Saturday, September 17, 2022

TEMPLE OF BOOM



It is a natural Austro-Hellenic knee-jerk reaction to cry appropriation, with regard to the National Gallery of Victoria’s latest projected installation of its Architecture Commission series, in this case, a replica of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens. Mysteriously entitled: “Temple of Boom” by Melbourne based architect and designer Adam Newman and Kelvin Tsang, the official media release explains the structure, “reflects the slow yet unstoppable processes of change that transform all cultural, geological and ecological systems.” In order to reflect this process, the artists propose to encrust a replica of the hallowed icon of western civilisation in various forms of art. “All over the world political buildings like Parliament and capitol buildings appropriated the topology of The Parthenon and over time it [the symbol] you have political power…. As a provocation, what if we take that and “deface” it with art?” Kelvin Tsang muses. 

Already around the sections of our community, a hue and cry of indignation has been raised. “What gives these people the right to appropriate [our] building for their own purposes?” some ask. “How does one dare to deface a building whose image and corporeal form is sacrosanct, without defiling it, or that which it symbolises?” others lament. “Is it not enough that Elgin denuded the Parthenon of its Marbles? Why should we allow the cultural descendants of the same imperialists who appropriated our buildings and our civilisation to perpetuate the same acts of imperialism in our age?” many argue. “Shouldn’t we be acknowledged as native peoples and traditional custodians of the sacred site of the Parthenon?” many others inquire. “How can we work out a way to claim a percentage of the royalties?” unconfirmed and most probably apocryphal Greek Consular officials, ponder. 

Such questions are indeed valid. The Parthenon in its present form has been perched upon the Sacred Rock, looming over the city of Athens for almost two and a half millenia, ever since Pericles pilfered the common defence funds from the treasury at Delos in order to construct it, the first of many Parthenon-related appropriations. Since times ancient, historians and art critics have waxed lyrical about the perfection of its proportions and the sublimity of its sculptures, holding it out to be one the pinnacles of European human achievement. It is the appreciation of this apex of brilliance that has permitted Westerners to orientalise our tribe in latter days, holding us out to be degraded, degenerate and unworthy descendants of those paragons of perfection that crafted the superlative, even as we are unable to follow suit. Should we view Newman and Tsang’s artwork in this light? As praise and accusation? 

The Greek conception of time and ancestry differs somewhat from that of the West. As time is in our tradition, curiously telescoped and past, present and future exist on the same plane simultaneously, the achievements of our ancestors, however remote, are our achievements and confer legitimacy upon us, compelling all of those who admire them, to pay us homage. In this vein we too appropriate the Parthenon, as a chief exosymbol, or logo by which others can relate to us. We employ this symbol further, in the form of souvenir merchandise, liquor products, and in Australia, in a surprising array of business names ranging from those with a substantive connection such as Parthenon Marble and Parthenon Travel, to those whose connection is tenuous to say the least, such as Parthenon Carpets, Parthenon Continental Cakes, Parthenon Fashions and tellingly, Parthenon Funerals. If we can appropriate the edifice’s name in order to run a business registered as Parthenon Pizza Bar or Parthenon Water Management, what precludes Newman and Tsang from interrogating just how potent icons are interpreted? Tsang in particular, is very vocal about his opinion that the Hellenic conglomerate has no exclusive claim to the building, stating: “We’re happy for anyone’s interpretation, because the thing about the Parthenon and architecture in general is that anyone can have their interpretation and it’s not confined to any one culture because it’s so world-renown.” 

In pursuing their endeavour, the artists maintain that they are guided by the theme of ‘transformation and constant flux,’ and it is this rather than any issues relating to the appropriation of a world icon, whose origins and history are often overlooked that should draw our attention. This is because the prospect of a Parthenon that can be subjected to the ravages of time within the context of its local environment can be juxtaposed against and considered as a critique of the manner in which the Parthenon is presented, preserved and constructed by its current custodians. As much as many would like to believe that the Parthenon in its present form is exactly that which Newman and Tsang seek to explore: the gradual natural decay of a building within the framework of its surroundings and history, what sits atop the Acropolis is in fact, a carefully curated re-construction so as to propagate a particular narrative, one that obfuscates a millennium of cultural memory and experience.  

