Saturday, June 26, 2021


Edmund Keeley writes that when it came time to render Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy’s work into English, the poem “Parthen,” (meaning taken, or conquered), had to be excluded because its “essential linguistic preoccupations were beyond translation.” 


From the outset we have a tension in the poem between what Jusdanis terms the “foreign textual material and the poem proper.” Uniquely, for Cavafy, the poem is largely comprised of quotations from a Pontian dirge about the Fall of Constantinople and the tension that Cavafy introduces is a symptom of a complex and multifaceted conflict between textuality and orality that serves as a metaphor for the problems inherent in formulating a linguistic and national identity. 


The narrator commences by highlighting the irony between the performative oral tradition of folksong and the act of reading a printed and thus static and codified collection of folksong verses: 


“These days I have been reading demotic songs 

about the exploits and the wars of the klephts 

things that are appealing, our things, Greek things.” 


Significantly, the narrator in employing the word “our” appropriates the genre of demotic songs as belonging to an audience of like-minded or related kin. For Greek, the recipient community of this appropriation, he uses the term «Γραικικά» a term famously employed by Athanasios Diakos in his death throes, to assert his identity.  


This is a term infused with meaning. Cavafy’s narrator disdains to use the word «ελληνικά,» with its diverse connotations from ancient Greece, paganism, classical civilisation and beyond. He avoids use of the term «ρωμαίικα» with its references to the Byzantine tradition. Instead, he deliberately narrows the terms of reference of the identity of the tradition to which the folksongs belong, as something which he implies, pertains to the culture deriving from the Greek Revolution  (ie. mainland Greece) and its modern successors. 


The emphatic employment of the term is fraught with ambiguity, especially considering that it was the Romans who first used the term Graecoi to refer to the entirety of the Hellenes. This ambiguity and tension is further intensified as the narrator goes on to explain exactly which folksongs he is reading: 


“I have also been reading mournful songs about the loss of Constantinople.” 


What follows, is a rendition, partly through direct quotations, partly through the narrator’s own paraphrasing, of one of the most famous laments about the Fall of Constantinople. The use and then discarding of the quotations marks indicates just how much the narrator has assimilated the lament, which is rendered in an idiom close to Modern Greek  and considers it his own. In particular, the poet recounts how a divine voice ordered the priests to “cease reading your papers, close your Bibles. They have taken the City, they have taken it. They have taken Saloniki.” 


Here the tension between the spoken and the written word is broken by divine oral command and it is important to consider that the poem was written at a time when the debate as to whether the Greek tongue should be rendered in katharevousa or Modern Greek was raging in the motherland. 


Cavafy’s narrator intensifies escalates the tension of this debate by introducing another linguistic component: that of the Pontian dialect. In doing so, the narrator juxtaposes the traditional Pontian lament over the Fall of Constantinople, against “our” “Greek” folksongs, by asserting their superior emotive quality:  


“But of the others, the one that touched me most was the lay 

of Trapezounta, with its strange language 

and the sorrow of those distant Greeks 

who possibly still continued to believed they will be saved.” 


Undoubtedly, one of the most important elements of Cavafy's originality lies in his singular employment of words and motifs that pertain to the entire written history of the Greek language and his innovations can be ascribed not only to his geographical position as a writer whose first language was English, writing outside of Greece, albeit in a community of apodemic Greeks, but also to the fact that he was writing in a period when Greece was attempting to creating a new language and a new society out of a diverse range of socio-linguistic elements. 


Cavafy’s narrator’s assertion that the Pontian dialect dirge has for him, greatly emotional impact, should be seen in this light. Although the language of Trapezounta, he admits, is “strange,” the people who use it are also “Greeks,” albeit distant ones. Evidently, this constitutes a declaration that these people, regardless how strange their language may appear to the Greeks of the Greek state, are just as “Greek,” as any other “Greek.” This is why he again uses the term «Γραικών», underlying his contention that the Greek experience cannot be narrowly defined but is diverse and multi-faceted in nature. 


Emphasising the polyvalent nature of Cavafy’s poetics is the fact that we need to consider that the narrator, in establishing the Pontians as kin by labelling them «Γραικοί,» is in fact employing a term that the Pontians themselves never used to describe themselves. Considering that the narrator is reading folksongs, he would have encountered the relevant ethnonyms in use among the Pontians. 


Thus in another Pontian dirge for the Fall of the City, we read: 

«Την Πόλην όντας όριζεν ο Έλλεν Κωνσταντίνον 

είχεν πορτάρους δίκλωπους, αφέντες φοβετσιάρους, 

εκείνος είχεν σύνοδον Ρωμαίους δωδεκάραν.» 


