Saturday, 19 August 2017

Popular puppets find
new relevance in
the streets of Athens

Colourful characters from Karagiozis on sale in the Plaka (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

The streets of the Plaka are lined with tourist shops, selling icons, souvenir reproductions, colourful trinkets and cheap T-shirts. But popular items also included colourful characters from Karagiozis or Karaghiozis (Καραγκιόζης), the shadow puppet theatre that takes its name from a popular character in Greek culture and folklore.

All these colourful puppets are two dimensional and are seen in profile, made in either wood or cardboard, with their torso, waist, feet and arms as separate pieces that are joined together with pins and that are moved with sticks attached to their backs.

Karagiozis is a well-loved figure in Greek folklore, performed at folk feasts, festivals and on television. In Greek daily speech, the name Karagiozis is also used as an insult more or less like clown. But, while Karagiozis can be violent, mischievous, a liar and an anti-hero, he is also good-natured and faithful.

Everyone in Greece loves Karagiozis, and recalls with affection the regular, weekly Karagiozis shows on Greek television in the 1980s, which showed Karagiozis living out some Greek myths or visiting the moon and other planets.

The name Karagiozis or Karaghiozis (Καραγκιόζης) comes from the Turkish Karagöz (‘dark eye’). Karagiozis may have come to mainland Greece from Anatolia at the 19th century, during Ottoman rule. Karagiozis was Hellenised in Patras at the end of 19th century by Dimitrios Sardounis, also known as Mimaros, the founder of modern Greek shadow theatre, and soon became popular throughout Greece.

There are several legends about the arrival of Karagiozis in Greece and his growth in popularity in Greece. Some stories say that Greek merchants brought the art from China and others say that it was a Greek who created the legend under Ottoman rule to entertain the sultan. Others say it began in real events involving two masonry workers, named Karagöz and Haci Ivat, who were building a mosque in Bursa in Turkey in the early 14th century.

Karagiozis is a poor hunch-backed Greek, with a long right hand, clothes that are ragged and patched, and bare feet. He lives in a poor cottage (παράγκα) with his wife Aglaia and their three sons under Ottoman rule. The scene shows their cottage on the left, and the Sultan’s Palace (Sarai) on the far right.

Because of his poverty, Karagiozis uses mischievous and crude ways to find money and to feed his family.

Karagiozis the doctor … one of the many tales in the puppet theatre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

There are many tales, including one-well known one that involves Alexander the Great and the accursed snake, and others that tell of Karagiozis the doctor, the cook, the senator, the scholar, the prophet, the fisherman, the gorilla or even the ghost.

The traditional stories follow a pattern that remains in many of the shows to this day.

Karagiozis appears with his three sons, dancing and singing. He welcomes the audience and has a comical dialogue with his children. He then enters his cottage.

The Vizier reports that he has a problem and needs someone to perform a deed. Hadjiavatis obeys and keeps on announcing the news until Karagiozis hears it.

Karagiozis sees an opportunity to make money and sometimes asks Hadjiavatis to helps him.

Karagiozis sets out either to help the vizier or to fool him. The regular characters appear one-by-one, with an introducing song. Karagiozis has a funny dialogue with them, mocks them, fools them, or becomes annoyed and throws them out violently.

Finally, Karagiozis is either rewarded by the vizier or his mischief is revealed and he is punished, usually by Veligekas, the vizier’s bodyguard.

The main character, Karagiozis, is a trickster and a poor man whose main interests are sleeping and eating. He is close to Hadjiavatis – sometimes they co-operate, but sometimes Hadjiavatis falls prey to Karagiozis abd his schemes.

Kollitiria (Κολλητήρια), Karagiozis’ three kids, are sometimes named as Kollitiris, Svouras and Mirigkokos.

Anglaia (Αγλαΐα), Karagiozis’ wife, is usually not seen, but her nagging voice can be heard coming from the house.

Hadjiavatis (Χατζηαβάτης) is Karagiozis’ friend and sidekick, an honest and serious figure but often ends up being caught up in Karagiozis' schemes. He flatters the powerful and can be subservient, unlike Karagiozis.

Barba Giorgos (Μπάρμπα Γιώργος, ‘Uncle George’) is a crude villager from the mountains, a shepherd or dairy farmer who comes to town on business. He is sometimes a Vlach from Rumeli, knows little about urban life, is broad and strong in build, and dresses in traditional clothing. Although he believes his nephew is a crook, he helps him out and beats all the opponents black and blue with his staff.

Stavrakas (Σταύρακας) has a long independent arm. He represents the mangas culture in Piraeus and the Rebetiko tradition, and Karagiozis teases him rather than bullying him.

Sir Dionysios (Σιορ Διονύσιος) is an Italian aristocrat from Zakynthos who sings cantades and speaks in Ionian Greek with a lampooned accent.

Morfonios (Μορφονιός) is ugly, with a huge head with an extremely large nose. But he thinks he handsome and is always falling in love.

Solomon (Σολομών), is fast-talking rich Jew from Thessaloniki. Despite his frail build, Karagiozis calls him ‘heavy arms.’

The Vizier (Βεζύρης), sometimes called the Pasha (Πασάς), lives in the Sarai. He begins each new tale by announcing the trials, deeds and tests in which Karagiozis becomes entangled.

Fatme (Φατμέ) is the Vizier’s beautiful daughter. She causes trouble by opposing her despotic father or by showing her dislike for Karagiozis or one of the heroes.

Veligekas (Βελιγκέκας), an Albanian guard in the Sarai, is always on the lookout for Karagizis and never loses an opportunity to give him a good beating. But then he is usually gets beaten by Barba Giorgos. Sometimes, he is replaced by Peponias (Πεπόνιας), a fat officer in the Sarai.

Puppeteers often devise their own tales, but there are many traditional tales, handed down from earlier puppeteers and form a ‘canon,’ although there may be variations, and usually there is interaction with the audience.

The stories of poverty and of the oppressed man overcoming the domineering oppressor have many resonances in Greece today, which explains a revival in the popularity of Karagiozis. But I wonder if today’s economic woes are considered by tourists as they look with curiosity on these colourful characters that are a unique part of Greek culture and folklore.

