Wednesday, 25 August 2004

Translating a Greek icon

Inspiration; Yannis Ritsos, left, with Amy Mims, who spent 12 years translating his last major work into English

Having brought Yannis Ritsos to English speakers, his translator is now taking Kavanagh to Greece, writes Patrick Comerford

Amy Mims, an award-winning poet and translator, is proud of her descent from the O’Sullivans of Castletown Bere, in Co Cork. Having lived in Greece for more than four decades, she now feels Greek. But having devoted much of her working life to introducing Yannis Ritsos, the great Greek poet of the left, to English-speaking readers, she is now introducing Patrick Kavanagh to her adopted home.

Mims met Kavanagh on her very first day in Ireland, in 1957. On later visits she went with Kavanagh and John Ryan, the friend and supporter of many literary figures, to Newgrange, where they made comparisons with Knossos and the Minoan civilisation of ancient Crete. Studies in classical Greek at Harvard, followed by Byzantine and modern Greek studies at Oxford, led to a Fulbright scholarship in 1958 to study medieval Greece. Having chosen to stay in Greece, she now describes herself as “Greek by identity”.

She has published four translations of Nikos Kazantzakis – author of Zorba The Greek and The Last Temptation Of Christ -- innumerable versions of contemporary Greek playwrights and poets, and her own poetry and essays. She has been good friends with Leonard Cohen since they first met on the island of Hydra, but her literary and artistic Greek friends have included the composer Mikis Theodorakis and, of course, Ritsos.

Like many creative Greeks, she was forced into exile under the colonels, first to Paris, where the Greek exiles included Vassilis Vassilikos, author of Z, followed by “18 ghastly months in London” and travels in Cyprus and Crete and among the Pontic Greeks of the Black Sea.

Ritsos (1909-1990) paid for his political commitment with long periods of internment and internal exile under the post-war right-wing regime and under the colonels. His epic poem Epitaphios became the anthem of resistance to the colonels, while Romiosini made the resistance movement the natural heir to the heroes of Greek mythology. Both were set to music and arranged by Theodorakis and Manos Hatzidakis.

Ritsos was hailed by Aragon as the greatest poet of his time; Pablo Neruda thought Ritsos better qualified for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Mims first met him in Cyprus in 1973, then spent the next 30 years making his works available to an English-reading audience.

Her translation of Ritsos’s nine-volume Iconostasis Of Anonymous Saints was a 12-year labour of love on his last major work, the one he considered his freest and finest ever; it led to her three-volume collection from the leading Greek publisher Kedros (1996-2001). Now a new complementary bilingual work, Ritsos Of The Iconostasis, offers readers in both languages a companion for the journey through the Joycean passageways of her translation of Ritsos’s swansong.

The iconostasis is the screen decorated with icons of saints that traditionally separates the altar from the main body of a Greek church. For Ritsos, the anonymous saints he needed to remember in his prayers and to keep the oil lamp of his heart burning before are not the traditional saints of Orthodoxy but the everyday “anonymous saints” from his neighbourhood in old Athens, members of his large family, the simple inhabitants of his home town of Monemvasia, his tragicomic aunts, unassuming political prisoners sharing internal exile on a lonely island and a close-knit band of friends.

All these “anonymous saints” are skilfully counterpointed with the hero, Ion, who is Ritsos, and his alter ego, Ariostos, and woven into a dreamlike tapestry of reminiscences, vivid memories from childhood, reflections on modern Greek history and politics, introspective confessions and surrealist dreams. Although a quarter of the size, it has been compared with Proust’Remembrance Of Things Past.

Although the Times Literary Supplement described Mims’s translation as a “wild and fascinating work”, the Iconostasis received little attention from the Greek literary world and has yet to attract a wider readership. Her translation has been praised by Louis de Bernières, author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, as “a marvellously diverse and rich work” of “sheer beauty, individuality and humour”, a “masterpiece that remains always inexhaustible” and a commonplace Odyssey of “the world’s little people”. Theodorakis believes Ritsos Of The Iconostasis “should be read by all who love the work of Ritsos”.

In Ritsos Of The Iconostasis, Mims finds similarities between Ritsos’s style and that of James Joyce in Ulysses. “Ritsos’s Iconostasis is embellished with an almost Joycean richness of words,” she says, “including outrageous puns, unprecedented though ineffably ‘poetic’ erotica and miraculous flights of language.” Although Joyce’s Ulysses is often compared to Kazantzakis’s sequel to Homer’s Odyssey, she prefers to compare Joyce and Ritsos.