So why is the narrator avoiding use of terms such as «Έλλεν» and «Ρωμαίοι» which appear to go to the heart of the Pontian identity? Is it that in his well-intentioned attempt to incorporate these outliers of Hellenism into the national fold, he is in fact engaging in an act of cultural imperialism, effacing their own understanding of their identity and imposing upon them another, mirroring the centralist nationalistic practices of the Modern Greek discourse? 


In this regard it is noteworthy that the narrator, even as he asserts the proximity of the Pontian tongue, evidently feels the need to appoint himself mediator and manifestly revels in its exotic nature, interpolating his own commentary within the quotations from the original text, in order to make it more intelligible to a “mainstream” audience. 


Here, Cavafy once more magnifies the tension between the spoken and written word. Whereas in the “mainstream” version of the dirge quoted in the poem, the priests are forbidden from reading words by a spoken word, in the quoted Pontian version, it is a bird who brings written confirmation of the Fall of the City and the literate prelates are rendered illiterate at the prospect of reading their doom and the narrator speculates, cannot, or refuse to do so. Instead it is left to Yiannika, the widow’s son and thus the lowest in the social pecking order to read the terrible news. He does so and is rendered a sobbing, heart-striking, mournful mess. 



Poet George Seferis wrote that Cavafy's world exists in the twilight zones, in the borderlands of those places, individuals and epochs which he so painstakingly identifies. It is an area marked by blending, amalgamation, transition, alteration, exceptions; the cities that glow and flicker; a hermaphroditic world where even the language spoken is an alloy. At the time the poem was written, in 1921, the Greek army was deep in Asia Minor and all indications were that the long awaited realisation of the “Megali Idea,” the unification of all of the historic Greek lands, was within grasp. Mainstream Greeks were thus compelled to confront the liminal and the marginal within the limited constructs of their own identity, in a similar way that Peloponnesians were compelled so to do after the liberation of their homeland, when they had to distinguish between “autochthonous” and “heterochthonous” Greeks and attempted to deny the latter basic rights. Cavafy’s poem is  thus a testament to the difficulties and inherent contradictions in such approaches. 


Furthermore, Cavafy’s understanding of contemporary events is eerily prescient. The verses within the poem:  

“and the sorrow of those distant Greeks 

who possibly still continued to believed they will be saved,” need to be read in conjunction with the final verse, quoting from the Pontian dirge: “Woe is us, Alas to us, Romania is taken.” Reserved right at the end of the poem is the term Pontians used to define their lands. They were part of Romania, that is, the Roman Empire, of which the Empire of Constantinople and then that of Trapezounta was a successor. The inherent irony within this assertion of identity, in juxtaposition with the mainland “Greekness” imposed by the narrator, is that just as the Pontians of Trapezounta lamented the Fall of Constantinople, hoping against hope that they would be spared, only to by conquered by the Ottomans some eight years later, so too will they most likely not be spared the outcome of the Greco-Turkish War. 


Viewed in this context, the final verse of the poem, is as tragic as it is sibylline. It foresees the end of Romania, the dream of the Megali Idea and of a people whose survival depends on its realisation. Rather, those people will be subjected to genocide, and the survivors will be forced to abandon those liminal, exotic locations of Hellenism that Cavafy so revels in, confining themselves instead, geographically and culturally to a centripetal mainland with little understanding or appreciation of their distinctiveness or of their existence as an alternative form of Hellenism, forever on the periphery. 


Cavafy could not have predicted, although he would not have been surprised, the emergence of vibrant Pontian communities in Australia. Like their forebears in Cavafy’s poem, they too often occupy the fringes of the Greek-Australian narrative and, within a paradigm of multiculturalism that marginalises and favours assimilation, they hope against hope that their Romania, the reconstruction of their culture and memories, will also not be ‘taken’. For them, Cavafy’s Πάρθεν, then, is as relevant as ever. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday  26 June 2021

Saturday, June 19, 2021


How can you feel nostalgia for a place you have never lived in? A neologism, in the Greek language, the word was first coined as a medical term in 1688 by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer. Expertly, he joined the word νόστος (homecoming) along with another Greek root, άλγος meaning pain, to describe the psychological condition of longing for the past.  