A moonlight sonata beneath
the slopes of the Acropolis

The Acropolis under the moonlight last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

After late afternoon and evening strolls through Monastiraki and the Plaka in Athens, two of us had dinner last night [18 August 2017] below the northern slopes of the Acropolis last night at Antica on Adrianou Street, the street that runs through the heart of Monastiraki and the Plaka.

After an absence of over a decade, I renewed my acquaintance with some of the archaeological and historical sites that fill this part of the Greek capital, including the Agora, the Stoa of Attalos, Hadrian’s Library, the Tower of the Winds, the Monument of Lysikrates, Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of the Olympian Zeus.
Earlier in the afternoon, we had lunch in Mouses, close to the Flea Market, Hadrian’s Library, and the Church of Saint Philip, listening to live Greek music.

Last night, I slept with a panoramic view of the Acropolis from this apartment on Karaiskaki and woke to a similar view in the sunlight this morning.

As I looked at the Acropolis lit up against the night sky last night, I thought once again of the poem Moonlight Sonata by Yánnis Rítsos.

Earlier this year, I missed a performance of Moonlight Sonata in the Long Room Hub, TCD, to mark Greek Independence Day in Dublin [25 March 2017]. This world premiere was performed by the actors Mários Iordánou and Sofía Kazantzián, under the auspices of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs and organised by the Hellenic Community of Ireland, in conjunction with the Greek Embassy in Ireland and the Department of Classics, TCD.

The Acropolis in Athens seen from the Stoa and Adrianou Street last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990), the poet of the Greek left, is considered one of the five greatest Greek poets of the 20th century, alongside Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933), Kostis Palamis (1859-1943), Giorgos Seferis (1900-1971) and Odysseus Elytis (1911-1996). The French poet Louis Aragon once described him as ‘the greatest poet of our age.’

Ritsos published 120 collections of poems, nine volumes of prose, and several translations of Russian and Eastern European poetry. Many of his poems have been set to music by the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis. His poetry was banned at times in Greece for its left-wing politics and sympathies. His great works include Tractor (1934), Pyramids (1935), Epitaphios (1936) and Vigil (1941/1953). Although his poems are marked by their strong political content, one of the exceptions is his Moonlight Sonata:

I know that each one of us travels to love alone,
alone to faith and to death.
I know it. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t help.
Let me come with you.


Yannis Ritsos was born in Greece in the old walled town of Monemvassia on 1 May 1909, the last child in a noble, land-owning family. During his youth his family was devastated by economic ruin after his father went bankrupt, the unexpected early death from tuberculosis of both his mother and his eldest brother, and his father’s lengthy spells in a psychiatric unit. Yannis Ritsos spent four years between 1927 and 1931 in a sanatorium with tuberculosis. The experience of these tragic events marks his work and shaped him as a poet and as a revolutionary.

Ritsos lived most of his life in Athens. In his early 20s, he became involved in left-wing politics, and he spent many years in detention, in prison and in internal exile.

He published his first collection of poetry, Tractors, in 1934, follwed by Pyramids in 1935. These two collections achieved a fragile balance between faith in the future and personal despair. His epic poem Epitaphios (1936) uses the shape of the traditional popular poetry to express in clear and simple language its moving message of fraternity, solidarity and hope in the future. Later, the setting of Epitaphios by Mikis Theodorakis in 1960 sparked a cultural revolution in Greece.

The Metaxas regime tried to silence Ritsos from August 1936, and his Epitaphios was burnt publicly. But he continued writing. The Song of my Sister (1937), Symphony of the Spring (1938), and The Lady of the Vineyards (1945-1947), inspired the Seventh Symphony by Theodorakis (1983-1984), also known as Symphony of the Spring.

After World War II, during the Greek civil war, Ritsos fought against the fascists, and spent four years in various detention camps, including Lémnos, Ayios Ephstratios and Makronissos. Despite this, he published his collection Vigil (1941-1953), and a long poetic chronicle of that terrifying decade: Districts of the World (1949-1951), the basis of another later composition of Theodorakis.

Romiossini (‘Greek-ness’), first published only in 1954 and set into music by Theodorakis in 1966, is a proud and shattering hymn to the glory of a once-humiliated Greece and its freed people.

His mature works include The Moonlight Sonata (1956), The Stranger (1958), The Old Women and the Sea (1958), The Dead House (1959-1962) and a set of monologues inspired by mythology and the ancient tragedies: Orestes (1962-1966) and Philoctetes (1963-1965).

Between 1967 and 1971, the military junta deported Ritsos to Yaros and Leros before sending him to Samos. But he continued writing: Persephone (1965-1970), Agamemnon (1966-1970), Ismene (1966-1971), Ajax (1967-1969) and Chrysothemis (1967-1970) – both written during his internal island exile – Helena (1970-1972), The Return of Iphigenia (1971-1972) and Phaedra (1974-1975).

Ritsos also wrote several short poems that reflected his people’s living nightmare. In the 1980s, he also wrote novels. Nine books are united under the title of The Iconostasis of the Anonymous Saints (1983-1985), which has been translated in three volumes by my good friend, Amy Mims (Athens: Kedros, 1996-2001), who has also published a critical biography of Ritsos in Greece.

The poems in his last book, Late in the night (1987-1989), are filled with sadness and the conscience of losses, but preserve a sense of hope and creativity.

During the last decades of his life, he was active in the peace movement. He received the Lenin Peace Prize in 1977 and the International Peace Prize in 1979. In 1986, he was a founder with Theodorakis of the Greek-Turkish Friendship Society. Shortly before his death, he declared: ‘Man’s inclination is towards well-being, happiness and peace. There must be peace throughout the world because you cannot yourself be at peace when your brother is being wronged.’

These are words that for me have a real ring of truth to the them considering the present violence being stoke by Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and the far-right in the US, all with the tacit approval of Donald Trump.

Ritsos was unsuccessfully proposed nine times for the Nobel Prize for Literature. When he won the Lenin Peace Prize, he declared: ‘This prize – it’s more important for me than the Nobel.’

Despite his often tragic view of life, Ritsos was not pessimistic: ‘I love life, and especially I love beauty.’ He died in Athens on 11 November 1990.

