Monday, April 04, 2005


One of the major achievements of the Greek people and one which indeed has won them renown as the foundation of 'western' civilization is literacy. Literacy not only empowers the individual by the provision of a ready record of thought, it also ensures that a given individual or group can immortalize their own existence in that written medium for all to perceive, thousands of years later. One of the seeds of Greece's greatness then, is that she left enough written records not only of history, but also of the remarkable thought process of some of the most outstanding intellectuals ever to have existed. While the Hephthalite Huns or the Scythians may have had unique insights into human existence that are worthy of praise, such praise can never be made, as they could not write, and their entire history is thus but a grey blur. On the other hand, we have left plenty of documentation to prove how busy we have been. A little advertising and a paper trail can therefore go a long way.
It comes as no surprise that the Greeks, not content with writing intellectual dissertations with increasingly longer 'big' words on hard surfaces or indeed on long, unwieldly but also expensive rolls of papyrus, would develop new and improved receptors of the written word. one of these, parchment, created from cured animal hides was said to have been invented in the Greek city of Pergamum in Asia Minor in the second century BC. Unlike papyrus, parchment was durable and inaccessible to forgery and could also be sewn together into books, the Codex, sparking off the book craze that has possessed the Greek people ever since.
It says much for the priorities of Greek culture that one of the major concerns of the Hellenistic rulers of Alexandria and Pergamum was the collection of books into vast repositories called libraries as well as of authors to write them. Byzantium continued this tradition throughout its thousand year history, producing remarkable reproductions and commentaries of the ancient philosophers and mathematicians, medical manuals, theological treatises and even the Suma, the first encyclopaedia. It is primarily through these books and the copies made by the Assyrian monks in Mesopotamia, that our ancient writings have survived.
The bibliophile tradition did not die out during the Ottoman occupation. While it was most difficult for books to be published given the widespread illiteracy that prevailed in the Empire and the risk of being accused of treason, the book and indeed literacy remained esteemed. St Kosmas constantly exhorted his flock to learn to read, while restless polymath's, usually Epirots such as Nikos Gyzis would flee to Venice and set up printing presses there. The legacy of these first modern book publishers can be felt today. Many of the liturgical books to be found in the monasteries of Samos for example, were printed in Venice a century and a half ago. Similar printing presses were set up in the Northern Epirot town of Moschopolis in the 18th century and later in Constantinople and Central Europe. Their contribution to the literary heritage o Greece has been great, with works such as Rigas Pheraios' famous call for liberty "Thourio," being widely disseminated throughout enslaved Greece. Greek printers were also responsible for the dissemination and publication of the rationalist texts of the European Enlightement, introducing unknown concepts such as liberalism and freedom of choice to a Greek nation thirsting for the freedom that came with new ideas.
As compared with other nations, Greek writers and printers tend to be prominent members of Greek society, who are well respected and extremely close to the people. The great national poet Kostis Palamas' funeral during the German occupation captured the imagination of Athenians who spilled out into the roads to accompany him to his finally resting place, using him as a symbol of freedom. People looked to such distinguished scholars and authors as George Seferis and Kostis Tsatsos to speak out against the junta of the seventies while until his recent death, popular journalist and writer Freddy Germanos could be seen out and about in the streets of Athens, unencumbered by western notions of celebrity, enjoying the approbation of an adoring public.
Here in Australia, respect for 'the book' has not diminished through our long journey and sojourn here. We have all been exhorted "να μάθουμε γράμματα" and from the outset, the early migrants have sought to convey their feelings, ideas and thoughts into print. It therefore should come as no surprise that the first Greek books to ever have been published in Australia were so published at the turn of the twentieth century, not long after the Greek Community was founded. Indeed, we have produced outstanding poets and authors in this country, among the early pioneers being the recently deceased Stathis Raftopoulos, whose poetry encompasses the entire history of our sojourn here and whose "Ελευθερίας Απάνθισμα" published in 1943 was a stirring protest against fascism and Giannis Lillis, an accomplished writer in English, Greek and Albanian.
What is particularly heartening about the publication of books in this country is the fact that the whole 'scene' eludes the elitism that usually accompanies it and is extremely broad based. The fact that first-generation migrants, dispossessed of formal education through the vicissitudes of war and poverty could arrive in Australia, struggle to establish themselves here and yet, still find time to develop their own literary skills, represents a triumph of the human spirit. In particular, the various memoirs that are now being published in the wake of the first generation's swansong constitute an important and lasting link with our founding fathers, who offer us the possibility of their advice and experience, beyond the obscurity of time, while the various poetical and other works published almost on a monthly basis here in Melbourne, are a breath of fresh air and a worthy addition to the corpus of Greek literature.
Interestingly enough for this age of cynicism, local Greek poets and authors enjoy a general respect from the wider Greek community, proving that the age-old respect for the written word and its purveyors that has characterized us since times ancient is with us still. On the whole, these pen presdigitators have escaped the natural inclination for their peers to engage them in infighting or ensure that their poppies are cut down before they grow too close to the sun and this is to the community's credit, as the number of works published steadily increases.
This year, the Federation of Kozanitan Organisations held the 4th exhibition of community-published books. Held at the Thessalonican Union building, this remarkably successful exhibition not only showcased but a small sample of our remarkable literary activity here in Australia but also paid deserving tribute to those pioneers who have ensured that this important facet of our heritage has remained with us to this day and indeed, their descendants, who ply their trade knowing full well that a ready market for Greek works is diminishing and could be lost within a generation. Let us hope that this is not so, and that the demise of the first generation will not signal the total obliteration of our continued local literary heritage. Yet its survival is incumbent upon us, not only taking an interest and reading the works of local authors but also ensuring that our level of Greek is adequate enough to understand these and take a stab at emulating them ourselves. This rather bookish Diatribe leaves you this week with the email address:, wherein community cultural doyen, Iakovos Garivaldis has painstakingly compiled a worthy list of books published in this country. Take a peek. You will be astounded.

First published in NKEE on 4 April 2005