Daphne, the main character of Nektaria Anastasiadou’s expertly crafted, recently published first novel “A Recipe For Daphne” effortlessly but artfully embodies the complicated relationship we have to place, past and identity. American-born but of Constantinopolitan background, Daphne

experiences her own nostos, or journey home, travelling to Constantinople in order to search for her roots. It is as if, despite her own upbringing in a different continent altogether she has always belonged in the City, even if that city now bears little similarity to the place her parents left behind, and her travel there, constitutes a return, negating her parent’s migration experience.  


In the City, Daphne meets a complex array of characters who embody the concept not only of nostalgia but also of hüzün, a term which in modern Turkish refers to the pain and sorrow over a loss, and which Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk considers to be a sense of failure in life, lack of initiative and a tendency to retreat into oneself, symptoms quite similar to melancholia which pervade all inhabitants of the City. That sense of loss, of gaping lacunae in the social fabric, is palpable in “A Recipe for Daphne.” The novel is peopled with characters who are veritable ghosts of the past, people whose lives were so marked by events such as the traumatic pogrom of 1955 that they scarcely developed further, instead lingering in stasis, even as society around them, excluded them, ignored them and finally almost forgot them altogether.   


Indeed, there is an anti-Proustian quality to Nektaria Anastasiadou’s work. If Proust experienced a “Madeleine moment,” a sub-component of memory that occurs when cues encountered in everyday life evoke recollections of the past without conscious effort, in “A Recipe for Daphne,” his opposite counterpart is master pastry chef Kosmas who as the narrative unfolds, is consciously attempting to recreate the recipe of a lost Ottoman dessert, the memory of which belongs not to him, but to older members of his community. Somehow, restoring the past constitutes a sub-conscious imperative of healing, which is why memory, and the pain of absence, forms the spinal cord of this remarkable story.  


Despite the emphasis on loss and memory, “A Recipe for Daphne” is light and fast paced. The characters peopling, or rather haunting the discourse, for all their sublimated trauma, are lively, humorous and endearing. From Fanis, the cheeky ageing, chivalrous Casanova who falls head over heels for the newly arrived Daphne because she reminds him of his fiancée Kalypso, who as we discover met with a tragic end as a result of the 1955 pogrom, and who ends up courting a Jewish student, to the Metropolitan, who instead of lamenting the loss of a once large congregation and the haunting silences of empty churches, prefers to fill them with the melismatic cadences of Byzantine chant and gentle teasing, to the boisterous Aliki who is described memorably as “a sweet but unsightly Rum widow”, to the neurotic Rea Xenidou, mother of Kosmas, all these characters, while nursing wounds that refuse to go away, bear their burdens stoically, ebulliently, and most importantly, carry on living  and making lasting contributions to those around them, even as the rest of the world appears to have passed them by.  


One does not need to have lived in the City in order to understand the intricacies of its communities. Like the Constantinopolitans themselves, the reader is welcomed as a friend and intimate companion and is immediately granted access to its labyrinthine network of relationships, experiences, social mores, lost dreams, forlorn hopes and aspirations for the future, through character portrayals that are, especially if one belongs to a diasporan community, eminently relatable.  


I have only spent the briefest period of time in Constantinople and that, in an area long bereft of Greeks. Yet, the world that Nektaria Anastasiadou weaves is one that I have known my entire life, as is its sense of life-affirming melancholy. Every time I drive through the streets of the Melbournian suburb in which I grew up, passing by the gentrified homes of beloved and larger than life compatriots who have long departed, remembering the vivacity of entire communities re-creating the life of the village they left behind in just a few streets, or watching the curtains move behind windows of old decaying, unmaintained period homes of those elderly ghosts of that era who still linger, lone and forgotten islands in localities that no longer acknowledge or even register their presence, let alone remember their sojourn, I carry that hüzün with me, trying valiantly like Kosmas, to resurrect speech patterns, gardening techniques or culinary delights that have lapsed into oblivion. But then again, that is one of the main attributes of Constantinople. It is the perennial archetype for the urban experiences of Greeks, wherever and whenever they reside.   


Perennial is the operative word here, because “A Recipe for Daphne” is ultimately a triumph of endurance and of hope for the future. The complex love stories that entwine the lives of Anastasiadou’s unsuspecting and often unwilling protagonists resist the soppy and the predictable. They are, just like the Constantinopolitans themselves, complicated, nuanced, ambivalent and thoroughly human. The climax of the story has us questioning the fundamentals of identity itself and where we seek it: in the past, in a particular place, in ourselves or in others. In this remarkable novel, Nektaria Anastasiadou, by open-heartedly sharing the stories of her people and without preaching, provides a blueprint for the continued existence of a beleaguered community that has long been written off by the dominant discourse.   