Moonlight Sonata: the setting

After its publication over fifty years ago in 1956, Moonlight Sonata won the National Poetry Prize of Greece. It was soon translated into French by Aragon, who first introduced Ritsos to literary Europe. It has been translated into English by Peter Green and Beverley Ardsley of Austin, Texas (1993), and by Marjorie Chambers of Queen’s University Belfast (2001), and is included in many anthologies.

The scene is set in a dark, decaying, haunted family mansion in the Plaka in Athens, full of memories, old furniture and collected bric-a-brac, its plaster flaking off and its floorboards lifting and cracking. Because this crumbling house appears to be close to the steps of the Church of Aghios Nikólaos Rangava, I imagine the crumbling mansion described by Ritsos is similar to the crumbling mansion on Adrianou Street that was once home to the great Irish-born Philhellene, Sir Richard Church.

The former glory of this house and her failure to maintain it have become major burdens for the Woman in the Black, who is the narrator of this poem.

The Woman in Black might be an early version of Ismene or Elektra. She lives with a gnawing loneliness and is losing her battle against age and death. Yet in her acute erotic awareness of the young male visitor in the house, she prefigures the more intense eroticism of Phaedra. Trapped in her house of memories, she longs to escape the cloying house and her past and to embrace some real human connections, to embrace the present and the future. Constantly her refrain ends sadly with the persistent line: Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ... ‘Let me come with you.’

But can there ever be an escape from the past?

Η Σονατα του Σεληνοφωτοσ – Γιαννησ Ριτσοσ

Ανοιξιάτικο βράδυ. Μεγάλο δωμάτιο παλιού σπιτιού. Μια ηλικιωμένη γυναίκα, ντυμένη στα μαύρα, μιλάει σ' έναν νέο. Δεν έχουν ανάψει φως. Απ' τα δύο παράθυρα μπαίνει ένα αμείλικτο φεγγαρόφωτο. Ξέχασα να πω ότι η Γυναίκα με τα Μαύρα έχει εκδώσει δύο-τρεις ενδιαφέρουσες ποιητικές συλλογές θρησκευτικής πνοής. Λοιπόν, η Γυναίκα με τα Μαύρα μιλάει στον Νέο:

Άφησέ με να έρθω μαζί σου. Τι φεγγάρι απόψε!
Είναι καλό το φεγγάρι, – δε θα φαίνεται
που άσπρισαν τα μαλλιά μου. Το φεγγάρι
θα κάνει πάλι χρυσά τα μαλλιά μου. Δε θα καταλάβεις.
Άφησέ με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Όταν έχει φεγγάρι μεγαλώνουν οι σκιές μες στο σπίτι,
αόρατα χέρια τραβούν τις κουρτίνες,
ένα δάχτυλο αχνό γράφει στη σκόνη του πιάνου
λησμονημένα λόγια δε θέλω να τ ακούσω. Σώπα.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου
λίγο πιο κάτου, ως την μάντρα του τουβλάδικου,
ως εκεί που στρίβει ο δρόμος και φαίνεται
η πολιτεία τσιμεντένια κι αέρινη, ασβεστωμένη με φεγγαρόφωτο,
τόσο αδιάφορη κι άυλη
τόσο θετική σαν μεταφυσική
που μπορείς επιτέλους να πιστέψεις πως υπάρχεις και δεν υπάρχεις
πως ποτέ δεν υπήρξες, δεν υπήρξε ο χρόνος κι η φθορά του.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ....

Θα καθίσουμε λίγο στο πεζούλι, πάνω στο ύψωμα,
κι όπως θα μας φυσάει ο ανοιξιάτικος αέρας
μπορεί να φανταστούμε κιόλας πως θα πετάξουμε,
γιατί, πολλές φορές, και τώρα ακόμη, ακούω τον θόρυβο του φουστανιού μου
σαν τον θόρυβο δύο δυνατών φτερών που ανοιγοκλείνουν,
κι όταν κλείνεσαι μέσα σ αυτόν τον ήχο του πετάγματος
νιώθεις κρουστό το λαιμό σου, τα πλευρά σου, τη σάρκα σου,
κι έτσι σφιγμένος μες στους μυώνες του γαλάζιου αγέρα,
μέσα στα ρωμαλέα νεύρα του ύψους,
δεν έχει σημασία αν φεύγεις ή αν γυρίζεις
κι ούτε έχει σημασία που άσπρισαν τα μαλλιά μου,
(δεν είναι τούτο η λύπη μου η λύπη μου
είναι που δεν ασπρίζει κι η καρδιά μου).
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Το ξέρω πως καθένας μοναχός πορεύεται στον έρωτα,
μοναχός στη δόξα και στο θάνατο.
Το ξέρω. Το δοκίμασα. Δεν ωφελεί.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου....

Τούτο το σπίτι στοίχειωσε, με διώχνει –
θέλω να πω έχει παλιώσει πολύ, τα καρφιά ξεκολλάνε,
τα κάδρα ρίχνονται σα να βουτάνε στο κενό,
οι σουβάδες πέφτουν αθόρυβα
όπως πέφτει το καπέλο του πεθαμένου
απ' την κρεμάστρα στο σκοτεινό διάδρομο
όπως πέφτει το μάλλινο τριμμένο γάντι της σιωπής απ' τα γόνατά της
ή όπως πέφτει μιά λουρίδα φεγγάρι στην παλιά, ξεκοιλιασμένη πολυθρόνα.

Κάποτε υπήρξε νέα κι αυτή, – όχι η φωτογραφία που κοιτάς με τόση δυσπιστία –
λέω για την πολυθρόνα, πολύ αναπαυτική, μπορούσες ώρες ολόκληρες να κάθεσαι
και με κλεισμένα μάτια να ονειρεύεσαι ό,τι τύχει
– μιάν αμμουδιά στρωτή, νοτισμένη, στιλβωμένη από φεγγάρι,
πιο στιλβωμένη απ' τα παλιά λουστρίνια μου που κάθε μήνα τα δίνω
στο στιλβωτήριο της γωνίας,
ή ένα πανί ψαρόβαρκας που χάνεται στο βάθος λικνισμένο απ' την ίδια του ανάσα,
τριγωνικό πανί σα μαντίλι διπλωμένο λοξά μόνο στα δύο
σα να μην είχε τίποτα να κλείσει ή να κρατήσει
ή ν' ανεμίσει διάπλατο σε αποχαιρετισμό.
Πάντα μου είχα μανία με τα μαντίλια,
όχι για να κρατήσω τίποτα δεμένο,
τίποτα σπόρους λουλουδιών ή χαμομήλι μαζεμένο στους αγρούς με το λιόγερμα
ή να το δέσω τέσσερις κόμπους σαν το αντικρινό γιαπί
ή να σκουπίζω τα μάτια μου, – διατήρησα καλή την όρασή μου,
ποτέ μου δεν φόρεσα γυαλιά. Μιά απλή ιδιοτροπία τα μαντίλια ...

