Zdravka Mihaylova talks with poet and writer Klety Sotiriadou
Her third poetry collection titled Antidora has just been published by ‘Kedros’ Publishers. The book bears an opening motto from Greek Nobel Prize winning poet Odysseus Elytis’ poem ‘Lakonikon’ (Laconic) whose one hundredth anniversary is celebrated this month:
Life pays an olive-leaf obulus
And in the night of fools again confirms with a little cricket
The lawfulness of the Unhoped-for.
Translated by Jeffrey Carson & Nicos Sarris
John Hopkins University Press 2004
Born in Thessaloniki, Sotiriadou studied English Literature and Theory and Practice of Literary Translation in the UK.
She has translated Sylvia Plath along with numerous other English speaking poets, as well as Latin American authors like Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Isabel Allende, etc.
She performed a real translator’s feat by conveying the spirit of Latin America’s most famous novelist, Nobel Prize-winning (1982) Gabriel Garcia Marquez, translating all of his books into Greek. She is an active member of the Greek Author’s Society and its representative to the National Book Center (EKEVI) Board and CEATL (European Council of Associations of Literary Translators).
Poems, short stories and essays of hers are published in various books and literary reviews.
The formal occasion for our conversation is her poetry collection Antidora (Returning Gifts) that just appeared on the book market but talking make us wander from the Andean plateau and Colombia’s Atlantic coast, a country she has a profound knowledge of, to ancient pre-Columbian civilizations and the reverberations of their mystery in her work, to the experience of living surrounded by magical realism.
The roaming of Sotiriadou’s literary spirit continues towards the Black Sea coast, which is the setting of the novel she is writing at present.
Her short story titled ‘Sacrificial Offering to Saint Marina’, comprising the core of the future novel, has already been published in Bulgarian.
Our conversation starts with the publishing recently of her last poetry book Antidora (Gifts in Return).
A week ago your latest poetry collection, entitled Antidora (Gifts In Return), was published by Kedros Publishers in Athens. It contains old and new poems. In what intervals, in what moments have they been written?
SOTIRIADOU: The poems in this collection were all unpublished; the older ones have appeared in literary magazines, some were included in anthologies and survived and longed for a place and exposure. The more recent ones were written during the period of crisis and depression our country is going through, which defined their linkage and clarified the thematic landscape. I could say that the poems are concise, impressionistic “portraits”. My previous two poetry collections were published many years ago, and although I have been writing prose since then I often feel the need to express myself in this more concise and vital way of poetry.
Like many authors of your generation you made your debut as a poet. Your poetry collection Aboard (Εν πλω, 1977) foreshadows your future style of prose writing combining metaphorical and descriptive elements. In your first novel Bonsai (Kedros Publishers, 2010), a complex exploration of a woman’s identity, as literary critic Alexis Ziras comments, «various techniques and narratives are interweaving and alternating, one narrative technique follows the other, or one is integrated in another». Is it a journey to the innermost world, an experiential apprenticeship?
SOTIRIADOU: It is, of course, a voyage towards self-knowledge, but what I wanted most in writing that novel was to comment on the way our lives are shredded, on its fragments. The structure of the novel and the various techniques of narration are also proportional to its theme, which is the “fragmentation” of our daily routines. Most of us do not realistically conceive our life. And when we hear others recount it we are confronted with another reality, a different life, especially if we try to reconstitute it through our recollections. I believe that memory functions as a vaulting horse for the writer; there is no other space or time to support this present and its future beyond the space and time in our memory.
You spent years of your life in the 1970s and 1980s in the UK and Colombia. Self-referential patterns could be traced in Bonsai in the script found by Alexandros, Eleni’s son, in his deceased mother’s drawer. It refers to her life in these places. The prototype of the heroine’s wandering stems from your own life experience. What does the Japanese decorative tree symbolize in your novel?
SOTIRIADOU: I lived in England and Colombia just for a while, I was most of the time “flying”, coming and going, because my children lived in Greece. However I’ve put into Bonsai all that I loved, the places that could constitute a “suitable” setting. The core of the book is a love story. Its subject is the voluntary deracination of a Greek woman, symbolised by the small bonsai, the tree which has part of its roots and branches cut off when transplanted in a flowerpot, leaving its natural environment in order to become a decorative object.