Nothing within the current form of the building for example, suggests to the modern visitor that for the largest part of its history, the Parthenon was a Christian church, Panagia Atheniotissa, the third most important church in all of Byzantium and the iconography that could still be discerned as late as the 1920s, now has been totally effaced. Nor indeed is one able to understand that the Parthenon was used as a mosque from the end of the fifteenth century write up until 1832, for all traces of the mosque, starting from its minaret, were demolished sometime in the 1840’s. In similar fashion, nothing exists today of the Frankish tower that was constructed during the period in which Athens was part of a Latin duchy ruled by the Acciaioli family, between 1388 to 1458. Constructed from debris sourced around the Acropolis, and used to imprison Greek freedom fighter and renegade Odysseas Androutsos, it was demolished by the Greek authorities in 1874, on the initiative and with funding from archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, prompting historian of Frankish Greece William Miller to consider this “an act of vandalism unworthy of any people imbued with a sense of the continuity of history” and “pedantic barbarism.” 

What we therefore are presented with in the form of the Parthenon in Athens, is a building in which layers of accretion, lived experience, use and misuse have been deliberately peeled back in order to expose only vestiges of the classical past so prized by the West. Consequently, this is not a natural ruin but a contrived one that bears no relation to the actual history of the building, or those who have had a relationship with it. Instead, it panders to and self-appropriates the orientalising paradigm of those cultural imperialists who propagated the myth of our own unworthiness in the first place, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of colonialism and internalised racism policed by the Greek ruling class and all those who subscribe to their narrative. The fact that the Acropolis itself emerges separate from and completely disconnected to the city of Athens, bearing absolutely no relation to its urban sprawl and architectural development is a testament to the paradoxical nature of the space: in but not of the Athens or the Greece we experience. 

It is for this reason that Newman and Tsang’s conception of emphasising transformation and flux is so inspired, for it highlights the manner in which our own tribe attempts to hide it and with it, the multiplicity of narratives, multi-faith and multi-cultural that may not suit our narratives, but which deserve to be heard. Newman and Tsang and their artist collaborators cannot deface or degrade a Parthenon more than a people so self-conscious that they can only accept a sanitised and flawed version of it. If their project facilitates a debate about the manner in which important historical buildings and artefacts are subverted to serve various discourses, then it is one that our community would do well to engage with and support. Finally, given the West’s and by osmosis, our own people’s obsession with purity, racial, cultural or otherwise the glorious irony of being called upon to bear witness to the defilement of a building whose name literally means “House of the Virgin,” should not escape us and should by appreciated by us all, for what it is, a timely form of iconoclasm that, with a resounding boom, permits us to rid ourselves of our prejudices and misconceptions and reconsider our identity and foundation myths, anew. 

 

DEAN KALIMNIOU

kalymnios@hotmail.com

First published in NKEE on Saturday 17 September 2022 

Saturday, September 10, 2022

WHEN MIGRANT SWALLOWS RETURN

 


Kyra Koula and her daughter Anastasia have recently returned to our antipodean climes after their long-hoped for summer sojourn in the motherland. Separated from her own mother in the village due to the ravages of lockdown covid, Kyra Koula, who was used to evading the winter of cold of Melbourne by enacting an annual privilege was in some distress, a large proportion of said discomfort being owed to the fact that the title’s office cadastral survey had reached her region and without her presence, even at the height of the period where no public service in Greece operates, was considered by her to be essential, if she was not to be cheated out of her grandfather’s inheritance by her unscrupulous first cousins, all of whom reside in the regional capital, but are perennially cash-strapped. 

A year ago, when I confided in Kyra Koula that I had not visited the motherland in a decade, her eyes opened wide in horror and she clucked her tongue derisively at the enormity of my cultural crime. “You do yourself and your family a great disservice by not visiting Greece,” she pronounced solemnly. “Not only are you cutting yourself from your roots but you are depriving yourself of a holiday in the most beautiful country in the world.”  

«Σαν την Ελλάdα πουθενά,» her daughter Anastasia chimed in, pronouncing a hard d for delta, for she grew up on the Peninsula before Greek schools were invented and only rediscovered her linguistic roots while conversing with bartenders on Ios. 

I disputed Kyra Koula’s contention, advising her that my favourite holiday destination was actually Naples in Italy, where I regularly assume the persona of Dino Velvet, a fourth-generation Italian wedding singer who grew up in Coburg, but she would have none of it. “There is no place on earth like Greece,” she proclaimed. “Once you have been in Greece, the rest of the world is irrelevant.” Considering that outside of Athens, her village in the south, its regional capital and a mix up with flights in 1985 that saw her spend two gruelling days in sweltering Bangkok, Kyra Koula has never travelled anywhere else, I thought it expedient not to challenge her on her remark, especially since she as about to serve me the most epic lockdown-busting karidopita ever conceived. 