Τώρα τα διπλώνω στα τέσσερα, στα οχτώ, στα δεκάξι
ν' απασχολώ τα δάχτυλά μου.
Και τώρα θυμήθηκα
πως έτσι μετρούσα τη μουσική σαν πήγαινα στο Ωδείο
με μπλε ποδιά κι άσπρο γιακά, με δύο ξανθές πλεξούδες
– 8, 16, 32, 64, –
κρατημένη απ' το χέρι μιας μικρής φίλης μου ροδακινιάς όλο φως και ροζ λουλούδια,
(συγχώρεσέ μου αυτά τα λόγια κακή συνήθεια) – 32, 64, – κι οι δικοί μου στήριζαν
μεγάλες ελπίδες στο μουσικό μου τάλαντο. Λοιπόν, σου λεγα για την πολυθρόνα –
ξεκοιλιασμένη – φαίνονται οι σκουριασμένες σούστες, τα άχερα –
έλεγα να την πάω δίπλα στο επιπλοποιείο,
μα που καιρός και λεφτά και διάθεση – τι να πρωτοδιορθώσεις ; –
έλεγα να ρίξω ένα σεντόνι πάνω της, – φοβήθηκα
τ' άσπρο σεντόνι σε τέτοιο φεγγαρόφωτο. Εδώ κάθισαν
άνθρωποι που ονειρεύτηκαν μεγάλα όνειρα, όπως κι εσύ κι όπως κι εγώ άλλωστε,
και τώρα ξεκουράζονται κάτω απ' το χώμα δίχως να ενοχλούνται απ' τη βροχή ή το φεγγάρι.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Θα σταθούμε λιγάκι στην κορφή της μαρμάρινης σκάλας του Αϊ-Νικόλα,
ύστερα εσύ θα κατηφορίσεις κι εγώ θα γυρίσω πίσω
έχοντας στ' αριστερό πλευρό μου τη ζέστα απ' το τυχαίο άγγιγμα του σακακιού σου
κι ακόμη μερικά τετράγωνα φώτα από μικρά συνοικιακά παράθυρα
κι αυτή την πάλλευκη άχνα απ' το φεγγάρι που 'ναι σα μια μεγάλη συνοδεία
ασημένιων κύκνων –
και δε φοβάμαι αυτή την έκφραση, γιατί εγώ
πολλές ανοιξιάτικες νύχτες συνομίλησα άλλοτε με το Θεό που μου εμφανίστηκε
ντυμένος την αχλύ και την δόξα ενός τέτοιου σεληνόφωτος,
και πολλούς νέους, πιο ωραίους κι από σένα ακόμη, του εθυσίασα,
έτσι λευκή κι απρόσιτη ν' ατμίζομαι μες στη λευκή μου φλόγα, στη λευκότητα του σεληνόφωτος,
πυρπολημένη απ' τ' αδηφάγα μάτια των αντρών κι απ' τη δισταχτικήν έκσταση των εφήβων,
πολιορκημένη από εξαίσια, ηλιοκαμένα σώματα, άλκιμα μέλη γυμνασμένα στο κολύμπι, στο κουπί, στο στίβο, στο ποδόσφαιρο
(που έκανα πως δεν τα 'βλεπα)
– ξέρεις, καμιά φορά, θαυμάζοντας, ξεχνάς, ό, τι θαυμάζεις,
σου φτάνει ο θαυμασμός σου, –
θε μου, τι μάτια πάναστρα, κι ανυψωνόμουν σε μιαν αποθέωση αρνημένων άστρων
γιατί, έτσι πολιορκημένη απ' έξω κι από μέσα,
άλλος δρόμος δε μου 'μενε παρά μονάχα προς τα πάνω ή προς τα κάτω.
– Όχι, δε φτάνει.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Το ξέρω η ώρα είναι πια περασμένη. Άφησέ με,
γιατί τόσα χρόνια, μέρες και νύχτες και πορφυρά μεσημέρια, έμεινα μόνη,
ανένδοτη, μόνη και πάναγνη,
ακόμη στη συζυγική μου κλίνη πάναγνη και μόνη,
γράφοντας ένδοξους στίχους στα γόνατα του Θεού,
στίχους που, σε διαβεβαιώ, θα μένουνε σα λαξευμένοι σε άμεμπτο μάρμαρο
πέρα απ' τη ζωή μου και τη ζωή σου, πέρα πολύ. Δε φτάνει.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Τούτο το σπίτι δε με σηκώνει πια.
Δεν αντέχω να το σηκώνω στη ράχη μου.
Πρέπει πάντα να προσέχεις, να προσέχεις,
να στεριώνεις τον τοίχο με το μεγάλο μπουφέ
να στεριώνεις τον μπουφέ με το πανάρχαιο σκαλιστό τραπέζι
να στεριώνεις το τραπέζι με τις καρέκλες
να στεριώνεις τις καρέκλες με τα χέρια σου
να βάζεις τον ώμο σου κάτω απ' το δοκάρι που κρέμασε.
Και το πιάνο, σα μαύρο φέρετρο κλεισμένο. Δε τολμάς να τ' ανοίξεις.