She describes Ulysses as an expression of the “miraculous kinship” between Ireland and Greece, and believes Joyce and Ritsos would have enjoyed each other’s company. She speaks of Joyce “the Ulyssean” and Ritsos “the Odyssean” as “kindred spirits from two opposite poles of Europe”, yet “two writers with certain essential points in common”.

She sees parallels between Joyce and Ritsos in their tremendous variety of styles, the plethora of puns and use of invented words, games with names, superb passages where only the music of sound plays a role, the use of onomatopoetic words appearing as single sounds, the occasional obsession with bodily functions or misfunctions not usually discussed in polite company, and “the aura of ‘poetic obscenity’ … almost always transforming even the rawest sexual scenes into poetry.

“Molly Bloom’s monologue, with her allusions to her sexual life at the end of Ulysses, is transcended and transmuted into a marvellous paean to nature. Ritsos does the same thing. Wherever he has a particularly raw section, it is almost always followed by a lyrical outburst of unparalleled beauty. One of the main motives in my writing the companion was to help dissolve the prejudice against what many people have called the obscenity in the Iconostasis”.

Even Ritsos’s allusions to the Orthodox liturgy parallel Joyce’s outrageous quotations from the Latin Mass. Yet, unlike many critics, she praises Ritsos for “his deep religious themes”. “Many people think that for a Marxist this is impossible”" she admits. However, she insists “he did indeed believe in God and, above all, in the power of love”.

Ritsos’s epic Epitaphios, drawing on the imagery of the Good Friday rituals in the Greek Orthodox tradition, became the anthem of resistance to the colonels in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite its unique place in modern Greek literature, Epitaphios has never been fully translated into English. Mims translated eight of the 20 cantos for MBI’s recording, in 2000, of Epitaphios, but she admits the “translation of 15-syllable Greek verse can never really be at an end” and concedes she is still unhappy with the final work.

Now she is returning to her Irish roots, translating Yeats and Kavanagh into Greek. Having translated The Great Hunger and The Green Fool during two previous visits, she returned to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, the artists’ retreat in Annaghmakerrig, for a third visit earlier this year and continues to work on translating a selection of 28 of his shorter poems. She has persuaded Macdara Woods to write an introduction and hopes the Athens publisher Odos Panos will eventually publish her translations of Kavanagh.

This quarter-page feature was first published on the Arts pages of ‘The Irish Times’ on 25 August 2014

Wednesday, 18 August 2004

The ancient
Greeks are
speaking to us
across the ages

Homer’s wooden horse in a scene from the film Troy. Some feel that the terrors of the modern era and the war in Iraq have set the stage for a return of Greek tragedy and its continuing lessons for us

The Olympic Games and the success of the movie Troy are inspiring fresh debates about the relevance and value of the classics, writes Patrick Comerford

Wolfgang Petersen’s epic treatment of the Trojan war in takes many liberties with Homer's story. However, after a family viewing, both the Iliad and the Odyssey were dusted down, and Homer became popular reading once more for my two teenage sons, testimony to the continuing power of the classics to stir the imagination.

The Olympic Games have returned home to Greece this month for the first time since 1896 and I am reminded that an important component of the original Olympic tradition was a ceasefire in all conflicts throughout the known world, a tradition now more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

Apart from the Olympic hype and the Greek success in Euro 2004, some Greeks were also captivated this summer by the success of The Trojan Women at the Epidaurus Festival, which was marking its 50th anniversary.

If Troy is based on the ultimate war story, then Euripides’s The Trojan Women is one of the greatest anti-war plays, and the critics hailed the Diadromi Theatre production as “majestic yet appropriate for a modern audience”.

The play deals with the imperious Greeks’ brutal treatment of the women of Troy following the Trojan War.

In this compelling tragedy, Euripides shows that in wars the victors often become dehumanised and that the winners in all eras are arrogant. After the Greeks have bullied their way to victory, a young girl is sacrificed to a ghost and an innocent infant is dashed to its death.