You have been a ‘disciple’ of the “great school of Latin American writers”, since another of your activities for almost thirty years has been the translation of Latin American prose: short stories and novels by world-renowned writers like Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Isabel Allende, etc. In their majority the aforementioned writers belong to the vein of so called “magical realism”. How do real and imaginary, magic and down-to-earth worlds mingle in your own writing?
SOTIRIADOU: What I discovered during my “apprenticeship”, translating these great Latin American writers, is the ways their personal experience enriched their fiction. As I was very familiar, for example, with details of García Márquez’s life, I was surprised at the outset to discover the way he handled and used ‘legally’ these experiential elements in his narratives as well as the effect that these had in the reading public. Adding some of my “experiences” in my own narratives was essential in order to “animate” the characters. I would say that fictional situations, metaphysics, constitute a part of human life and are as unexplored as outer space. I believe that a writer learns, along with all other, to listen to the inexpressive, the “secret voices”, to query all, even the invisible and to signal the circular course of space and time. A writer expresses with his word the eternal concerns and portrays what is lived and experienced as an all-human need.
Have you met the writers whose books you have translated? What are your impressions after having a personal acquaintance with them, what kind of man is Gabo, for example?
SOTIRIADOU: I met Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Hot Chocolate) in Colombia in 1994 and we talked a lot about her writing, her then-recent divorce from her famous Mexican movie-director husband Alfonso Arau and about her only daughter. Carlos Fuentes (Old Gringo and Diana the Solitary Hunter) was invited to a cinema festival in Cartagena. When I talked to him about my translations he was so thrilled that rushed to introduce me to García Márquez, also present, as his Greek translator. But Gabo left him speechless saying casually and laughing: “Klety is the Greek translator of all of my books!”.
I met García Márquez for the first time in Paris in 1981 when I had already translated his short story “Los Funerales de la Mamá Grande/Big Mama ’s Funeral” (Diagonios, 1976). I have repeated many times the story about him visiting the student flat I lived in with my husband and my newborn daughter for mousaka and Greek appetizers. At that time I was still learning Spanish and listened to his talking with difficulty because of his Caribbean accent. Gabo talked more about politics and the movies than literature and his books. He was talkative and brilliant with friends, but shy in the limelight, a reason he avoided interviews and big gatherings. When I showed him his short story in Greek, he recommended translating his last novel at the time, Chronicle of a Death Foretold. The translation was published accordingly during the same year and when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 I entered full sail into the process of translating all his fiction.
You have a profound knowledge not only of Latin American literature, but also of that continent’s ancient civilizations and modern culture. Your short story “Tierradentro” reads almost as an “archeological thriller” and reminded me of a short story by Julio Cortázar entitled “The Cycladic Idol” because of its mysterious atmosphere of threatening unfathomable dark powers lurking in one’s quest and contact with ancient civilizations of Central America, like Mayan, Aztec, etc. As you told me, you were not aware of Cortázar’s short story when writing “Tierradentro”. Obviously the topic has preoccupied the famous Argentine writer as well. Parallel life experiences and mysteries revisited perhaps?
SOTIRIADOU: My visit to the archaeological site of San Agustín in Colombia, with its enormous sepulchral stone statues, is an unforgettable experience. When, however, I visited Tierradentro, also a monument of World Cultural Heritage of UNESCO, after I had lived in Colombia for a while and had read about its various cultures and legends, I felt as if I was travelling down the ancient Acheron River where according to Greek mythology the recently deceased were ferried by Charon to the Underworld. The various low mounds with trapdoor entrances which lead to lit underground graves with multiple chambers were impressive and mysterious. The short story written after this visit is based on the notes I kept during my trip and the dreams I had the two evenings of my overnight stay there. The truth is that when I was in South America I felt as if I was surrounded by various kind “spirits”, I felt protected by some invisible allied forces. It is a kind of experience that I cannot explain.
What are the manifestations of magical realism in Colombia? You mentioned once you happened to be in a valley infested by an unworldly swarm of yellow butterflies as García Márquez describes it in his famous novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.