Όλο να προσέχεις, να προσέχεις, μην πέσουν, μην πέσεις. Δεν αντέχω.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Τούτο το σπίτι, παρ όλους τους νεκρούς του, δεν εννοεί να πεθάνει.
Επιμένει να ζει με τους νεκρούς του
να ζει απ' τους νεκρούς του
να ζει απ' τη βεβαιότητα του θανάτου του
και να νοικοκυρεύει ακόμη τους νεκρούς του σ' ετοιμόρροπα κρεββάτια και ράφια.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Εδώ, όσο σιγά κι αν περπατήσω μες στην άχνα της βραδιάς,
είτε με τις παντούφλες, είτε ξυπόλυτη,
κάτι θα τρίξει, – ένα τζάμι ραγίζει ή κάποιος καθρέφτης,
κάποια βήματα ακούγονται, – δεν είναι δικά μου.
Έξω, στο δρόμο μπορεί να μην ακούγονται τούτα τα βήματα, –
η μεταμέλεια, λένε, φοράει ξυλοπάπουτσα, –
κι αν κάνεις να κοιτάξεις σ' αυτόν ή τον άλλον καθρέφτη,
πίσω απ' την σκόνη και τις ραγισματιές,
διακρίνεις πιο θαμπό και πιο τεμαχισμένο το πρόσωπό σου,
το πρόσωπο σου που άλλο δε ζήτησες στη ζωή παρά να το κρατήσεις
καθάριο κι αδιαίρετο.

Τα χείλη του ποτηριού γυαλίζουν στο φεγγαρόφωτο
σαν κυκλικό ξυράφι – πώς να το φέρω στα χείλη μου;
όσο κι αν διψώ, – πως να το φέρω ; – Βλέπεις ;
έχω ακόμη διάθεση για παρομοιώσεις, – αυτό μου απόμεινε,
αυτό με βεβαιώνει ακόμη πως δεν λείπω.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Φορές-φορές, την ώρα που βραδιάζει, έχω την αίσθηση
πως έξω απ' τα παράθυρα περνάει ο αρκουδιάρης
με τη γριά βαρειά του αρκούδα
με το μαλλί της όλο αγκάθια και τριβόλια
σηκώνοντας σκόνη στο συνοικιακό δρόμο
ένα ερημικό σύννεφο σκόνη που θυμιάζει το σούρουπο
και τα παιδιά έχουν γυρίσει σπίτια τους για το δείπνο και δεν τ' αφή – νουν πιαν να βγουν έξω
μ' όλο που πίσω απ' τους τοίχους μαντεύουν το περπάτημα της γριάς αρκούδας –
κι η αρκούδα κουρασμένη πορεύεται μες στη σοφία της μοναξιάς της,
μην ξέροντας για πού και γιατί –
έχει βαρύνει, δεν μπορεί πια να χορεύει στα πισινά της πόδια
δεν μπορεί να φοράει τη δαντελένια σκουφίτσα της να διασκεδάζει τα παιδιά,
τους αργόσχολους, τους απαιτητικούς,
και το μόνο που θέλει είναι να πλαγιάσει στο χώμα
αφήνοντας να την πατάνε στην κοιλιά,
παίζοντας έτσι το τελευταίο παιχνίδι της,
δείχνοντας την τρομερή της δύναμη για παραίτηση,
την ανυπακοή της στα συμφέροντα των άλλων, στους κρίκους των χειλιών της, στην ανάγκη των δοντιών της,
την ανυπακοή της στον πόνο και στη ζωή
με τη σίγουρη συμμαχία του θανάτου – έστω κι ενός αργού θανάτου –
την τελική της ανυπακοή στο θάνατο με τη συνέχεια και τη γνώση της ζωής
που ανηφοράει με γνώση και με πράξη πάνω απ τη σκλαβιά της.

Μα ποιος μπορεί να παίξει ως το τέλος αυτό το παιχνίδι ;
Κι η αρκούδα σηκώνεται πάλι και πορεύεται
υπακούοντας στο λουρί της, στους κρίκους της, στα δόντια της,
χαμογελώντας με τα σκισμένα χείλη της στις πενταροδεκάρες που της
ρίχνουνε τα ωραία κι ανυποψίαστα παιδιά
(ωραία ακριβώς γιατί είναι ανυποψίαστα)
και λέγοντας ευχαριστώ. Γιατί οι αρκούδες που γεράσανε
το μόνο που έμαθαν να λένε είναι: ευχαριστώ, ευχαριστώ.
Άφησέ με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Τούτο το σπίτι με πνίγει. Μάλιστα η κουζίνα
είναι σαν το βυθό της θάλασσας. Τα μπρίκια κρεμασμένα γυαλίζουν
σα στρογγυλά, μεγάλα μάτια απίθανων ψαριών,
τα πιάτα σαλεύουν αργά σαν τις μέδουσες,
φύκια κι όστρακα πιάνονται στα μαλλιά μου – δεν μπορώ να τα ξεκολλήσω ύστερα,
δεν μπορώ ν' ανέβω πάλι στην επιφάνεια –
ο δίσκος μου πέφτει απ' τα χέρια άηχος, – σωριάζομαι
και βλέπω τις φυσαλίδες απ' την ανάσα μου ν' ανεβαίνουν, ν' ανεβαίνουν
και προσπαθώ να διασκεδάσω κοιτάζοντές τες
κι αναρωτιέμαι τι θα λέει αν κάποιος βρίσκεται από πάνω και βλέπει αυτές τις φυσαλίδες,
τάχα πως πνίγεται κάποιος ή πως ένας δύτης ανιχνεύει τους βυθούς ;

Κι αλήθεια δεν είναι λίγες οι φορές που ανακαλύπτω εκεί, στο βάθος του πνιγμού,
κοράλλια και μαργαριτάρια και θυσαυρούς ναυαγισμένων πλοίων,
απρόοπτες συναντήσεις, και χτεσινά και σημερινά μελλούμενα,
μιαν επαλήθευση σχεδόν αιωνιότητας,
κάποιο ξανάσαμα, κάποιο χαμόγελο αθανασίας, όπως λένε,
μιαν ευτυχία, μια μέθη, κι ενθουσιασμόν ακόμη,
κοράλλια και μαργαριτάρια και ζαφείρια,
μονάχα που δεν ξέρω να τα δώσω – όχι, τα δίνω,
μονάχα που δεν ξέρω αν μπορούν να τα πάρουν – πάντως εγώ τα δίνω.
Άφησέ με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Μια στιγμή, να πάρω τη ζακέτα μου.
Τούτο τον άστατο καιρό, όσο να 'ναι, πρέπει να φυλαγόμαστε.
Έχει υγρασία τα βράδια, και το φεγγάρι
δε σου φαίνεται, αλήθεια, πως επιτείνει την ψύχρα;

