Monday, March 22, 2010


"Books are for people who wish they were somewhere else," Mark Twain.

The word βιβλίο, or book in Greek is most likely derived from the Phoenician port of Byblos, from where Egyptian papyrus was exported to Greece. According to Herodotus, the Phoenicians brought writing and papyrus to us around the tenth century. Tome, τόμος, which originally meant a slice or piece, became to denote a roll of papyrus and is now used to denote a particularly think book. Book on the other hand, comes from Old English "boc" which comes from a Germanic root that is cognate to beech. Similarly in Slavic languages 'bukva', meaning letter, is also cognate to beech. It is thus conjectured that the earliest Indo-European writings may have been carved on beech wood.
The organic nature of the book and its inevitable biodegradeability lend to the human condition an immortality that is constantly under threat or crisis. It is only the works of the ancients that were written down and survived that comprise the canon of Greek literature from which we have endeavoured to reconstruct a glorious past. These works, happen to be in their majority, works of philosophy, science, and Aristophanes and Menander excepted, sobre literature. Given that most of our books survived the ravages of time through Syriac translations for the Arabs, whose caliphs, concerned with the spread of their religion and dominion were not always of the most humorous bent, one could assume that these potentates chose to preserve only those works that they considered beneficial to the development of their realm. 'Irrelevant,' or 'useless' material would have been ignored, and because it was not copied, lost. It could therefore be that a staggering ninety five percent of the Greek literary canon is actually comprised of crude and smutty jokes and romance novels that have been sadly lost to us through an absence of reproduction. If so, this makes us mortally sad, espcially since this would most likely make us secure in the prediction that hundreds of years from now, the Greek people will still be reading Homer, Cavafy, a little bit of Freddy Germanos and absolutely no Kalimniou. Further, it would cause us to reassess a good many things about our identity, and no doubt, explain much.
Old books have always fascinated me. To hold the creased, musty pages in one's hand, opening the book only half-way so as to not damage the spine is to place one's finger upon the pulse of the history of every single other person who has turned the pages in the years before. My first old book was an αλφαβητάριον belonging to my father. This contained pictures of a land and time that was not altogether lost back then, and I devoured such phrases of eloquence as «πι πι το παπί,» learning in the process that in Greece, all fathers have moustaches, grandmothers sit by the fire and tell stories as they spin wool and roast chestnuts and young boys fly kites upon the summit of hills on a mysterious day known as Clean Monday. "How high did you fly your kite pappou on Clean Monday?" I asked my grandfather one day as I was reading from the book. The response was a deep baritone rumbling that left it quite clear that he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.
Nonetheless, my family was used to me making outlandish comments based on what I had read. The reading of Persian fairy tales while attempting to negotiate my grandmother's musty Greek religious books at the same time that the Karate Kid was all the rage had me dressing in a Chinese robe, Persian book under one arm, announcing to all and sundry that I was a Persian priest. Despite it being in a fairly advanced state of deterioration even back then, I still have that book and can remember the story of Nokhodi, the pea-man, by heart. I also have still managed to retain my copy of Papadiamanti's collected stories abridged for children, despite the fact, as was the case with many Greek books back in the day, that the pages have come completely away from the spine and the imagery contained in those stories, including murders and ghosts, provided enough fodder for almost all of my childhood nightmares.
The first book I ever saw that was Somewhere along the line, I conceived a passion for "really old" books. My first was a venerable tome of Byzantine music in a monastery in Crete. Viewing the graceful, flowing strokes of notation, and just having recently read that Crete had in centuries past, been conquered and overrun by Arabs, who were in turn dislodged by the Byzantine Emperor, I asked the monk: "Is this Arabic?" The monk's eyes opened wide in righteous indignation. "Arabic?" he spluttered. "That, my boy, is Greek. No foreigner has ever corrupted the culture of this island. Never forget it." My second encounter with an "old book" took place when I disclosing my passion to a family friend. She directed me to a pile of books in