Saturday, April 28, 2018


Most nights, I read to my daughters from a rather tattered and worse for wear story book by Georgia Tarsouli, entitled: “Στης Μαμάς την Αγκαλιά.” It has been in my custody ever since my primary school days and holds special significance for me, for it was the reason why, in my early years, I came to bear the soubriquet, of “binscab.”
“Στης Μαμάς την Αγκαλιά,” was the first Greek book I discovered in my school library. A remnant of enlightened government policy that saw a gamut of multi-lingual books purchased for the needs of students who would never read them, I was so astounded and thoroughly gratified that my Anglophone world would pay so great a homage to my Grecophone one, that I borrowed it and the few other books occupying the shelf next to it, repeatedly.
One day, I arrived at the Greek section of the library, only to ascertain that it was no longer there. The surly librarian, even more purse-lipped than usual, refused to offer an explanation and I walked away despondent. I remained in that state all day, that is, until a friend informed me that an interesting array of colourful books had been discovered peeking out of the school dumpster. Without a moment to lose, I ran to the place of disposal, and without hesitation, launched myself within it, coming up for air, only after I had rescued “Στης Μαμάς την Αγκαλιά,” “Τα γενέθλια της Μομόκο,” and other childhood Greek language favourites from certain annihilation. 
So exhilarated was I with my act of ethnosoteric chivalry, that I was, in the beginning at least, oblivious to the rhythmic chant that began to emanate from the recently formed crowd of onlookers. Timid at first, preceded almost by a grace note of derision, it finally assailed my eardrums: “Binscab! Binscab! BINSCAB!”
I cared not. Instinctively, I was convinced that Greek was a sacred language and therefore, every book that contained it was a holy relic that must be protected from profanation and defilement. I bore my soubriquet with pride and though it was hurled at me often enough in the next few years, its wielders, seeing that it had absolutely no psychological effect upon me, ultimately desisted.
Having nowhere now to satiate my thirst for Greek literature, my parents pointed me in the direction of my local municipal library. For the next two decades, I greedily devoured all the children᾽s books, then the works of literature by great Greek authors, then the historical and folkloric works and the religious texts until one day, I came to realise that well-loved favourites, such as Takis Lappas’ series of books on the philhellenes in the Greek Revolution, were vanishing from the shelves, as were works of poetry. On a table, a few metres away, I spied a jumble of books with a piece of paper affixed to the wall above them bearing the stark word: “Sale.” There they all were: Cavafy’s collected works, Thrasos Kastanakis’ strange but compelling “Hatzimanouil” and a host of other tomes that had changed my life forever. Deeply discomposed, I purchased them all, for less than fifty dollars. Thus apprised that my local corpus of Greek literature was endangered, I would periodically return to the library and buy up the remainder of an unwanted collection that would otherwise be destined for the municipal transfer station.
These days, I no longer attend my local library. Its Greek collection has now dwindled to encompass only recipe books, translations of Mills and Boon romances, some lives of the Saints and a few rather sad, dog eared women’s magazines. Apparently, this is all that the Greeks of the area now want to read, a contention supported by the fact that the more erudite texts of the Greek corpus still, though in a sparser fashion than before, make their periodic appearance in the local second hand shops, as lots from deceased estates.
“The foundation of a community library fulfils a higher need. It constitutes the basis for our cultural evolution. It necessarily broadens the intellectual horizons of our community. It enriches and enlivens our one-sided lives and where there is a void – and we have many- it fills it with content.
Most importantly, it elevates us to the level of truly civilised human beings. It gives us depth, it grants us certainty. Because we have no need of gilded superficialities.
We therefore have no further need for endless discussions, interminable delays, or timid prevarications. We demand immediate and prompt action, before our primary enthusiasm, that motivates our first steps, evaporates.”
I never got to meet Yiannis Lillis, possibly the most talented Greek writer ever to migrate to Australian shores, and criminally forgotten, for he died before I was born, in 1967. And I was only able to read the above thoughts on the necessity of founding a Greek community library, which he penned on 25 March 1951, upon a chance discovery late last year, of a copy of Οικογένεια, a remarkable literary magazine which he edited, and in which they were published. Lillis was writing with the same fervour of certainty as Saint Paul, when he wrote of the immanency of the Saviour’s return. For him, a trilingual author, recently arrived in Melbourne and anxious to stimulate the intellectual and cultural life of a community in the process of inventing itself, the concept of a library, created and run by the community, for the community, was axiomatic. The question for him was not ‘if’ a community library would be created but when. 
Sixty seven years later and with the Greek language in terminal decline, its study having been ousted within a generation from the tertiary institutions in which the community fought so tenaciously to introduce it in the first place, Yiannis Lillis would most likely have been shocked to learn that despite some attempts, we have failed to create the community library he and so many others envisaged. Instead, we took the easier path, focusing all our expectations on the local and state governments, entities which, though they undoubtedly took their role of fostering multiculturalism seriously, justifiably diverted funds towards the satisfaction of the literary needs of other emerging communities at the expense of our own and when it was anodyne to do so, jettisoned the surplus burden altogether.
A community library would be more than just a place where Greek-Australians could read Greek books. It would serve as an archive for all Greek language and Greek-related literature published in Melbourne ever since the foundation of our community. It would act as a conduit for research into the impressive intellectual currents that have pervaded our community over the years, and thus, assist us to understand ourselves, not just in relation to our place of origin but also, in relation to the place of our ultimate acculturation, while also constitute a sounding board for analysis and reform. A library that evolves to reflect our own tastes, intellectual pursuits, preoccupations and perspectives, thus remains as an enduring repository of our complex and multifaceted existence, a constant touchstone ensuring that the stories of those that came before us, within our community are never lost. It is this aspect, of the perpetual evolution of memory and identity that so captivated Yiannis Lillis and my own youthful imagination, that is encapsulated in the concept of the library.
Most importantly, a community library, would be OUR library. It would exist not at the pleasure of others, but rather, as a product of our own will, and for as long as we should desire it. We would shape it in our image , keep it and preserve it, long after the vagaries of ever changing governmental policies have left its prototypes behind. We would become it and it, us. Significantly, it would emancipate us as a people, from a crisis of cultural dependency upon the motherland and permit us to assess ourselves within the context of the mighty corpus of cultural achievement we have attained, a process that is necessary if we are to endure as a relevant ethno-cultural entity within Australia, into the future. As such, the community library is, put simply, survival and it is imperative that even at this late stage, as community brotherhoods and organisations face their dotage, kept alive in their senility only via a mercenary interest in property, that the community at large once more consider taking this important step, to ensure its own longevity.
Jorge Luis Borges put it this way: “The library will endure; it is the universe. As for us, everything has not been written; we are not turning into phantoms. We walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and our future, collecting our thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we may recognize creatures of the information.” If that sounds disturbing, consider that he then went on to say elsewhere, the following: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” Paradise at the Greek. Euphonious and benign, but most importantly, ours for the taking.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 28 April 2018