Άσενα σου κουμπώσω το πουκάμισο – τι δυνατό το στήθος σου,
– τι δυνατό φεγγάρι, – η πολυθρόνα, λέω κι όταν σηκώνω το φλιτζάνι απ' το τραπέζι
μένει από κάτω μιά τρύπα σιωπή, βάζω αμέσως την παλάμη μου επάνω
να μην κοιτάξω μέσα, – αφήνω πάλι το φλιτζάνι στη θέση του,
και το φεγγάρι μια τρύπα στο κρανίο του κόσμου – μην κοιτάξεις μέσα,
έχει μια δύναμη μαγνητική που σε τραβάει – μην κοιτάξεις, μην κοιτάχτε,
ακούστε με που σας μιλάω – θα πέσετε μέσα. Τούτος ο ίλιγγος ωραίος, ανάλαφρος θα πέσεις, –
ένα μαρμάρινο πηγάδι το φεγγάρι,
ίσκιοι σαλεύουν και βουβά φτερά, μυστιριακές φωνές – δεν τις ακούτε ;

Βαθύ-βαθύ το πέσιμο,
βαθύ-βαθύ το ανέβασμα,
το αέρινο άγαλμα κρουστό μες στ' ανοιχτά φτερά του,
βαθειά-βαθειά η αμείλικτη ευεργεσία της σιωπής, –
τρέμουσες φωταψίες της άλλης όχθης, όπως ταλαντεύεσαι μες στο ίδιο σου το κύμα,
ανάσα ωκεανού. Ωραίος, ανάλαφρος
ο ίλιγγος τούτος, – πρόσεξε, θα πέσεις. Μην κοιτάς εμένα,
εμένα η θέση μου είναι το ταλάντευμα – ο εξαίσιος ίλιγγος. Έτσι κάθε απόβραδο
έχω λιγάκι πονοκέφαλο, κάτι ζαλάδες ...

Συχνά πετάγομαι στο φαρμακείο απέναντι για καμμιάν ασπιρίνη,
άλλοτε πάλι βαριέμαι και μένω με τον πονοκέφαλό μου
ν' ακούω μες στους τοίχους τον κούφιο θόρυβο που κάνουν οι σωλήνες του νερού,
ή ψήνω έναν καφέ, και, πάντα αφηρημένη,
ξεχνιέμαι κ ετοιμάζω – δυο ποιος να τον πιει τον άλλον ; –
αστείο αλήθεια, τον αφήνω στο περβάζι να κρυώνει
ή κάποτε πίνω και τον δεύτερο, κοιτάζοντας απ' το παράθυρο τον πράσινο γλόμπο του φαρμακείου
σαν το πράσινο φως ενός αθόρυβου τραίνου που έρχεται να με πάρει
με τα μαντίλια μου, τα στραβοπατημένα μου παπούτσια, τη μαύρη τσάντα μου, τα ποιήματα μου,
χωρίς καθόλου βαλίτσες – τι να τις κάνεις;
Άφησέ με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Α, φεύγεις; Καληνύχτα. Όχι, δε θα έρθω. Καληνύχτα.
Εγώ θα βγω σε λίγο. Ευχαριστώ. Γιατί, επιτέλους, πρέπει
να βγω απ' αυτό το τσακισμένο σπίτι.
Πρέπει να δω λιγάκι πολιτεία, – όχι, όχι το φεγγάρι –
την πολιτεία με τα ροζιασμένα χέρια της, την πολιτεία του μεροκάματου,
την πολιτεία που ορκίζεται στο ψωμί και στη γροθιά της
την πολιτεία που μας αντέχει στη ράχη της
με τις μικρότητες μας, τις κακίες, τις έχτρες μας,
με τις φιλοδοξίες, την άγνοιά μας και τα γερατειά μας, –
ν' ακούσω τα μεγάλα βήματά της πολιτείας,
να μην ακούω πια τα βήματα σου
μήτε τα βήματα του Θεού, μήτε και τα δικά μου βήματα. Καληνύχτα ...

(Το δωμάτιο σκοτεινιάζει. Φαίνεται πως κάποιο σύννεφο θα έκρυψε το φεγγάρι. Μονομιάς, σαν κάποιο χέρι να δυνάμωσε το ραδιόφωνο του γειτονικού μπαρ, ακούστηκε μια πολύ γνωστή μουσική φράση. Και τότε κατάλαβα πως όλη τούτη τη σκηνή τη συνόδευε χαμηλόφωνα η ‘Σονάτα του Σεληνόφωτος,’ μόνο το πρώτο μέρος. Ο νέος θα κατηφορίζει τώρα μ' ένα ειρωνικό κι ίσως συμπονετικό χαμόγελο στα καλογραμμένα χείλη του και μ' ένα συναίσθημα απαιλευθέρωσης. Όταν θα φτάσει ακριβώς στον Αη-Νικόλα, πριν κατέβει τη μαρμάρινη σκάλα, θα γελάσει, - ένα γέλιο δυνατό, ασυγκράτητο. Το γέλιο του δε θ' ακουστεί καθόλου ανάρμοστα κάτω απ' το φεγγάρι. Ίσως το μόνο ανάρμοστο να είναι το ότι δεν είναι καθόλου ανάρμοστο. Σε λίγο ο Νέος θα σωπάσει, θα σοβαρευτεί και θα πει: ‘Η παρακμή μιάς εποχής.’ Έτσι, ολότελα ήσυχος πια, θα ξεκουμπώσει πάλι το πουκάμισό του και θα τραβήξει το δρόμο του. Όσο για τη γυναίκα με τα μαύρα, δεν ξέρω αν βγήκε τελικά απ το σπίτι. Το φεγγαρόφωτο λάμπει ξανά. Και στις γωνίες του δωματίου οι σκιές σφίγγονται από μιαν αβάσταχτη μετάνοια, σχεδόν οργή, όχι τόσο για τη ζωή, όσο για την άχρηστη εξομολόγηση. Ακούτε; Το ραδιόφωνο συνεχίζει.) ...