The filmic quality of the scenes the author evokes cry out for serialisation on screen. The customs and attitudes of her protagonists are described with vivid detail, as are the smells and visuals of her beloved City. In an urban reality where ash-trays mingle with Facebook, mastic flavoured gum, salted mackerel and Viagra prescriptions, there is no room for sentimental orientalisation.  



As the author confides: “With my novel A Recipe for Daphne, I wanted to stand up for our community and say in English, the international language, “We are here! We will continue!” Because this is truly the case. The Istanbul Rum minority has its own distinct culture, and that culture is very much alive. Another reason that I wrote this book was that I wanted the community’s international story to move beyond the pogrom of 1955 and the expulsions of Greek passport holders in 1964. In Istanbul, we are not stuck on those events, but most representations and references to the community outside Turkey centre on trauma and our imminent end. For this reason, my main character Fanis confronts his memories of the 1955 pogrom, turns the page on his past, and focusses on the present and future.”  


The author, a resident of Constantinople, also offers us a distinct way of employing the English language in literature. Rather than seeking English equivalents, she insists upon literally translating the Greek idiomatic expressions of her characters such as: “It is raining chair legs,” instead of “cats and dogs” or “I had fleas in my ears,” for “I formed a suspicion.” The result is thoroughly original and striking prose that conveys in the most vivid possible way, the originality of the characters she portrays.  


A unique work that re-imagines histories, inverts narratives and engages in the subtleties of human identity, without ever losing the lightness and gracefulness of its touch, or indeed the aroma of the culinary delicacies it evokes, “A Recipe For Daphne” is a ground-breaking, multifaceted novel that begs to be re-read innumerable times.  



First published in NKEE on Saturday 19 June 2021

Saturday, June 12, 2021


At this, the commencement point of the narrative, the gentle reader is courteously invited to spare a thought for the tender feelings of Australian chanteuse Delta Goodrem, whose first name has unceremoniously and most likely, without prior written permission, appended by our Cosmic Health Arbiters to that villainous variant of the virus that keeps us indoors variously quivering with fear or scratching ourselves in boredom and which is referred to by Chief Victorian Sawbownes, as a “beast.” 


Whatever one thinks of Delta, the paragon of Australian womanhood back in the days before genders were uninvented, certainly she is not bestial. Nor should she be maligned by an unsolicited association with the dreaded Covid Delta strain, especially when within her the verses of her lyric poems, which I am given to understand, are set to a form of music, are embedded subliminal exhortations to comply with the directions of the Victorian government, which, according to said lyrics in “Born to Try”, surrounds us with care and repays our compliance with protection: 


“Doing everything that I believe in
Going by the rules that I've been taught
More understanding of what's around me
And protected from the walls of love.” 


Not for Delta, the doubting Thomases of our State who cast aspersions as to our overlords’ abilities to manage the crisis. Instead, like the Desert Fathers before her, she prescribes obedience and renunciation as virtues key to our salvation: 


“Sometimes you've got to sacrifice the things you like.”  


That is not to say that Delta was a believer from the beginning. Though not of our locality, and indeed like all goddesses she transcends the constraints of place and time, like most Victorians, she underwent a profound and moving conversion process. In her semi-autobiographical epic poem “Lost Without You,” she freely admits: 


“I know I can be a little stubborn sometimes
You might say, a little righteous and too proud… 

…I thought I had all the answers, never giving in.” 


According to one interpretation of the text it was the prospect of losing our fearless leader after his unfortunate accident that proved to be Delta’s Damascus moment – when the scales fell from her eyes and she was able, like all of us to behold the true light of Spring Street with all of its bedazzling intensity: 


“But, baby, since you've gone, I admit that I was wrong
All I know is I'm lost without you
I'm not gonna lie 

How am I gonna be strong without you?
I need you by my side..” 


During the lockdown, which according to reports, in the fervour of her conversion, Delta also underwent in sympathy and solidarity, it appears that inspired by Mary Kondo, she engaged in a bout of de-cluttering, having had the epiphany that possessions mean nothing while encased within the sepulchral chambers of locked down households. At least that is why the verses from her lyric masterpiece “Possessionless,” suggest: 


“If I strip away the non-necessities
All the damage all the mess surrounding me
I don't crave what I have not
I don't need more than I've got
It's just me that I offer up.” 


Rival theological schools contend as to the significance of the last line but the inference is clear: Having wholeheartedly placed herself at the forefront of our crusade to rid our locale of the dreaded coronavirus with all its variants, it is bestial of the World Health Authority to misappropriate the blessed Delta’s sacred name and apply to an appellation of the Enemy. May the be Anathema Maranatha for evermore. 


