From Mother Tongue

By Vassilis Alexakis
Translation from the French by Harlan Patton

I saw the poet I met in Stamata and I waved at him, but he didn’t wave back. He was wearing the same green suit. The bookstore was packed. It wasn’t easy to get to the buffet and pour myself a plastic cup of retsina. I noticed a middle-aged man with a white beard wearing a wide-brimmed black hat and a black cape with a red scarf around his neck. He reminded me of the Toulouse-Lautrec drawing by Aristide Bruant. I recognized several writers in attendance and a young blonde woman with a crew cut who hosts the Portraits program on television. The event was organized by Manos Acridakis, the editor, to present a new volume devoted to The Eternal Greek Woman, with a preface by Amalia Stathopoulou, the current Minister of Culture.

Amalia is an old friend of Manos. We were waiting for her to start the press conference. People were looking out the front window of the bookstore, watching for the official car to arrive.

“A reporter mentioned you a few minutes ago.” Manos told me, “She wants to meet you. I’ll tell her you’re here.”

He looked around, but he didn’t see her.

“How long are we going to wait?” asked the blonde television host.

“We can spare another ten minutes or so, Ionna.”

I remembered her name, Ionna Calogridou.

“No more than ten minutes, okay?” she said, eating a little triangular sandwich.

I noticed that she was the center of attention. She was wearing heavy makeup. As soon as she’d finished the sandwich, she took a little round mirror out of her purse and checked her mouth. She made faces, as if no one could see her. People were watching the man in the black hat too. He was talking to two writers slightly younger than him, both of them pensive and a bit sad. He, on the other hand, looked delighted. He seemed to take pleasure in talking. One of the writers lifted his glasses and wiped his eyes with a big white handkerchief. I thought he was crying. The few writers I knew in Paris were equally morose, as if they never thought about anything but stories that take place in rainy little towns. The poet from Stamata— I call him that because I don’t remember his name—started trying to get through the crowd. We looked at one another again, and he avoided greeting me.

There was a copy of The Eternal Greek Woman open on a glass table. I paged through it: it was a series of portraits of famous women: Sappho, Anna Comnena, Bouboulina, Penelope Delta, and others. It was a luxury edition, copiously illustrated. The preface stressed the contributions of women to Greek culture, social struggles, and the fight for freedom. The Minister affirmed that the Greece of today is worthy of its distant ancestors, and that its achievements will grow ever better thanks to laws guaranteeing equality of the sexes. The text was about twenty lines long. Stathopoulou’s signature took up the rest of the page.

Back during the dictatorship, I once drew a fat woman holding up one leg and threatening to crush a tiny little boy under her heel.

“Do you love me?” she was asking him.

I was feeling a distinct hostility toward the Greeks. Not knowing how to explain the timorous attitude of most of my countrymen toward the junta, I had decided that it was their mothers’ fault. I wasn’t upset with fathers: in my eyes, women alone were responsible. I flew into a rage every time I saw a mother slap her child. After the student uprising at Athens Polytechnic, I had to revise my judgment a bit, but I didn’t change my opinion. It’s very easy to form an opinion, and it’s just as difficult to get rid of one. I don’t know the reasons for my animosity toward women. My mother was rather gentle. I was far from feeling as oppressed by family as the Thessalonica short film directors seemed to be. And I have to admit that I wasn’t very daring under the dictatorship. Two years after the coup d’état, I left for Paris. I participated in the demonstrations there against the colonels, of course, but I stayed in the back of the room to avoid being photographed. I knew several photographers collaborating with the embassy to draw up lists of the opposition. A few of the cartoons I published back then could have irritated the Greek authorities. That wasn’t the case, apparently. Maybe the embassy didn’t know who Pol was. I doubt they ever tried to find out.

The cover of the book shows Bouboulina standing at the bow of her ship and directing operations against the Turkish fleet. The scene takes place in the 1821 War of Independence. The men of her crew look frightened. The ship—a very large barque—is named Agamemnon.

I looked at the crowd again. Some were impatient with the Minister’s late arrival, but the ambiance was still friendly. It was obvious that they all knew one another well and all I could hear around me were first names, Yorgos, Nicos, Socrate, Eleonora, Dimitra, Caterina. In Paris, under the same circumstances, it seems to me that I would have heard mostly family names, Delbourg, Grandmont, Carrier, Caumont, Nicolaïdès—since that’s the way my name is pronounced in French. In Greek they say Nicolaïdis, with an accent on the next-to-last syllable. I was jealous of those demonstrations of friendship, as if I weren’t part of the same society, as if I were an intruder. I got some more wine, I had to protect my cup constantly from the guests’ sudden movements. The poet handed Calogridou a book, probably a collection of poetry since it was in large format with few pages.