her living room which she said belonged to her grandfather and were one hundred years old. The pages, heavy with the smell of damp were largely stuck together and the title «Ερωτοτροπίες» was barely legible. Nonetheless, it was an "old book" published in 1901, at a time when the parts of Greece from which my family originates were still under Ottoman Rule. For the rest of that afternoon, which I consider to be a turning point in my life, I remained ensconced in an arm chair, reading about sexual techniques, for the book was in fact a sex manual, in katharevousa. To read about such earthy pursuits as proficiency in the carnal arts in such a rarefied and exhalted language as katharevousa, could, I would conjecture, be most closely likened to having Kevin Rudd join in on union banter at a building site. A mental block shrouds the context of the book for all time in my mind, for the reading of a book that belonged to another, establishes a bond with that person, much like the Syriac scribes of old would inscribe the name of the person from whom they had received interpretations and knowledge of the text. In this case, imagining my friend's grandfather scouring the book's pages for knowledge exceeded the capacity of my imagination. Years later, in a calf bound 1553 edition of the Iliad I was able to acquire, I found scrawled along the margins in unsteady Greek, a rudimentary love poem. To possess an Iliad that would have inspired in a young student almost five centuries before us, pretensions of professing classical love in a lyric form is most enthralling. In a most moving moment, a few years ago, I bought a book of Greek poetry from a surburban second hand bookshop, that belonged to the late lamented and much beloved poet, Stathis Raftopoulos.
One of the major problem with Greek books, old or new is the dearth of footnotes. Outrageous, or even tantalising snippets of information can be found, of the most remarkeable things. For example, I found out about the opportunist Samian Ioan Heraclid, who conned his way into becoming ruler of Moldavia and first officially Protestant monarch in Europe through a dusty, forgotten book of Samian history in the Samian House in Brunswick. Similarly, I have picked up slight, unsubstantiated references about a certain Samian explorer known as Iannis Georgiou, who apparently explored Patagonia during the 1850's and exercised great influence upon the native tribes of the region in another obscure, apparently self-published treatise on the history of Samos, as well as on the presence of a certain Greek doctor at the destruction of William Hick's relieving army in Sudan by the forces of the Mahdi, which culminated in the massacre of Gordon in Khartoum. Most recently, in a self-published account of the history of the Berlin Wall I picked up in a basement in Athens, I was most fascinated to read an unfootnoted account of a certain George Raptis, was a Stasi agent who betrayed the existence of escape tunnels out of East Berlin to his employers.
I always wanted to write, sometimes because I felt had something to say and at other times, because I did not want people to know exactly what I had to say among the profusion of words on the page. I experimented with writing stories on different shades of paper to see whether this would alter the meaning, constructed sentences that decreased or increased in syllables and imagined, much as Borges did, the existence of libraries that would house ever single possible story ever written or that could ever be written. Most of all, I wanted to write in Greek in order to show that this language was not just the preserve of the first generation, that it was not a tool of the prevailing foundation migration myths but a legitimate Australian literary language in its own right. When I received my first book from the printers and held it in my hands I thus felt some sort of vindication - that is until I opened it up and noticed the errors that had escaped the notice of the compositor. Our community books even while mouldering in private and public libraries unread, with be the last enduring testament of our cultural endeavours.
George Bernard Shaw quipped that one gets nothing more out of books than one puts in to them. In my case, these are notes scribbled on the margins, receipts, tram tickets of days gone by and a whole lot of other memorabilia that point to first contacts - the first time I read a Cavafy poem on the tram, or a small piece of paper tucked into a law book representing a poem I wrote while driving to work. But the best thing about our books, is that they, like all the good Greek traditions is, that they will, with any luck, be passed on to delight others. Hopefully this will mean something, for as the old adage says, we go to our books as Narcissus went to the fountain, see ourselves therein and are enamoured.


First published in NKEE on 22 March 2010