Similarly, rather than being flattered, as some of us paradoxically are, all of us should be incensed that the same World Health Organisation or lack thereof, have taking it upon themselves to append letters of the Greek alphabet to the various emerging variants of Coronavirus. The rationale offered for such an abominable crime is flimsy indeed: The WHO (which applying the same reasoning translated as «ούτε η μάνα τους δεν τους ξέρει,» when transcribed into the Greek alphabet) seeks to minimise undue insult caused to countries by classifying the variants according to their purported place of evolution or origin. Instead, in the infinite wisdom of the WHO, the Greek language is considered a suitable repository for the fear, bile, hysteria, anger and frustration of billions of world citizens. Nice one Doctor Who. 


Personally, I blame the Greek government. The Greek alphabet is one of our most precious national assets. It has also been around for an incredibly long period of time. So long in fact, that one would have thought that it would have been trademarked long ago. Yet instead of so protecting our means of written communication, successive Greek governments have instead short-sightedly directed the energies of their patent and trademark attorneys to the protection of such vital products as cheeses, spirits and oils instead, allowing our precious glyphs to be abused and misused by the agents of global misrule and overall Kaos. Not only do we not have a say as to which of our letters will be appropriated, we also stand not to profit at all from the enterprise. Maybe it is the knowledge that this ineptitude cuts no ice with the Greeks of the Diaspora, that is fuelling Greek parliamentarians aversion to giving us all the vote, yet another Greek invention that is yet to be trademarked…. 


The Greek government could console itself with the knowledge that the WHO are just as, if not more inept. After all, by adopting the Greek alphabet COVID variant naming protocol, they myopically assume that there will only be as many variants of the virus as there are letters in the alphabet, namely, twenty four. A rookie mistake for sure when one considers that there shall be as many variants of COVID as are deemed necessary to quash the defiance of the people and to cow them into submission in time for the harbingers of Armageddon to emerge. Why not try Ubykh, a Caucasian language has 20 uvular and 29 pure fricative phonemes, more than any other known language, thus giving one slightly more room to grow? Do we read the adoption of Greek, rather than say, an eastern language as yet another example of Orientalism, whereby the West seeks once more to assert its dominance by colonising the virus which is proving to be the bane of its existence? 


Surely, if the main contention is not to vilify existing nations, one cannot go wrong by employing the alphabets or syllabaries of dead or defunct civilisations. Why not use Egyptian hieroglyphics? There are no ancient Egyptians left to protest, and their modern descendants, the Copts ironically use a variant of the Greek alphabet and would be glad of the attention. Furthermore, there are over on thousand hieroglyphs to choose from, enough to exhaust the imagination of even the most feverish Health Officer. There are similar numbers of Sumerian cuneiform glyphs also to explore, without even touching upon the mysterious rongorongo glyphs of Easter Island, whose undecipherable qualities would lend a striking parallel to the equally incoherent attempts of world politicians and bureaucrats alike to develop efficacious management policies. 


If we are, in keeping with Greg Sutton’s description of the virus as a “beast,” to come up with interesting ways of distinguishing between its multifarious manifestations, why not have recourse to the monsters of Greek mythology? The Encheladus COVID variant is a real earth-shaker, while the Medusa leaves us stone cold. Anti Vaxxers believe that the Minotaur variant is a total load of bull, while one-eyed supporters of the government applaud its efforts to stamp out the deadly Cyclops variant, recently arrived from Collingwood. The provenance of the Sphinx variant is proving to be a bit of a riddle, while the Scylla variant is dogging various parts of Footscray incessantly. The only danger with this approach, is that very soon, other peoples will be wanting to name their own variants after their own monsters, which is why a Memorandum of Understanding for Exclusivity must be executed with the WHO, expeditiously. 


Having restored our beloved Delta’s alphabetic equilibrium and asserted our own alphabetic proprietary rights, we can then enjoy the rest of the outbreak in complete global solidarity, triumphantly proclaiming as Delta does in “Together we are one:” 


 “Here we are 

Sharing our lives 

We made it through 

The good and bad times 

And still we stand 

With hope in our hearts 

No matter what 

We will play our part 

And now we've come so far 

One chance to touch a star 

Go higher and higher.” 


Is it me or are we all feeling a little peaky? Nothing that Lee Marvin and Chuck Norris from Delta Force can’t fix. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 12 June 2021