SOTIRIADOU: Personally I believe and have said so repeatedly, that magic realism is an invention, an explanation of critics in order to interpret a reality they ignore. When I went to Aracataca for the first time, García Márquez’s hometown, near the Caribbean, I saw all that he mentions in his epic novel: tall anthills made of mud on the side of the road and ant armies devouring all in their path; buzzards sitting on the village houses’ eaves waiting for the garbage; and I was actually surrounded by a cloud of yellow butterflies near Santa Marta, at the Quinta of San Pedro Alejandrino, where Simon Bolivar died. When I was translating One Hundred Years of Solitude I came across an article about the birth of a baby in Cyprus with a pig tail! All these are the “magical” realism of Latin American literature!
For a certain period of time you were closely related to Colombia, not only to the capital Bogotá, where you lived, but to the countryside too where you’ve traveled extensively. Have you traced similarities in the temperament and mentality of Greeks and Colombians? What was it that reminded you that you were in a foreign country where you had to be constantly adapting and what was making you feel at home? In Bonsai you refer to the typical reserved warmth of etiquette for your hero’s family inherited from generations of Spanish gentry.
SOTIRIADOU: When one gets to know Colombia it is clear that there are three different countries and three different types of people. The people living in the Andean zone (1800–2800 m. altitude), where the climate is like spring and autumn, are more introvert and detached, they speak more softly and are discreet in their everyday life very much like mountain people. When one goes down towards the ocean, the temperature rises and they become more extrovert, resembling more the Mediterranean race.
The short time I have lived there I always felt welcome, at home and made strong friendships. However, writing in Greek and speaking in Spanish was traumatic. There was no electronic communication at the time, even the telephone contact was difficult and expensive. Perhaps if I didn’t need to express myself in a creative way through writing, I wouldn’t have missed so desperately my Greek environment. My experience proves Heidegger’s saying “…we should inhabit our own language”.
Let’s say a few words about the script you were asked to write by a leading Greek TV channel.
SOTIRIADOU: Four or five years ago I talked with a director who had read my short story “Sacrificial Offering to Saint Marina” (The Last Bull, Oceanida, 2002) about my sources. I told him that it was based on my mother’s childhood recollections in Varna, Bulgaria and on the drowning of a quaint relative, nicknamed “Bath and Broth”. He was very enthusiastic and asked me to write the script for two episodes and a summary of the other 22 in order to film it as a serial for the Greek TV. The work was prepared, but eventually the producers thought it would be a very costly production and the project was abandoned.
The second novel you’re writing now is based on your family roots, extending from the Moschonisia islets between Lesvos and the Asia Minor coast and the Greek community of Constantinople, then transplanted by your grandfather to the Black Sea port of Varna where your family lived until it left for Thessaloniki during the last exchange of populations between Bulgaria and Greece in 1928. In 2007 LIK, the magazine for culture, arts and literature of the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency (BTA), published your short story “Sacrificial Offering to Saint Marina”, set in Varna with the protagonists’ prototypes based on your immediate family circle. Would you tell the readers more about your family history, where they come from, how did they establish a home and a flourishing business in Varna on the Black Sea, etc?
SOTIRIADOU: My grandfather’s family history is one of those cases where life proves to be more improbable and fictional than literature. His parents’ family had migrated from the island of Chios and was established in Moschonisia, opposite Ayvalık in Asia Minor. His grandfather was one of the four fishermen who discovered a treasure: the wreck of Orloff’s flagship during the late 18th-century Russian-Turkish war. My grandfather studied in Istanbul at the Megali tou Genous Skholi (Great School of the Nation), he worked and started his family at the beginning of the twentieth century on the coast of the Black sea, in Varna, and, finally, moved as a refugee to Thessaloniki in 1928. He conversed in Latin with the eparch Gennadios, he went bankrupt three times and three times managed to make a fortune again. When I wrote the short story mentioned above I started researching and realized I was interested in writing more about it. Thus, as soon as I delivered my last novel Bonsai to my editor, I began writing this historical novel based on the life of my family. The historical frame, however, is genuine and this period I’m visiting libraries trying to find the traces of Greeks in Bulgaria during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Eventually my next trip will be a visit to Varna!