Isle of writers

As Athenians sweated to finish the Olympic stadiums, an Orthodox priest on the island of Paros, about three hours away, was intoning over a modest dwelling that may yet crown Greece’s cultural Olympiad. He was inaugurating the country’s first House of Literature: an idyll for writers and translators in Lefkes, a village shaped like an amphitheatre, with views over the Aegean to Naxos.

Theseus was said to have dropped in on Paros after slaying the Cretan minotaur and dumping Ariadne across the strait. In Lefkes, an almost pristine Cycladic village of brilliant-white cubist houses and steep, winding alleyways, people cite this myth to explain the labyrinthine street plan.

More practically, the maze was to foil both marauding pirates and the howling summer winds of the Meltemi. The streets are paved with the local gold. Parian marble, deemed second only to Carrara, was the raw material for the Venus de Milo, Napoleon’s tomb and the Parian Chronicle, a third-century BC engraved history of Greece.

Lefkes has been relatively unscathed by the beach tourism on which the local economy depends. Yet the conversion of a 1970s hotel into a writers’ retreat is symbolic. The mayor of Paros, Yannis Ragoussis, who is part-funding the scheme, said, “We’re trying to find our island identity again.”

The mayor also hopes to revive cultural life for the 13 000 Parians, whose numbers have grown by 50% in 20 years, reversing decades of emigration.

The retreat is the idea of Ekemel, the Athens-based European translation centre for literature, which brought Greek authors together with foreign critics for the opening. A timely translation of Petros Markaris’s The Late-Night News, a crime novel probing the Olympic city’s underworld, is a fruit of last year’s encounter, which was in Rhodes. Despite the West’s claims on ancient Greek civilisation, modern Greek writers fight to be read abroad.

Rhea Galanaki, whose untranslated Century of Labyrinths is about the Cretan businessman who discovered Knossos before Sir Arthur Evans, said that, despite joining the European Union in 1981, “Greeks still feel marginal and looked down upon because we’re Orthodox and Levantine, and with a little-known language”.

Yet as Thanassis Valtinos, author of the untranslated, controversial civil war novel, Orthocosta, said, the “euphoric” consolation for limited access abroad is a language in which “I see words used by Homer and Euripedes”.

Orthocosta was criticised on the left, he said, as “scandalously iconoclastic because it demystified the Elas fighters” of the communist-dominated front. Yet he sees it as a “deeply leftwing book about the tragedy of a people killing themselves”. He and Galanaki are among writers revisiting Greek history after the ideological polarities and taboos of the civil war and junta years.

As translators retire with these books to the subsidised tranquillity of the Lefkes retreat, they may take heart at its auspicious opening night. The writers who watched the Euro 2004 final from a Parian hillside hope the House of Literature will score as decisively. — Â

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