“She’s here!” someone said.

A black Mercedes with tinted windows had just appeared. There was a general movement toward the door, the poet and Calogridou were the first to set foot on the sidewalk.

“Get ready, Thanassis!” cried Calogridou to a young guy carrying a video camera on his shoulder while busily eating ice cream by a newspaper kiosk across the way.

I remembered kiosks selling ice cream when I was a child. They were equipped with a cooler. Thanassis wasn’t overly concerned, he just bent down to look inside the vehicle, which was moving at the pace of a hearse.

“Throw that ice cream away!” Calogridou shouted again.

Someone pointed out that the car was from the diplomatic corps.

“It might be for the Nigerian ambassador,” said Manos. “He lives near here.”

The car turned at the corner. Everyone went back inside the bookstore, slightly annoyed. Calogridou alone stayed outside and kept shouting. She had taken the cameraman’s lack of alacrity as a personal affront.

“When I tell you to do something, I mean right now, understood?”

Thanassis thought it best to make at least a slight effort: he crossed the street and stood in front of the bookstore, still eating ice cream.

“You can’t count on anyone in this country!” said an exasperated Calogridou, going back into the bookstore.

She turned toward Manos:

“Call Amalia. We really need to know if she’s coming or not!”

I could feel that things were taking a turn for the worse. Manos no doubt felt the same, because he went straight to the phone. I hadn’t known that television, which was almost nonexistent when I left Greece, had become so influential. It was clear that Calogridou’s broadcast would guarantee the book’s success.

“It’s busy,” said Manos.

The press conference started without the Minister. The three men who were the work’s authors were the first to speak. They assured us that their texts, based on serious historical sources, dispelled the myths surrounding some of the book’s heroines, like Sappho. I learned that Anna Conmena and her brother waged a ferocious war against one another to win the throne of Byzantium. I’d like to know more about that. Anna lost, finally, and dedicated the last years of her life to writing the Alexiad, a very long biography of her father, Alexis I. She was in love with the Greek language: “She claimed that she loved the language even more than the air she breathed,” said one of the authors.

The man in the black hat had slipped away. The poet was now standing between the two writers, whispering something to them. The cameraman, flanked by his two assistants holding a spotlight and a microphone, was alternately filming the speakers and the audience. Manos was the last to speak. It was his opinion that Turkish expansionism and the awakening of Balkan nationalisms represented a threat to Greece and that all Greeks must rally. At first I thought he was attempting to mock speeches made by politicians, but realized quickly that wasn’t the case.

“Not long ago, our borders were the line between the West and the Communist Bloc. A chasm separated us from our neighbors. Our security was guaranteed. The fall of the communist regimes has completely changed the rules of the game. New alliances are being formed, we can’t count anymore on our strength alone. The West, which discovered we were Orthodox like the Russians and the Serbs, looks upon us with suspicion.”

I wondered whether we should really be afraid of our neighbors. Neither Albania nor the new Macedonian state seemed capable of attacking us. Were we supposed to fear Bulgaria? Just before leaving Paris, I saw a Balkan map in the Miroir de l’Europe with hand-drawn revisions by the Russian Jirinowski and on it Bulgaria went all the way to the Aegean Sea. This is, I suspect, the way great powers control the destinies of smaller peoples, by taking a marker and drawing a few lines on a map. Turkey, of course, is our eternal enemy. I think it would be impossible for us to view them objectively. The fear of Turkey is part of our national identity.

People didn’t seem very interested in Manos’ speech. He finally got around to the book. He spoke lyrically of the eternal Greek woman, as if she were a single person traveling through the centuries. We heard a toilet flush, and then saw the man with the black hat come through a door at the back of the bookstore. The spotlight turned to him, and stayed on him as he came toward me. Manos looked up, as if he was having trouble making out his text once deprived of the light.

“Unassuming and kind, understanding and generous, the Greek woman is transformed into an enraged tiger when our nation, our civilization, and our religion are in danger.”

The man in the black hat stopped beside me. He whispered in my ear:

“I must—alas—go to the bathroom very often.”

He stepped away from me and squinted while staring at me, the way one studies a painting. My astonishment seemed to satisfy him.

“Shhh! Let’s let our friend talk!” he added, nodding toward Manos.

