We'll always return

by L. Seizani

Many things have been written about him, studies and dissertations and biographies, so it is possible that I won't be saying anything very original about Alexandros Papadiamantis, the creator of the most beautiful Greek short stories. This writer doesn't stress the passions of humans but chooses the simplest of persons as heroes. Even if they have passions, those are just mentioned once and left untouched. For example, in "Love in the snow":

«He had started his itinerary in this coat, when he first became a sailor in his cousin's boat. With the money he got from his trips, he bought a share in the boat, then he got his own boat and travelled with profit. He wore English felt clothes, velvet vests, tall hats, golden chains and watches; he had money. But soon he spent everything with the daughters of Phryne in Marseilles, and all that was left to him was this old coat that hung on his shoulders...»

He spent everything with the daughters of Phryne...Only a hint, nothing more.

Yes, Papadiamantis has other concerns. He's interested in the beauty of nature, in the shores of his homeland Skiathos, in seamen who struggle far from home in order to gather money for marrying off their sisters or their daughters, in priests who walk for hours to a faraway country church for conducting Mass there. These are the things that he cares for. These are his remembrances in Athens where he writes about them, longing to see them again, to live in Skiathos again. Surely, reality isn't as ideal as he describes it, but he tries to soothe the fierceness of the people, to inspire optimism into his readers' souls, to spread a civilised air around him, with the wise figures of his old men, of the grandmothers who undergo deprivations and struggles in order to raise their grandchildren, with the small children who want to sing the carols but are attacked by Paloukas, a very characteristic "bad guy" in the pages of Greek literature. Paloukas is at the same time ridiculous because in the end the little children take their revenge shouting "Here's another pair" in a short story titled "Kokkona's house".

Human nature, often so hard as well as morbid, was also a theme for Papadiamantis' writings. He knew it well and had observed it thoroughly. So he wrote The Murderess about Fragoyiannou, a woman who kills little girls, in the belief that in doing so she frees them from the tortures of this world. There's a part of India where today baby girls are still killed as they are considered a burden to their parents. In the novels Merchants of Nations and Gypsy Girl we encounter some more "dark" heroes.

Yet we, the readers, always want to return to his short stories, like "At Christ's in the Castle," at "this fortress" which "was a giant rock, rooted by the water, an extension of the land towards the sea, as if the land shows its fist to the sea and challenges it. A massive granite block, always punched by the sea, where owls and seagulls fought against each other for possession; where the sovereignty of the former started and the rights of the latter ended". (We had learnt at school that Papadiamantis was an inventor of words).

We, the readers, always want to return to those old women, some of whom are really humble while others pretend to be so. «Aunt Mathino, an old woman who according to some was pious and according to others was a false penitent, looked towards the building with a sigh and as a virtuous woman said: "We have something to eat, girls. Who knows if the poor have also something?" ("Easter singer")

False penitent, what a word, what an accurate description!

We always want to return to aunt Achtitsa, the Gleaner of our childhood school books who at last "had a new clean scarf to wear that Christmas" and her poor grandchildren "the two orphans" who thank God had also "clean shirts on their thin limbs and warm shoes for their frozen feet". When we were children we hated these two children, Yeros and Patrona, because our teachers made us look for metaphors and similes and other grammar elements in this short story. No, we didn't feel sorry for them then.

However we'll always return to Papadiamantis so as to find some warmth, some pictures that were once real on the islands and the villages of Greece before the fatal arrival of 4?4 and SUV's and high-speed boats and huge hotels. We'll return mostly for the use of language, the language that is so poetic, so original, so beautiful, the language that is music to our ears, exactly as the sea is music to the coast, to the Rosy Shores.

Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851-1911), was a famous Greek writer from the island of Skiathos. He wrote many short stories and novels in a style that could be called naturalistic. He lived in Athens where he worked as a translator for various newspapers, Acropolis being one of them. He was a frugal person, religious, simple in his manners, and fond of loneliness and nature. The heroes of his writings are simple people, villagers, seamen, petit bourgeois. Papadiamantis convincingly describes their external characteristics as well as their personalities. Among his better known works are Easter Short Stories, Christmas Short Stories, The Murderess and many others.

First published on 14.07.10

More about Papadiamantis here

(including a link to The Gleaner in english)