This time around, Kyra Koula seems crestfallen and none of her usual passion or enthusiasm for our common place of origin is asserted. When asked how her trip was, she sighs. Τι να σου πω παιδάκι μουIt was a quiet time. If you are a pensioner with a limited income, you can still live within your means. A tyropita, a coffee… you are still ok. But the problem is when your nephews and nieces come over and say: “Come on auntie, we will take you to a restaurant, or the beach. A nice gesture, without a doubt. But of course, once you get there, who is expected to pay for the food, the drinks and everything else? And then you get your constant array of relatives knocking on your door, making claims such as: “You know, my son Makis who is studying Puppetry Design and Performance in England is doing it tough, and you Aussies are loaded, so could you find your way to…” even though the whole village knows that Makis has shacked up with his partner William and have been operating an entrepreneur fatigue online course from Chalkidiki for the past three years, or “You know, my daughter Spiridoula needs to pay the fees for the transfer of your grandfather’s plot of land in… no it doesn’t belong to you, he promised it to us fair and square, ask your mum….” 

Kyra Koula did ask her mum and the old lady took her into town to consult with the notary public. Apparently, Kyra Koula, steeped in Australian property law as she is (her husband left her two properties in Golden Beach plus the three investment properties her daughter-in-law ended up with after the divorce), must have asked some inane questions, for this occasioned her mother apologising to the notary on her behalf: “You will have to forgive her. ΕίναιξένηShe knows nothing.” 

“Can you believe it? ΞένηA foreigner, even to my own mother!”Kyra Koula exclaimed repeatedly. “Even though I have been returning to the village almost every year since 2002! Ξένη!” For reasons of a technical and possibly legal nature that are beyond our competence to comprehend, Kyra Koula was unable to make the arrangements expected of her. This is probably why, in the evening before she was to return to Australia, Spiridoula, who during the whole time Kyra Koula was in the village, was too engaged in other important life affirming activities to see her, decided to pay her a visit, in the company of her husband, her brother and her koumbaro. 

“You know auntie,” Spiridoula said gaily while rifling through her grandmother’s handbag as the old lady beamed in adoration, “it is downright ridiculous for you to be coming here, when you live over there. It makes no sense. It would be better for all of us if you stayed over there, saved your money and sent us the price of the airfare you would have paid anyway, every year. That way everyone benefits.” 

Kyra Koula submits to the ritual rifling of her suitcases by her mother and nieces both upon arrival in Greece and the night before departure. The upon arrival rifling is of two-fold intent. Firstly, in order to locate the envelopes of cash sent by other relatives, giving rise to such queries as: «Δεν μας έστειλε ο ΓιάννηςτίποτεΔεν καταλαβαίνει ότι έχουμε ανάγκες;» or “Why is this envelope so light?” and secondly by means of fashion control: “We don’t wear these types of clothes here, aunt. Get rid of them. You will be a laughing stock. I need some clothes myself, so let’s go shopping together,” or “How dare you bring Taki a T-shirt with the word Australia on it! Who do you think we are? Your poor relations? Why don’t you try going about wearing your shame in public?” or “Oh look another stuffed Australian animal. Well, let’s stuff it with the others…” 

On the evening of scheduled departure, the luggage rifling has another purpose: “My Miltos loves ouzo. I’m sure you have plenty in Australia. I’m taking it for him,” or “these dresses you bought last week would be perfect for my daughter. I’m taking them.” In their own way, as they explain, they are doing Kyra Koula a favour. Think of the money she will save in excess baggage fees. 

Anastasia was not privy to these discussions because she has an iphone. As she was born in Australia and has been working since the age of 16, Anastasia is possessed of the opinion that her savings are her personal property and that she is the sole arbiter as to how her funds are disposed of. Consequently, she is not really a person of interest in her mother’s village, nor in Athens where her cousin refused to take her to the Acropolis as he maintained he had never been and did not know where it is. This causes her to seek social networks further afield. Via social media, she can locate at any time, by means of photographs of feet on a beach and souvlaki and chips, which of her Greek-Australian friends are also sojourning in the motherland. Via clever sleuthing, she can also determine which of those said friends have their own accommodation and she can make arrangements to stay with them accordingly, a cost effective and convivial means of getting to know the highways and byways of the Hellenic public, with the minimum of contact with the Hellenic people. Consequently, having entrusted her mother into the capable hands of her relations, she has travelled the length and breadth of our most storied motherland, in search of parea. 