I met Acridakis Manos in the late 1960s. He was part of a clandestine organization and was considered one of the most gifted activists on the extreme left. He was arrested during the uprising at Athens Polytechnic and spent the last months of the dictatorship in a prison camp on an island. He went into publishing after the junta fell. Several publishing houses were created then, but very few have survived. Manos understood earlier and more clearly than his colleagues that the revolutionary texts he was publishing would quickly lose favor with the public. Perhaps he simply stopped believing in the revolution, but the fact is that he adapted perfectly to the laws of the marketplace. The works of Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg, Althusser, and Lucás, are only a minute part of his catalogue, which is dominated by novels, psychoanalysis books, and contemporary politics. He has avoided getting mixed up in politics, which has allowed him to maintain good relations with all the political parties. He has also published tourist guides, books about astronomy and about medicinal plants, and a cookbook entitled Greeks at the Table, with one of my drawings on its cover. I imagine Rosa Luxemburg, Gramsci, and the others looking down with disappointment on the books displayed in the window, from the high shelf where they’re kept nowadays.

I only see Manos when he comes to Paris for the Paris Book Fair. He stayed with me once, and he desperately wanted to make love to Martha. I warned him that he ran the risk of getting beaten up by her husband and he settled down.

The man in the black hat leaned toward me again:

“I’ve enjoyed your cartoons in the Miroir de l’Europe for years,” he said.

He offered me a cigarette. Other people were chatting here and there. The cameraman wasn’t filming anymore and the spotlight had been shut off. Manos’ speech was getting tiresome. I thought about what he would have said twenty-five years ago. In no uncertain terms, he would have accused the two major parties and the Church of exacerbating popular nationalism. He would have stated that these dangers weighing upon Greece are nothing more than a myth designed to turn people’s attention away from the real problems. When I first met him, he could never find words strong enough to denounce the Holy Synod’s support for the junta. He wouldn’t have neglected to remind us that extreme right-wing sympathizers always control the Church. I seemed to be hearing two speeches at the same time, both delivered by the same voice, and each contradicting the other.

“I decided to publish The Eternal Greek Woman now because it seemed essential to me that we recall the sacrifices that have been made in this country to protect certain values. Malevolent shadows fall upon our borders. I would like to stress both the book’s historical interest and its currency.”

The applause was rather lukewarm, but Manos looked very pleased, as if through his speech he had been able to push back the malevolent shadows.

“What are you working on at the moment?” I asked the man in the black hat.

I asked the question in hopes that his answer would help me figure out who I was dealing with.

“I’m writing an essay on the Homeric poems. My thesis is that the books of the Iliad and the Odyssey are an homage to the letters of the alphabet, book I to alpha, book II to beta, and so on. Book I of the Iliad sets forth a number of characters whose names begin with A: Athena and Apollo intervene in a conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon.”

Several people had approached and were listening to him. He had noticed and wasn’t speaking just to me anymore.

“Homer is inaugurating the alphabet, celebrating its birth. Song XVI of the Odyssey, which corresponds to the letter p, is built around the word pater: Ulysses meets up with his son Telemachus. In the Iliad, the poet tells of the exploits and the death of Patroclus. The two poems are composed according to the same rules, which proves they’re from the same author.”

I thought I should ask him about the epsilon at Delphi. A woman asked if he was planning to publish his articles. It was then that I realized he was Professor Caradzoglou, who teaches literature at the University of Athens. He’s best known for the ill-tempered columns he publishes in Embros Sunday. In the photo that appears alongside his article, he’s not wearing a hat. He told the woman “yes,” and then turned his back to the small group listening to him.

“What do they say about Greece in Europe? They laugh at us, don’t they?”

We were suddenly surrounded by the television people and the spotlight was trained on Caradzoglou. Calogridou, holding the microphone, asked him:

“Professor, what do you think of the Greek woman?”

“I think very highly of her,” he said. “Very highly. The only thing that bothers me about her is that she washes ashtrays that are only slightly dirty, and then puts them by the sink. She doesn’t dry them, she waits for them to dry themselves, which explains why ashtrays are always by the sink. I think that the Greek woman looks upon them as plates in which certain people have the bad habit of crushing out their cigarettes.”

Calogridou gave him a dull look. “She doesn’t understand what he’s saying,” I thought. She thanked him. I asked if I could continue the discussion with him after the event. He was supposed to meet his wife at two o’clock in a café in Colonaki.

“Come along, if you like,” he offered. “I warn you that she’s crazy, but she won’t bother us. She’s not as talkative as I am.”

“Quiet, my friends!” said Manos. “The Minister’s on the line.”

Everyone stopped talking instantly and turned toward the phone.

