A Conversation with Menis Koumandareas By Ana Lucic

ANA LUCIC: Could you tell us something about the circumstances that inspired the novel Koula?
MENIS KOUMANDAREAS: I remember the endless comings and goings on that old train very clearly—the train linking the northern Athenian suburbs with the port of Piraeus, long before the new underground, the “metro” as we call it, was built. This commute was part of my daily routine, as I was obliged in those days to attend to many different jobs, none of which had anything to do with writing. More trips were added when I had to visit my older brother, who was hospitalized in a mental institution. So I had plenty of time to study my fellow passengers and imagine stories for them. When I look back on those years I cannot avoid admitting, “Yes, madame, Koula is I!”
AL: How was the novel received at the time of its first publication? What was the reaction to the relationship described in the book between a young man and an older, married woman?
MK: It had an immediate appeal for readers. It was one of those few, happy moments when a book was ready to meet its public and vice versa. It’s not insignificant that women and gay people could see themselves mirrored in that relationship, and be relieved to find their concerns addressed.
AL: You’ve translated such American writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Carson McCullers. Do you see a relationship between these writers? Did you select them yourself, or did your publishers assign them to you?
MK: The only relationship between the authors you name is that all of them are, more or less, really great writers. Also, all of them are somehow “peculiar” writers who fit my sensibility. No one and nothing chose them for me, except my own ardent desire to learn from them, and set their prose in my native language. Translation is a difficult but rewarding school.
AL: Who would you identify as your literary influences?
MK: There are far too many to only quote a few names. I was influenced by Greek as well as by foreign writers. Greek culture stands between West and East like the Colossus of Rhodes, the ancient statue standing with its two legs splayed apart. As Cavafy says, “We are a mixture here: Syrians . . . Greeks, Armenians, Medes.”
AL: Could you identify some of the Greek contemporary fiction writers whose work you admire?
MK: Nowadays, there are many who write well and a few who are really masters. I feel it is not proper for me to name names. Foreign publishers with flair and a fresh outlook can see for themselves and choose, provided they are ready to risk investing in such a small literary market. Good translators can always be found. Kay Cicellis’s translation of Koula is a good example; quite aside from the fact that she is herself a marvelous writer in both languages, Greek and English.
AL: Apart from Koula, what other books of yours would you like to see translated into English, and why?
MK: Glass Factory, Harp’s Gang, and Their Smell Makes Me Want to Cry could all appeal to foreign readers . . . for different reasons, since they are different books, each with its own peculiarities. All of them deal with Athens. I’m a writer deeply in love with my native city, which provides me with a constant stimulus and source of inspiration.
AL: There is a scene in Koula in which Dimitri, the young lover of the protagonist Koula, says, referring to the mechanism of human relationships in the modern age, “People count for nothing, they’re just another item thrown in among stocks and bonds, or motors and turbines—the whole of mankind filed away in their lousy records!” It seems to me that one of the main subjects of this book is that the routine of modern life leaves no place for emotion, and that it’s only through the voluntary or involuntary destruction of this routine that some emotion can slip into our lives, through the cracks left in the wreckage. Do you agree with this, and do you think the situation has worsened since the time Koula was written, or has it improved?
MK: I don’t have to agree with what the characters in my novels say. Nevertheless, the situation to which Dimitri refers was and remains true. Since Koula was written, social conditions in our country (and not only ours) have worsened. Money and fame have become a persistent if not exclusive goal for a great majority, and society has become more cynical than ever before. Literature in this situation becomes even more responsible for producing works that highlight these circumstances and offer an alternative. Literature itself is a wreckage of routine, allowing emotion and thought to slip into our lives. After all, we are not journalists. We are writers and are proud to remain such in spite of the adverse climate that prevails.

Comments are closed.