. It takes lyricism, bravura and a certain tenacity to so deftly dissect a nation that rarely takes the commentary of ‘strangers’ well. This book is awash with all three.”
Athens-based correspondent, The Guardian and The Observer
Richard Pine is Director of the Durrell Library of Corfu. He is the author of many books on literature and music, including Lawrence Durrell: The Mindscape (1994/2005), The Disappointed Bridge: Ireland and the Post-Colonial World (2014), Greece through Irish Eyes (2015) and Minor Mythologies as Popular Literature: a student’s guide to texts and films (2018). He has edited Lawrence Durrell’s novels Judith and The Placebo, as well as Durrell’s Endpapers and Inklings – Uncollected Prose 1933-1988. He co-edited Islands of the Mind: Psychology, Literature and Biodiversity (2020) and Borders and Borderlands: explorations in identity, exile and translation (2021).
Vera Konidari teaches English at the 1st High School of Corfu. She previously lectured in the Department of Audio and Visual Arts and the Department of Informatics at the Ionian University, Greece. Her translations into Greek include Theodore Stephanides’ The Golden Face (2019) and Lawrence Durrell’s The Magnetic Island (2019). She co-edited Islands of the Mind: Psychology, Literature and Biodiversity (2020) and Borders and Borderlands: Explorations in Identity, Exile and Translation (2021), and is currently working on a biography of Theodore Stephanides.
The Eye of the Xenos, Letters about Greece (Durrell Studies 3) is available now in Hardback. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout for a 25% discount.
Part of the series Durrell Studies:
Borders and Borderlands: Explorations in Identity, Exile and Translation (Durrell Studies 1)
Lawrence Durrell’s Woven Web of Guesses (Durrell Studies 2)
The Eye of the Xenos, Letters about Greece (Durrell Studies 3)
The Heraldic World of Lawrence Durrell: Essays on the Man, His Art, and His Circle (Durrell Studies 4) (forthcoming)