“We waited for you until ten after one…. Yes, I understand. I’ll have someone bring you a copy…. You haven’t forgotten what you promised me, have you? Okay, I’ll arrange it with her. Would you like to talk to them? I’ll plug in the speaker. Kisses, see you soon.”

He pushed a button. There was a sort of echo, then a whistle followed by complete silence. We heard a small cough.

“Can you hear me? I hope you can hear me.”

It was Stathopoulou. Her astonishingly young voice, nearly childlike, is well known to all Greeks, as my mother would say.

“I’m very sorry for canceling on you. I would sincerely love to celebrate this exceptional publication with you, dedicated to women who have honored Greece with their talents and their struggles. I’ll even let you in on a secret: when I think of Penelope Delta’s suicide the day the Germans entered Athens, it brings tears to my eyes.”

Her voice became famous when she was on stage. Newspapers still talk of her interpretation of Electra, at the Epidaure Theater in the late 1950’s. Apparently she was so touching in the scene where Electra recognizes her brother Orestes and speaks the famous line “Long-awaited voice, are you really here?” that everyone was deeply moved, even Orestes, who forgot his lines. Despite claims from the envious that she’s at least sixty-five, Amalia has managed to keep not just her voice but also her looks. Those very same envious people allege that she’s had quite a number of plastic surgeries done. Her picture appears in the paper very often. I don’t think that her popularity is due to her acting abilities—it’s been over thirty years since she last acted—or her cultural policies, since her ministry’s budget is tiny, but rather to her astonishing youth. She gives the impression that she has overcome time, that she has won a rare victory. When she goes to the provinces, people crowd around her, want to touch her. She’s a true star, the heroine of a fairy tale. She goes through life the way the eternal Greek woman moves through the centuries.

“I can guarantee,” she continued, “that the government has decided to extend women’s rights and recognize their role in society. As you all know, we’ve already adopted certain measures toward that end. We’ll adopt others too.”

Several people were looking up toward the ceiling as if they expected to glimpse the Minister through the long cloud of cigarette smoke. A phone rang in Stathopoulou’s office.

“In a very few words, that’s what I wanted to say to you. Along with you, I drink to the Greek woman… To our country!”

The applause was enthusiastic this time and covered up the dial tone after she hung up.

“Why didn’t you film any of it?” Calogridou asked the cameraman, rather calmly.

“Film what, Ionna?”

“Those people listening, for heaven’s sakes. It was a special moment!”

People were indeed under a spell. They took their time about continuing their conversations. Caradzoglou had left. I went over to Manos to say hello. He was chatting with the two writers. “Those two will surely have lunch together,” I thought.

“She may not be very intelligent,” Manos was saying, “but she knows instinctively what she needs to say or do.”

“She’s an actress,” one of the writers observed scornfully.

“She doesn’t read,” added the one wearing glasses.

Manos’ shirt with its blue and white stripes looked like the Greek flag.

“But she looks great on television,” he said, “and that’s what counts nowadays. I know for a fact that she doesn’t read: she told me that she hasn’t opened a book since she left the Dramatic Arts Conservatory.”

“I’m leaving,” Calogridou announced.

“You’ll lead off the broadcast talking about my book, right?”

“We’ll see about that,” she said jokingly.

“She’ll have to start with it,” Manos confided, as she walked away. “The channel where she works is run by Stathopoulou’s youngest brother, Pandélis.”

“He really does know everyone,” I thought and suddenly felt that I couldn’t stand being with him or with his guests anymore. I left quickly. The poet was waiting for me on the sidewalk.

“How are you doing?”


I tried to continue on my way, but he stopped me again.

“May I go with you? I know you’re meeting Mr. Caradzoglou. I’d like to speak to him. He really doesn’t like us poets and I think he may even despise poetry. Unless you have personal things to discuss, of course.”

I didn’t ask him how it was that he was aware of my plans. I simply assured him that the conversation would be of a strictly confidential nature.

“He’s in love with my sister,” I explained.

Vassilis Alexakis is a Greek-French writer and self-translator of numerous novels in Greek, his mother tongue, and French. His work has been recognized by the French Academy with Le Grand Prix du Roman (2007) and with the prestigious Prix Médicis for La Langue maternelle (1995). In late 2012, he received the Prix de la Langue française for his life’s work. A translation of his novel La Langue maternelle (Mother Tongue), from which this excerpt was taken, will be published by Autumn Hill Books in the spring.

Harlan Patton is a French-to-English translator whose most recent translation in print was Claude Calame’s Poetic and Performative Memory in Ancient Greece published by Harvard University Press in 2009