Here is Yannis Ritsos reading the poem (with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata playing in the background):



The translation by Peter Green and Beverly Bardsley in The Fourth Dimension (London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1993) reads:

Moonlight Sonata

A spring evening. A large room in an old house. A woman of a certain age, dressed in black, is speaking to a young man. They have not turned on the lights. Through both windows the moonlight shines relentlessly. I forgot to mention that the Woman in Black has published two or three interesting volume of poetry with a religious flavour. So, the Woman in Black is speaking to the Young Man:

Let me come with you. What a moon there is tonight!
The moon is kind – it won’t show
that my hair turned white. The moon
will turn my hair to gold again. You wouldn’t understand.
Let me come with you ...
When there’s a moon the shadows in the house grow larger,
invisible hands draw the curtains,
a ghostly finger writes forgotten words in the dust
on the piano – I don’t want to hear them. Hush.

Let me come with you
a little farther down, as far as the brickyard wall,
to the point where the road turns and the city appears
concrete and airy, whitewashed with moonlight,
so indifferent and insubstantial
so positive, like metaphysics,
that finally you can believe you exist and do not exist,
that you never existed, that time with its destruction never existed.
Let me come with you ...

We’ll sit for a little on the low wall, up on the hill,
and as the spring breeze blows around us
perhaps we’ll even imagine that we are flying,
because, often, and now especially, I hear the sound of my own dress
like the sound of two powerful wings opening and closing,
and when you enclose yourself within the sound of that flight
you feel the tight mesh of your throat, your ribs, your flesh,
and thus constricted amid the muscles of the azure air,
amid the strong nerves of the heavens,
it makes no difference whether you go or return
and it makes no difference that my hair has turned white
(that is not my sorrow – my sorrow is
that my heart too does not turn white).
Let me come with you ...

I know that each one of us travels to love alone,
alone to faith and to death.
I know it. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t help.
Let me come with you ...

This house is haunted, it preys on me –
what I mean is, it has aged a great deal, the nails are working loose,
the portraits drop as though plunging into the void,
the plaster falls without a sound
as the dead man’s hat falls from the peg in the dark hallway
as the worn woolen glove falls from the knee of silence
or as moonbeam falls on the old, gutted armchair.

Once it too was new – not the photograph that you are starting at so dubiously –
I mean the armchair, very comfortable, you could sit in it for hours
with your eyes closed and dream whatever came into your head
– a sandy beach, smooth, wet, shining in the moonlight,
shining more than my old patent leather shoes that I send each month to the shoeshine shop on the corner,
or a fishing boat’s sail that sinks to the bottom rocked by its own breathing,
a three-cornered sail like a handkerchief folded slantwise in half only
as though it had nothing to shut up or hold fast
no reason to flutter open in farewell. I have always has a passion for handkerchiefs,
not to keep anything tied in them,
no flower seeds or camomile gathered in the fields at sunset,
nor to tie them with four knots like the caps the workers wear on the construction site across the street,
nor to dab my eyes – I’ve kept my eyesight good;
I’ve never worn glasses. A harmless idiosyncracy, handkerchiefs.

Now I fold them in quarters, in eighths, in sixteenths
to keep my fingers occupied. And now I remember
that this is how I counted the music when I went to the Odeion
with a blue pinafore and a white collar, with two blond braids
– 8, 16, 32, 64 –
hand in hand with a small friend of mine, peachy, all light and picked flowers,
(forgive me such digressions – a bad habit) – 32, 64 – and my family rested
great hopes on my musical talent. But I was telling you about the armchair –
gutted – the rusted springs are showing, the stuffing –
I thought of sending it next door to the furniture shop,
but where’s the time and the money and the inclination – what to fix first? –
I thought of throwing a sheet over it – I was afraid
of a white sheet in so much moonlight. People sat here
who dreamed great dreams, as you do and I too,
and now they rest under earth untroubled by rain or the moon.
Let me come with you ...

We’ll pause for a little at the top of St. Nicholas’ marble steps,
and afterward you’ll descend and I will turn back,
having on my left side the warmth from a casual touch of your jacket
and some squares of light, too, from small neighbourhood windows
and this pure white mist from the moon, like a great procession of silver swans –
and I do not fear this manifestation, for at another time
on many spring evenings I talked with God who appeared to me
clothed in the haze and glory of such a moonlight –
and many young men, more handsome even than you, I sacrificed to him –
I dissolved, so white, so unapproachable, amid my white flame, in the whiteness of moonlight,
burnt up by men’s voracious eyes and the tentative rapture of youths,
besieged by splendid bronzed bodies,
strong limbs exercising at the pool, with oars, on the track, at soccer (I pretended not to see them),
foreheads, lips and throats, knees, fingers and eyes,
chests and arms and thighs (and truly I did not see them)
– you know, sometimes, when you’re entranced, you forget what entranced you, the entrancement alone is enough –
my God, what star-bright eyes, and I was lifted up to an apotheosis of disavowed stars
because, besieged thus from without and from within,
no other road was left me save only the way up or the way down. – No, it is not enough.
Let me come with you ...

I know it’s very late. Let me,
because for so many years – days, nights, and crimson noons – I’ve stayed alone,
unyielding, alone and immaculate,
even in my marriage bed immaculate and alone,
writing glorious verses to lay on the knees of God,
verses that, I assure you, will endure as if chiselled in flawless marble
beyond my life and your life, well beyond. It is not enough.
Let me come with you ...

This house can’t bear me anymore.
I cannot endure to bear it on my back.
You must always be careful, be careful,
to hold up the wall with the large buffet
to hold up the table with the chairs
to hold up the chairs with your hands
to place your shoulder under the hanging beam.
And the piano, like a closed black coffin. You do not dare to open it.
You have to be so careful, so careful, lest they fall, lest you fall. I cannot bear it.
Let me come with you ...

This house, despite all its dead, has no intention of dying.
It insists on living with its dead
on living off its dead
on living off the certainty of its death
and on still keeping house for its dead, the rotting beds and shelves.
Let me come with you ...