“Honestly, what some clever businessman should so,” Anastasia opines, “is to set up Greek-Australian resorts on some of Greece’s best beaches so we could all go there. Then we wouldn’t have to deal with the Greeks at all, just Aussies.” Anastasia maintains that the highlight of her trip was drinking beer at a bar owned by an ex-pat Greek Australian in the Saronic Gulf, listening to Richmond thrash Hawthorn via her device, in the company of other Greek-Australians who cheered vociferously and made her feel like she was at home. Anastasia is only just now on speaking terms with her mother because Kyra Koula not only made no protest when cousin Stefo with the nineties ponytail demanded some money to repair his motorcycle, but dipped into Anastasia’s stash in order to comply with his request, her own having been depleted. 

“So when are you planning your trip back?” Kyra Koula asks. I tell her that I hope it would be soon, for I have good friends that I dearly miss and lament the tyranny of distance. “Take my advice,” Kyra Koula confides. “Forget about friends. Blood is thicker than water. Stay with your relatives. You can save a whole heap of money that way.” 

DEAN KALIMNIOU 

kalymnios@hotmail.com

First published in NKEE on Saturday 10 September 2022

Saturday, September 03, 2022

ΙΩΝΙΚΟΝ

 


In 1911, eleven years prior to the Asia Minor Catastrophe, Alexandrine poet Constantine Cavafy penned the hauntingly beautiful poem «Ιωνικόν» or Ionian. At that time, it would have impossible to conceive that Smyrna, the major city of Ionia and indeed the whole region, would be denuded of its Greek inhabitants and closed to Hellenism little more than a decade later, yet as a student of history, especially that of Hellenism on the margins, Cavafy appreciated loss as a historical discourse more than most. 

In its current form, Ionikon stands as a revised version of an earlier poem, presciently entitled “Remembrance,” or “Memory.” This version links topos with metaphysics, commencing with the poet informing the reader that the immortals do not die, rather it is the faith of mortals which perish. In Ionikon, this premise will be refined and rendered with subtlety, rendering itself relevant to a myriad of contexts:   

Because we smashed their images —Because we cast them from their temples —It does not mean the gods no longer live. O land of Ionia, they love you still; You enliven their souls still;And when an August morn dawns upon youYour atmosphere turns vibrant with the vigour of their lives;And sometimes an aetheric, youthful form,Indefinite, in moving swiftly by,Will pass above the summits of your hills.  

Ostensibly Cavafy is writing about an age of transition and liminality – the conversion of the ancient world to Christianity. On the face of it, he posits an argument of futility: that the efforts of mortals, constrained by but also effaced by the passage of time are irrelevant. They are transient and subject to evolution, juxtaposed against the monolithic immortality of gods with unchanging attributes.  Thus the gods transcend the fickleness of human faith. Their existence is not depended upon their human charges and their endeavours endure on a plane and time scale incomprehensible to and out of the reach of mere mortals. 

Underlying the poem, like so many others, is an all-pervasive sense of sadness at the transience of time and the loss that this entails. The narrator thus makes valiant efforts to negate or minimise the extent of the violence or offence committed against the gods. Accordingly, the narrator maintains that the smashing of the statues, (and the ancient Greek world for statue, ἄγαλμα literally meant something that brought joy to the gods – thus their destruction creates in them the exact opposite of this emotion), the very gods’ eviction from the temples in which they are worshipped, is not in any way inimical to their existence. Notwithstanding the efforts of the iconoclasts and the fundamentalists, the gods endure still, albeit as a hint, a gesture or a spirit passing by. We can no longer see them, but they have not moved on. Instead, they literally haunt the landscape. 

The irony in the narrators’ claim is apparent from the outset. Of what relevance in the gods’ continued existence, of what benefit is their continued haunting of the landscape, of what use is their continued love of Ionia to those who have rejected them and cast them out of their lives? The people of Ionia have moved on. They have espoused other beliefs and practices in which the old gods play no part. They no longer have any need or use for the old gods, even as they inhabit the rubble of their demise. It is irrelevant to them whether the gods still love the land of Ionia, and the indefinite hints of their continued presence, now in the spirit realm, which the poet labels “etheric” are of no interest. Out of sight, out of mind. 

