Lesvos is renowned for Sappho, a poetess living around the 6th century BC. Longos (Daphnis and Chloe), Stratis Mirivilis (Mermaid Madonna), Aryiris Eftaliotis and Ilias Venezis are also famous writers from Lesvos. Has it been these wordsmiths that have inspired many others to make stories, or is it the island itself that irresistibly charms people into writing?
I must admit that, before coming to Lesvos, I had never heard of Sappho nor any other of the above mentioned writers. I was only familiar with the Marc Chagall drawings from Daphnis and Chloe, making this story so famous. But it’s the island that has seduced me with its overwhelming nature and a certain magic that is difficult to define.
This magic power may be the reason that many writers still live on the island. This summer as many as three books were presented at the Bazaar-Brasserie in Molyvos.
Recently Timothy Jay Smith, an American writer frequently residing on Lesvos, presented his second thriller A Vision of Angels. There are plenty of people who believe that Lesvos is the island of angels, (see: Lesvos, the island of Angels?). Although A Vision of Angels is situated in the Israel and Palestine of today, a region that is torn apart and where living on the edge of war does not encourage too many angels. Or maybe it does? Timothy is so well travelled that he can fill a whole library with his stories. So it might be the angels of Lesvos who inspired him to turn his exciting adventures into gripping books.
The photo book My Greek Island Home concentrates on Lesvos. Last week this treasure was presented by Australian Claire Lloyd. Claire lives on the island, an art director and photographer, not really a writer — but it’s her pictures that are like the poems of Sappho: enchanting compositions of details, colours, structures, and fabrics as well as portraits of Lesviot people. The more you turn the pages of her book, the more you will recognise the rhythm of poetry. You could say that Claire writes with pictures.
There are also writers who have been inspired by Molyvos, a little medieval town where tourists slowly started to come in the Sixties. Dutchman Peter van Ardenne also presented his novel Verspreide opklaringen (the book is not translated into English) this summer at the Bazaar-Brasserie. The story was inspired by his stay in Molyvos in the Eighties. The story which takes place in that time is about a tourist wrestling with alcoholism whilst the Molyviots watch through contemptuous eyes.
I wonder sometimes why the villagers still remain so hospitable, in view of the hard times they have lived through and the things they have seen. The Captive Sun (as far as I know was not yet presented in Molyvos) by Canadian writer Irena Karafilly presents an overview of the bad times in the recent history of Greece. The story starts at beginning of World War II, centering on a schoolmistress in Molyvos, the village already having gone through big changes due to the influx of refugees expelled from Turkey in the Twenties. The Germans occupy the village, and then it will be the civil war that makes the streets unsafe, followed by the era of the military Junta, another time of anxiety and terror.
This book made me sad, because it illustrates why the inhabitants even today sometimes mistrust everybody and everything. Lots of foreigners have difficulties in understanding the history of this island and this country and in recognising that the anxieties and bloodshed of the past make the Greeks only truly trust their families. Sometimes even families were ripped apart by differing political opinions, so safety was a luxury.
Calliope, the book’s main character, living with her mother after the death of her father, is in love with a German lieutenant. She cannot give in to this love because he is the enemy. She secretly works for the resistance, a fact she cannot reveal even when the villagers begin to suspect her love for the German. After surviving the war, it’s the civil war that denies her a relaxed time. Many of her friends are communists and when the colonels take power the communist hunt continues and Calliope’s friends lead her to continued danger.
It’s a story about a controversial love, but also about dissent in a small village where the lust for power, revenge and jealousies give rise to political betrayals. The walls of the houses in the village don’t seem thick enough to keep in the secrets and the windows are like eyes that see all. This is a book that all ex-pats in Greece should read, just to realise what the old Greeks have been through in their lives. The more recent economic events in Greece, that of thieving directors and European denigration of their country only reinforces the Greeks feeling: that they are on their own.
Peter van Ardenne was intrigued by the gossiping villagers, which you can also read about in Karafilly’s book, Timothy Jay Smith gives hope to the people in hard times; Claire Lloyd is much taken with the transient and the ephemeral — fabrics, materials and colours that also depend on history. Irena Karafilly puts the finger on difficult spots in history, which is, according to Timothy, universal.
Behind the thick and inspirational walls of some houses in Molyvos there are still writers behind their computers, struggling with words, wrestling with sentences to write new stories. When they go on the streets or to the cafes, they listen to the continually debating villagers, who talk about the past but also discuss anew life in Greece, even though it sometimes appears to be on the brink of falling apart. There is nothing new under the sun, except for the books that keep on being published, every time an exiting discovery of new and special writers.
Timothy Jay Smith – A Vision of Angels, Owl Canyon Press 2013
Claire Lloyd – My Greek Island Home, Penguin Group (Australia), 2012
Peter van Ardenne – Verspreide opklaringen, Arneau 2011
Irena Karafilly – The Captive Sun, Picador (Australia), 2012
And not to forget the photo/column book from me and Jan van Lent:
Scatterlight Donkeys & Foxballs Ice Cream, Smitaki 2011
(with thanks to Mary Staples)
© Smitaki 2013