Here, however quietly I walk through the mist of evening,
whether in slippers or barefoot,
there will be some sound: a pane of glass cracks or a mirror,
some steps are heard – not my own.
Outside, in the street, perhaps these steps are not heard –
repentance, they say, wears wooden shoes –
and if you look into this or that other mirror,
behind the dust and the cracks,
you discern – darkened and more fragmented – your face,
your face, which all your life you sought only to keep clean and whole.
The lip of the glass gleams in the moonlight
like a round razor – how can I lift it to my lips?
however much I thirst – how can I lift it – Do you see?
I am already in a mood for similes – this at least is left me,
reassuring me still that my wits are not failing.
Let me come with you ...

At times, when evening descends, I have the feeling
that outside the window the bear-keeper is going by with his old heavy she-bear,
her fur full of burrs and thorns,
stirring dust in the neighborhood street
a desolate cloud of dust that censes the dusk,
and the children have gone home for supper and aren’t allowed outdoors again,
even though behind the walls they divine the old bear’s passing –
and the tired bear passes in the wisdom of her solitude, not knowing wherefore and why –
she’s grown heavy, can no longer dance on her hind legs,
can’t wear her lace cap to amuse the children, the idlers, the importunate,
and all she wants is to lie down on the ground
letting them trample on her belly, playing thus her final game,
showing her dreadful power for resignation,
her indifference to the interest of others, to the rings in her lips, the compulsion of her teeth,
her indifference to pain and to life
with the sure complicity of death – even a slow death –
her final indifference to death with the continuity and knowledge of life
which transcends her enslavement with knowledge and with action.

But who can play this game to the end?
And the bear gets up again and moves on
obedient to her leash, her rings, her teeth,
smiling with torn lips at the pennies the beautiful and unsuspecting children toss
(beautiful precisely because unsuspecting)
and saying thank you. Because bears that have grown old
can say only one thing: thank you; thank you.
Let me come with you ...

This house stifles me. The kitchen especially
is like the depths of the sea. The hanging coffee pots gleam
like round, huge eyes of improbable fish,
the plates undulate slowly like medusas,
seaweed and shells catch in my hair – later I can’t pull them loose –
I can’t get back to the surface –
the tray falls silently from my hands – I sink down
and I see the bubbles from my breath rising, rising
and I try to divert myself watching them
and I wonder what someone would say who happened to be above and saw these bubbles,
perhaps that someone was drowning or a diver exploring the depths?

And in fact more than a few times I’ve discovered there, in the depths of drowning,
coral and pearls and treasures of shipwrecked vessels,
unexpected encounters, past, present, and yet to come,
a confirmation almost of eternity,
a certain respite, a certain smile of immortality, as they say,
a happiness, an intoxication, inspiration even,
coral and pearls and sapphires;
only I don’t know how to give them – no, I do give them;
only I don’t know if they can take them – but still, I give them.
Let me come with you ...

One moment while I get my jacket.
The way this weather’s so changeable, I must be careful.
It’s damp in the evening, and doesn’t the moon
seem to you, honestly, as if it intensifies the cold?
Let me button your shirt – how strong your chest is
– how strong the moon – the armchair, I mean – and whenever I lift the cup from the table
a hole of silence is left underneath. I place my palm over it at once
so as not to see through it – I put the cup back in its place;
and the moon’s a hole in the skull of the world – don’t look through it,
it’s a magnetic force that draws you – don’t look, don’t any of you look,
listen to what I’m telling you – you’ll fall in. This giddiness,
beautiful, ethereal – you will fall in –
the moon’s marble well,
shadows stir and mute wings, mysterious voices – don’t you hear them?

Deep, deep the fall,
deep, deep the ascent,
the airy statue enmeshed in its open wings,
deep, deep the inexorable benevolence of the silence –
trembling lights on the opposite shore, so that you sway in your own wave,
the breathing of the ocean. Beautiful, ethereal
this giddiness – be careful, you’ll fall. Don’t look at me,
for me my place is this wavering – this splendid vertigo. And so every evening
I have little headache, some dizzy spells.

Often I slip out to the pharmacy across the street for a few aspirin,
but at times I’m too tired and I stay here with my headache
and listen to the hollow sound the pipes make in the walls,
or drink some coffee, and, absentminded as usual,
I forget and make two – who’ll drink the other?
It’s really funny, I leave it on the windowsill to cool
or sometimes drink them both, looking out the window at the bright green globe of the pharmacy
that’s like the green light of a silent train coming to take me away
with my handkerchiefs, my run-down shoes, my black purse, my verses,
but no suitcases – what would one do with them?
Let my come with you ...

Oh, are you going? Goodnight. No, I won’t come. Goodnight.
I’ll be going myself in a little. Thank you. Because, in the end, I must
get out of this broken-down house.
I must see a bit of the city – no, not the moon –
the city with its calloused hands, the city of daily work,
the city that swears by bread and by its fist,
the city that bears all of us on its back
with our pettiness, sins, and hatreds,
our ambitions, our ignorance and our senility.
I need to hear the great footsteps of the city,
and no longer to hear your footsteps
or God’s, or my own. Goodnight.

The room grows dark. It looks as though a cloud may have covered the moon. All at once, as if someone had turned up the radio in the nearby bar, a very familiar musical phrase can be heard. Then I realize that ‘The Moonlight Sonata’, just the first movement, has been playing very softly through this entire scene. The Young Man will go down the hill now with an ironic and perhaps sympathetic smile on his finely chiselled lips and with a feeling of release. Just as he reaches St. Nicolas, before he goes down the marble steps, he will laugh – a loud, uncontrollable laugh. His laughter will not sound at all unseemly beneath the moon. Perhaps the only unseemly thing will be that nothing is unseemly. Soon the Young Man will fall silent, become serious, and say: ‘The decline of an era.’ So, thoroughly calm once more, he will unbutton his shirt again and go on his way. As for the woman in black, I don’t know whether she finally did get out of the house. The moon is shining again. And in the corners of the room the shadows intensify with an intolerable regret, almost fury, not so much for the life, as for the useless confession. Can you hear? The radio plays on:

ATHENS, JUNE 1956

Sunset seen from Adrianou Street in the Plaka last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

For an earlier essay on Yannis Ritsos and his epic poem Epitaphios see: here