There is a chthonic element to the poem that should not be overlooked. It is poem very much tied to place, to the soil of Ionia. It is a land littered by statues broken by those who originally made them. Significantly, we learn that it is the land itself of Ionia, not the worship of mortals) that gives the souls of the gods life, allowing the gods in turn to render Ionia’s atmosphere vibrant with that life force, in a type of life cycle that begins and ends in the earth of Ionia itself. Viewed from this perspective, both the existence of the gods and mortals is peripheral to the poem. Instead, Ionia is everything. 

Within a decade, a new group of exiles would join the ghostly gods of Ionia. These are the descendants of those who evicted the gods in the first place. No longer do they exist in fair Ionia and the current inhabitants of the land, those who smashed their homes, their statues, their edifices and their very bodies have also rejected them. This contemporary iteration of iconoclasts also lives among the detritus of the lives of those they have destroyed but displays no compunction, no empathy for the loss of life or dislocation they have occasioned. Like the iconoclasts before them, after their removal, the fate of those who came before is completely irrelevant to them. 

Like the gods, the Greeks of Ionia did not die as an entity. Instead, they relocated to an ethereal realm, that of memory, so that they still may continue to be nourished by remembrances of their ancestral land. There may no longer be place for them in the land of Ionia, now part of modern Turkey, but Ionia continues to define their collective consciousnesses and their ethno-cultural identities. While the modern inhabitants of the region may consider their existence peripheral or incomprehensible in relation to the locales in which they reside, the exiles and descendants of exiles seek, among the broken statues, the ruined temples, the crumbling amphitheatres and the collapsed houses, the fundamentals that will enliven their own souls and just as the gods, they love Ionia still. 

It would perhaps, be stretching credulity to post that Cavafy’s poem serves as a prediction of what was to follow. Rather, as a student of history, Cavafy was able to identify, analyse and ruminate over common trends in the history of a region so steeped in antiquity, that its memories operate as a palimpsest, effacing those that have come before, in order to write their own, all the while eerily following in their footsteps. It is perhaps for this reason that Cavafy refrains from mentioning the gods by name. While we may be led to think that he is referring to the Olympian gods, he may just as plausibly be referring to the gods of the Arzawans, the Lydians, the Carians, the Luwians, the Hittites or those of long vanished races of whom we know nothing, but who still inhabit the spirit realm, nourished by a vengeful, narcissistic land that engenders them, only to exile them, only to keep them alive in worship of her, and refusing them release into oblivion. This taxidermy of loss, this dissection of historical amnesia, is an inescapably authentic component of the human condition. 

When in Ephesus, or Sardis, or one of the innumerable other archaeological sites of Ionia that attest to our sojourn in the region, it is easy, among the shadows cast by tourists among the columns, to think that they eye has caught an aetheric, youthful form, indefinite, moving swiftly by. Meanwhile in the small church of Panayia in the town now known as Urla, and in the church of St Fotini in the city now known as Izmir, clerics, resplendent in the brocade of their vestments, spread their antimension on the altar and begin to pray, the cadences of their litanies drowned out by the sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer from the minarets constructed where the old cathedral of Saint Photini once stood. Perhaps there is something to be said about old gods who linger after all.... 

DEAN KALIMNIOU 

kalymnios@hotmail.com

First published in NKEE on Saturday 3 September 2022

Saturday, August 27, 2022

WHEN HOMER SERENADED STALIN



If you want to really roast someone these days, social media offers ample opportunity to do so in a multitude of ways. If you want to do so without the recipient necessarily knowing that you are doing so, you could excoriate the object of your derision in a private group, or under an assumed profile, a decidedly unhellenic act for it is the clash and conflict over the ether that satiates the keyboard warriors of our clan’s thirst for lectical combat. 

If on the other hand, you are living in the Soviet bloc during the time of Stalin, an epoch when one incorrect word could grant one a one-way ticket to the depths of Siberia, where there is definitely no wifi and the only influencers carry truncheons, ways to register one’s scorn are few and far between. Osip Mandelstam, the famous Russian poet, found this out the hard way, when in 1933, he bravely penned as part of his “Stalin Epigram” the following lines: 

“Thick fingers, fat like worms, greasy, 

Words solid as iron weights, 

Huge cockroach whiskers laughing….” 

