Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851–1911) is Greece’s foremost prose writer. In his novellas and stories he presents a universal picture through the microcosm of the tight-knit society of a Greek village on a remote island. Papadiamantis is a clear-eyed realist, but woven into his stories are village magic, vestiges of myth and ancient lore, and the dour superstitions that governed the daily life of the Greek peasant. His plots are at times touched by a magic realism reminiscent of Márquez. The villagers of his stories, isolated for centuries from the Islamic and Christian mainstreams, live bound by medieval and ancient traditions steeped in sorcery and witchcraft. Papadiamantis’s plots are gripping and full of surprises, with a Dostoevskian intensity that illuminates human suffering. Worlds clash: Ottoman with Greek, Middle Eastern with European, Islamic with Christian. The Greeks of the stories are Europeans living under the oppressive Islamic regime of the Ottoman Turks. The island of Skiathos, where most of these stories are set, is a midway point between Ottoman Turkey and mainland Greece, and perceived by both as a distant backwater.
I first read Papadiamantis as a schoolboy in Greece, and every examination in Greek literature had one or two tricky questions on Papadiamantis. I found him very difficult to read. He wrote in an era when Modern Greek had not yet been fully codified. Most of his contemporaries were writing in Katharevousa, a stagnant and unnatural purist Greek artificially created in the early nineteenth century based on obsolete grammatical and lexical patterns of Ancient Greek. Under Papadiamantis’s touch this artificial language sprang to life. His style is further enriched by dialect and Turkish elements. (Greece had been occupied by the Ottoman Empire for over four hundred years.)
Though Papadiamantis is unfamiliar to English readers, there has been an upsurge of interest in him in Europe. Milan Kundera, in a preface to a book that situates Papadiamantis’s work within the European prose tradition, calls him the “greatest Modern Greek prose writer,” and points out that an important element of his work is that it originated in a European country that for a large part of its history belonged to a non-Western civilization.
As Greece’s Nobel Prize-winning poet Odysseus Elytis wrote: “Papadiamantis’s characters portray in miniature the eternal passions of man—jealousies, loves, ambitions, hatred, murders, and misfortunes—in an almost hieratic movement, like the rhythm of a chorus in tragedy, scarcely perceptible but sufficient to suggest the deeper, the pure nature of the world. Therein lies the magic of Papadiamantis.”
The Seal’s Dirge
Beneath the cliff where the waves spray and the path from Mamoyiannis’s windmill descends lies the cemetery, and the area to the west, where the shore juts out and the village urchins swim from morning to night all summer long is called Kohili, “shell,” as it has the shape of a shell. Toward evening old Loukena, a poor, death-singed woman, came down the path carrying a bundle of clothes under her arm, to wash the woolen blankets in the salty waves and then rinse them in the small fountain of the brackish waters that trickle from the slate rock face and empties calmly into the waves. She walked slowly, down the path, down the slope, singing a mournful dirge in a whispering voice, raising her hand to shade her eyes from the glare of the sun setting behind the mountain across the water, its rays caressing opposite her the small enclosure and the tombs, bleached, whitewashed, shining in the sun’s last blaze. She thought of the five children she had buried one after the other in that threshing floor of death, that garden of decay, many years ago when she was still young. Two girls and three boys, all in their infancy. Ravenous death had scythed them down. Death finally seized her husband too, and she was left only two sons, who had moved to foreign lands. One, she had been told, had gone to Australia. He had not sent a letter in three years. She had no idea what had become of him. The other, the younger, traveled the Mediterranean on ships, and still remembered her from time to time. She was also left a daughter, married now with half a dozen children. Old Loukena was working alongside her in her old age, and it was for her that she was walking down the path, down the slope, to wash the woolen blankets and the clothes in the salty waves and then rinse them in the fountain of the brackish waters. The old woman bent over the side of the low, sea-eaten rock and began the wash. To her right lay the smoother and less abrupt slope of the earthen hill on which the cemetery stood, and from whose sides rotting wood rolled toward the all-embracing sea from the unearthings, in other words from the digging up of human remains, and the removal of young women’s golden slippers and gold-embroidered clothes that had been buried with them, of tresses of blonde hair and other spoils of death.
Above her head a little to her right, in a hidden hollow next to the cemetery, sat a young shepherd who had just returned from the meadows with his small flock, and who, without considering the mournfulness of the area, had taken his flute from his bag and begun playing a merry shepherd’s tune.
The old woman’s dirge fell silent at the sound of the flute, and the villagers returning from the meadows—the sun had set in the meantime—heard the flute but could not see the flute player who was hidden among the bushes in the deep hollow on the hill. A schooner was preparing to put out to sea and was tacking across the harbor. But its sails were not filling and so it did not reach the open water past the western cape. A seal meandering through the deep waters close to the shore, perhaps hearing the old woman’s whispered dirge and enticed by the young shepherd’s loud flute, swam into the shallows, taking pleasure in the sound and frolicking in the waves.
A small girl, one of the old woman’s grandchildren, her name was Akrivoula, nine years old, her mother had perhaps sent her, or more likely she had slipped away from under her mother’s watchful eye, and hearing that her grandma was down at Kohili, washing clothes by the shore, went to look for her so she could play a little by the waves. But she did not know where the path began by Mamoyiannis’s windmill across from the cemetery, and, hearing the flute, she went toward it and found the hidden flute player. Listening to the music and admiring the young shepherd, she saw in the twilight of the approaching darkness a small path that descended steeply, quite sharply, and she thought that that was the path her grandma had taken, and so she began going down the steep slope to find her by the shore. By now night had fallen. The little girl descended another few steps and then saw that the path was becoming even steeper. She called out in fear, and tried to scamper back up the slope. She had come to the rock that hung above the waves twice the height of a man. The sky darkened, clouds hid the stars, the moon was on the wane. She tried to find the path by which she had come down but could not. She turned back toward the edge of the rock and tried to continue her descent. She slipped and—splash—fell into the waves. The sea was as deep as the rock was tall, a good two fathoms. The sound of the flute covered her cry. The shepherd heard the splash, but he could not see the base of the rock and the edge of the shore. Furthermore he had not seen the little girl, he had barely felt her presence. As night had already fallen, old Loukena had finished her wash and was climbing up the path back toward the house. Halfway up the slope she heard the splash, turned, and looked into the darkness in the direction of the flute player. “It must have been him,” she said to herself, for she knew the boy. “Not only does he wake the dead with that flute of his, now he’s also throwing stones into the sea to pass the time. What a loner and misfit that boy is!” And she went on her way. And the schooner continued tacking back and forth in the harbor, and the young shepherd continued blowing on his flute into the silence of the night. And the seal that had swum into the shallows found the little drowned body of poor Akrivoula and began swimming around it in a dirge before its nighttime feed. An old fisherman, versed in the voiceless language of seals, translated it into the words of man:
Akrivoula lies among the seaweed wild,
Death-singed Loukena’s daughter’s child,
Garland of sea flowers in her hair,
Her dowry of sparkling shells so rare,
And the old woman still sheds bitter tears
For the infants lost in distant years.
Man’s troubles and sorrows never end.