The Trojan Women, which finishes its summer tour in Athens next month, was also staged this summer, appropriately, in Troy. There were no fears that the message would be lost on a Turkish audience. “This is an honest play that praises the Trojans’ morals,” said the translator Costas Georgousopoulos, who pointed out that in this tragedy Euripides trivialises the Homeric heroes. To use a Greek play that criticises Homeric values, that points out the immoral politics in Greece during the Trojan wars, and that praises the Trojans is a positive gesture as the political authorities in both Greece and Turkey struggle to find new ways to be good neighbours after generations of mistrust and misunderstanding.

Euripides lived through Athens’ debilitating war against Sparta and eight of his 19 surviving plays deal with the disastrous political and social consequences of the conflict. In The Trojan Women, he presents the tragic fate of the women of Troy who are waiting to be handed over as slaves to their new Greek masters after the sacking of the city.

It challenges the false heroics that were perpetuated in the Homeric tradition – and that are uncritically represented in the film Troy. However, while The Trojan Women appears on the surface to be dealing with Homeric themes, the first audiences must have had a sense of déja vu as they realised that Euripides was demolishing mythology to criticise tragic deeds perpetrated a short while before on the island of Milos during the Peloponnesian War.

Georgousopoulos reminded his audience in Epidaurus that the play was first staged in Athens shortly after the Athenians destroyed Milos. The islanders, who had a tradition of friendship with Sparta, rejected Athens’ demand for a contribution of men or money for the war. But the Athenians were having none of this special pleading – the warning to small states that “you are either with me or against me” is a declaration that has been heard once again with tragic consequences recently.

The Athenians attacked Milos, put to death all male inhabitants, sold the women and children into slavery, and colonised the island, and Euripides’ criticism of a colonial military effort to expand power is clear in The Trojan Women. One of the timeless morals of the play is the corrupting effect that war has on its victors.

Another tragedy by Euripides, Hecuba, is being staged in London next month and in Stratford-on-Avon in January. At one level, Hecuba is a character study of Priam’s widowed queen, driven to murderous vengeance by her suffering. But according to director Jonathan Kent the play is also “one of the most savage indictments of war ever written”.

In Hecuba, both victors, Agamemnon and Odysseus, refuse to consider seriously the ex-queen’s human rights. But Euripides argues that if the justice owed to individuals is sacrificed to political expediency, society will soon disintegrate – a timely reminder to the world in the light of recent revelations about the treatment of captives in Iraqi prisons.

In Iphigenia at Aulis, written 16 years after Hecuba, Euripides took a cynical and satirical look at the actions of public figures.

It was written at a time when he was losing faith in political leaders and realised their inability to extricate themselves from an interminable war.

The Greek critic Spyros Payiatakis reviewed The Trojan Women for the Athens daily, Kathimerini. As he was leaving the theatre at Epidaurus, he overheard someone exclaim: “If Euripides was alive now, he would be suffering from déja vu” – the reference to Iraq was “more than obvious”. At the same time, the drama critic Michael Billington was writing in the Guardian of how the “terror of modern times” has set “the stage for Greek tragedy”.

Billington also saw the current series of revivals on the British stage as “a direct response to the Iraq war” and the tragedy in the Middle East. They include Martin Crimp’s Cruel and Tender, adapted from Trachiniae by Sophocles, and three plays by Euripides – Ion, Iphigenia at Aulis, and the two revivals of Hecuba.

Of course Greek tragedy is timeless, a permanent part of Western culture. As Crimp recently declared: “Every writer writes/rewrites the Greeks in his or her own image.” But directors have also discovered a metaphor for our own times in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Crimp’s own adaptation of Sophocles is set in a world where cities are pulverised, liberators become aggressors and violence is justified in terms of expedience. “If you want to root out terror there is only one rule: kill,” says a government minister.

“Coming at a time when even an independent US commission has denied the Bush regime’s linkage of Saddam Hussein’s regime to al-Qaeda, the words have an ominous ring,” Billington observes. But in the end, he says, “it is the Greek understanding of the human consequences of war and the gulf between public rhetoric and private feeling that makes these plays seem shockingly relevant to our own divided world”.

Rev Patrick Comerford is Regional Co-ordinator of the Church Mission Society Ireland (CMS Ireland).

This half-page feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 18 August 2004.

Tuesday, 17 August 2004

Keeping the past of a maritime republic alive

Letter from Venice
Patrick Comerford


The “Queen of the Adriatic” is a city of over 100 islands and 400 or more bridges. But few visitors give themselves a chance to get lost in its narrow alleyways or to discover the unique and colourful minorities that have been part of Venetian life for centuries.