 

Mandelstam died on the way to the Gulag, but as the research of scholar Han Baltussen in “A Homeric Hymn to Stalin” reveals, Czech author Vaclav Pinkava, who also expressed his contempt of Stalin in lyrical form, survived, mainly because he wrote his satirical piece in Homeric Greek. Choosing such an archaic form was a stroke of genius, considering the esteem in which European civilisation holds Homer, even when few havethe facility to read him in the original. Thus, Pinkava was able, through the adoption of Homeric language, to parody the hagiographic hymns prevalent in Stalin’s day and beyond, in relative safety, satirising the mythological proportions afforded to Stalin by Communist idolatry. Most importantly, he managed, through Homeric Greek, to develop a remarkably subversive vocabulary of criticism and resistance. 

 

First penned in 1948, the poem ended up in Pinkava’s novel “Gravelarks,” set towards the end of the Stalin era, where the main protagonist, Zderad, who studies ancient Greek, pens the poem in a moment of drunken daring, only to be blackmailed about it years later. 

 

From the outset, we are presented with an omnipotent figure, who, if not for the fact that he is identified by name, place and nationality, could easily be mistaken for Homer: 

 

Στᾶλινἄναξἄγαμαί σε· σὺ λευκολίθῳἐνὶ Κρέμλῳ 

ἑζόμενος κρατέεις πάντων Ῥώσσων Τατάρων τε 

καὶ πολλῶν ἐθνῶν ἀμενηνῶν κράτων. 

Ἕρποντες κονίῃ σε θεὸν ὣς εἰσορόωσιν. 

 

Hans Baltussen offers the following translation: 

 

Stalin, lord, I revere you: you, seated in the white-stoned Kremlin, 

Rule over all Russians and Tartars 

and many powerless peoples,  

who drag their feet in the dust and gaze upon you as a god. 

 

It thus becomes apparent that “Homer” is in fact, through exaggerated praise, parodying and ultimately subverting the cult of personality developed around Stalin, even as it purports to celebrate his almost divine authority. This ostensible praise of his power will continue in the next verses where the rhapsode will indicate the effects that the emanation of Stalin’s might have on others:  

 

Σοὶ δὲ μέγας στρατός ἐστι  βροτοκτόνοςὃς τ’ ἐνὶ χώραις 

ἀλλοδαπῶν φορέει γοἰζὺν καὶ κῆρα μέλαιναν· 

Ἄνδρας συλεύουσι βιάζουσι τε γυναῖκας, 

ὡρολόγους γὰρ κλέπτουσιν τοὺς ἄνδρες ἀγαυοί 

ἐν καρποῖς φορέουσι·τὸ γὰρ μέγα θαῦμα ἰδέσθαι. 

Ἄλλοι γὰρ ῥ’ ἐκάμοντο ἰδυίῃσι πραπίδεσσιν, 

σὺ δ’ ἐλθὼν αἱρεῖς, ὅτι τοι κράτος ἐστὶ μέγιστον· 

 

You have a great man-murdering army, which conveys 

into alien lands, misery and the plague. 

Men they kill and women they rape, 

Watches they steal from the wrists  

of valiant men; truly marvellous to behold. 

For others have toiled with great ingenuity, 

But you appear and take them for your power is immense. 

 

While there is no word for wrist-watch in Homer, Pinkava’s suggestion, ὡρολόγουςis inspired, being close to the Hellenistic Greek ὡρολόγιονfor clock and while lauding the acquisitive might of Stalin, he is actually drawing attention to the occupying Soviet army’s soldiers propensity to steal wristwatches from vanquished Germans. Phrases such as μέγαθαῦμα, also appear in Byzantine Orthodox hymnology, with the “miraculous” nature of Stalin, juxtaposed against the grubby depredations of his minions. The fact that Stalin began his career as a seminary student renders the use of such polyvalent phrases downright cheeky. 

 

Timepieces are important in the poem with the Homeric rhapsode proceeding to portray an almost Titanic Stalin with absolute sway over creation. Surrounded by watches and chronometers, both symbolic of loot, poor taste and of order and control, could the poet be paralleling Stalin with Kronos, the primeval god who swallows his own children and keeps the rest of the world in quailing subjugation? Or is he slyly hinting that even as he is at the apex of his powers, the Master Timekeeper’s time is limited, especially since according to variants of the ancient myth, Kronos was relegated to his own special type of gulag, Tartarus? 