Jews have lived and traded in Venice since 1381. In 1516 they were forced to live in the New Foundry or Ghetto Nuovo, a tiny island still linked by three small bridges to the rest of Venice. But by then their numbers were being swollen by new arrivals from Spain and Portugal, from central Europe, and from Greece and Turkey. Europe’s first Ghetto was soon too small for the Jewish community, which spilled out into the neighbouring Ghetto Vecchio and Ghetto Nuovissimo, and Napoleon tore down the walls and gates of the Ghetto in 1797.

About 200 Venetian Jews were deported to the death camps in 1943-1944, and only eight returned. But today there are about 400 Jews in Venice, including 80 or so in the Ghetto, their numbers boosted in recent years with the arrival from Rome and New York of enthusiastic, pious Hasidic Jews. Four synagogues remain open in the Ghetto area: the Scola Tedesca and the Scola al Canton, built by German and French Jews between 1528 and 1531, are virtual museums. But the Scola Spagnola, built by Spanish Jews at the same time, still alternates Saturday services with the Scola Levantina, built by Greek Jews in 1538, complete with a hip-level screen inspired by the iconostasis or icon-screen of Greek churches.

A significant Greek community has lived close to Ponte dei Greci (the Bridge of the Greeks) since the 11th century, when the first Greek artisans arrived to decorate Saint Mark's Basilica and many of the early churches of Venice. They expanded significantly with the influx of refugees following the Turkish capture of Constantinople in 1453. The church of San Giorgio dei Greci, with its leaning belltower, was built at a cost of 15,000 gold ducats between 1539 and 1573, and the vivid iconostasis or icon screen was painted by Michael Damaskinos, the greatest Cretan iconographer of the day and a contemporary of El Greco.

As the Serene Republic lost its Greek colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, Greeks continued to flood into Venice, and their presence helped to spread classical culture throughout Europe. A whole Greek neighbourhood took shape around the church on the banks of the Rio dei Greci, and at its peak the Greek community numbered 15,000 people. But Napoleon's abolition of the Republic of Venice in 1797 marked the beginning of the decline of this prosperous community as their assets and church treasures were confiscated. However, a convent of Greek nuns and their girls' school survived until 1834, and until 1905 the Greek College provided Greek communities in the Ottoman territories with educated priests and teachers.

Despite their decline in recent generations, the small Greek community continues in Venice. The Collegio Flangini now houses the Hellenic Institute for Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies, a museum in the former Scuola di San Nicolo dei Greci displays a unique collection of icons, and San Giorgio dei Greci has become a cathedral, with an archbishop living in the old palace.

Close to Saint Mark's, the Calle degli Armeni is in the heart of the old Armenian quarter. By the end of the 13th century, the Armenian community had a secure presence in Venice, finding their niche as tradesmen and moneylenders. The church of Santa Croce degli Armeni was founded in 1496 and the procurators of Saint Mark paid annual visits in recognition of the "well-deserving and most-favoured Armenian nation." The city's best-hidden church is now locked except for Sunday services, and the most conspicuous Armenian presence is out on the lagoon on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, where a monastery was founded on the former leper colony in 1717 by a group of Armenian monks expelled from the Morea in Greece by the Ottoman Turks.

The monks of San Lazzaro survived Napoleon's confiscations because of an indispensable Armenian in the imperial secretariat. Byron spent six months here, learning classical Armenian and compiling a dictionary. But, despite the proximity of the Lido, the monks are virtually undisturbed by visitors. On the afternoon I arrived, only half a dozen others got off the vaporetto. As he took me around the library with its 200,000 precious manuscripts and books, the museum with its Egyptian sarcophagus and mummy, and the gallery of Armenian paintings, Father Vartanes explained that there are only eight Armenian monks left on San Lazzaro and no more than 10 Armenian families in Venice.

When evening falls and the tourists leave Venice, the dwindling numbers of Jews in the Ghetto, the Armenian monks on San Lazzaro and the remaining Greeks of San Giorgio are left alone once again.

The proportion of native Venetians who live here continues to decline rapidly as wealthy Italians from Milan and Turin snap up properties on the market. Even the Venetians are becoming a minority in their own city.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 17 August 2004 (p. 7)