 

Χεῖρας βεβριθὼς παμπόλλοις ὡρολόγοισιν 

ἑζόμενος γ’ ὁράας χρονοδείγματα κύδει γαίων. 

Πάντες δειδιότες κυνέουσι πόδας πυγήν τε, 

Αὐτὸς γὰρ κρατέεις καὶ γ’ οὕστίνας οὐκ ἐφίλησας, 

Πέμψας Σειβιρίνηδ’ εἰς λάγερα, ᾗ ψύχωνται 

δεσμοῖσι στυγεροῖσι δεδημένοι ἠὲ θάνωσιν. 

 

With your many watch-laden hands 

You sit and watch your time-measurers, elated in your pre-eminence

All kiss your feet and arse, 

For you rule and whoever you don’t like, 

you send to Siberia to a camp, here they freeze 

bound in loathful chains or die. 

 

In the last lines of the Ode, we learn just what type of effect such omnipotence has on those who are compelled to worship him and upon whom his will is absolute: 

 

Ῥωσσιακῆς γαίης πάντες ῥ’ ἄνδρες τε γυναῖκες, 

εὐχόμενοι στυγέουσιν, ἐπεὶ θεὸς μέγιστος· 

Ἠέλιον δ’αὐτὸν φασιν σόν τ’ ἔμμεναι ὄμμα 

καὶ Στάλινος πόρδην φασι ψολόεντα κεραυνόν. 

 

All men and women of the Russian land 

Pray to you even as they detest you for you are the greatest god. 

They say the sun itself is your eye 

and that Stalin’s fart is a smoking thunderbolt. 

 

The idea of a god so terrible and mighty that it is agony to even worship him under duress is here linked the Sun, an entity that gives us life and presumably can take it away, and which we cannot behold or approach without incurring harm. Here the poet is slyly commenting on the extent to which the sun became a central image in Stalinist propaganda, with Stalin unambiguously equated with the sun in Soviet poetry and song, not only because in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the Sun is held to be the only entity that has borne witness to the abduction of Persephone but also because the imagery of the Sun of Righteousness offering vindication and healing would have been all pervasive in the pre-revolutionary Orthodox culture, permitting the reader to compare that sun of vindication with Stalin’s sun of destruction and death. 

The equating of Zeus’s main attribute with Stalin also serves to parody, in bawdy Aristophanian fashion, the self-importance of the man and the powers attributed to him. Whereas a thunderbolt cast by the hand of Zeus may be a fearsome prospect, Stalin’s thunderbolt, though equally as dangerous, is illegitimate, coming as it does as a product not of his mightiness but rather, his flatulence, that is, his inability to control himself. The fart joke employed here as a chief expression of derision can be compared with a similar expression, in lyrical form, in the Old Testament book of Isaiah, 16:11: “Wherefore my bowels shall sound like a harp for Moab, and mine inward parts for Kirharesh.”  

 

The poet’s attempt to encode criticism in the Greek language in order to render it safe has cultural precedents in antiquity, with Cicero employing Greek when seeking to make jokes that only the initiated could understand. There are concordances in Stalin’s Hymn to Homer’s verses that can only truly be appreciated by those who are fully conversant with the Homeric epic and are across its nuances. The ensuing “in-jokes” are reminiscent of the intertextual banter between Byzantine scholars, the classical allusions of whom are often lost upon us, employed to undermine each other and to criticise their rulers, again underlying just how safety may seem to lie in the classics. 

 

Ultimately, in the novel, Homeric Greek fails to provide the main protagonist with the security he seeks, the prospect of his exposure culminating in a murder. Yet as an exercise in highlighting how subversive criticism can be encoded within a linguistic medium that has been the chief bearer of Greek mythology to the western world, Pinkava’s whimsical Homeric Hymn to Stalin remains a testament to the role of the Greek language as a form of resistance against oppression, and its ability to give nuanced voice to the suffering of millions. And the irony does not end there. In January 1913, a man whose passport bore the name Stavros Papadopoulos disembarked from the Krakow train at Vienna's North Terminal station. 

That man, was Joseph Stalin, using a fake Greek name. 

 

 

DEAN KALIMNIOU 

kalymnios@hotmail.com


First published in NKEE on Saturday 27 August 2022