Niovi has tamed me.
Photo portrait by Niovi.
Elias Papadimitrakopoulos in his farm.
Interview: Avgi Kalogianni
I’m an experiential writer
Elias Papadimitrakopoulos is one of the best, brightest, and freshest spirits of our time. He comes from Pyrgos, Ilia, and served as a military doctor until 1982, when he resigned from the Army. A short story writer, or rather a creator of brief narratives, he has published twenty books and received a number of awards and distinctions, most recently from the Academy of Athens for his lifetime work in 2011, as well as the Grand State Letters Award in 2018. Along with his wife Niovi, he spends several months of the year on their estate in Paros. Both of them have been involved in the cultural life of the local community in various ways.
Your texts are always published in highly designed editions – the illustrations, the paper, the polytonic type, coupled with the content, comprise a whole with a distinct personal character. What is it that makes you crave to participate in the printing phase – is it the beloved scent of ink or the desire to control the whole process until your writing reaches the final recipient, the reader?
As far as the monotonic writing system is concerned, suffice to say, due to space limitations here, that its (violent and mindless) imposition is a crime – with the victims extending beyond the Greek language and literature. The typographical layout of each and every edition (even of the simplest article or letter to a newspaper editor) concerns me all the way through. The shape, the font, the typeface size, the illustrations, the embellishments, the cover, the proofreaders, the paper, are, in fact, the culmination of the writing process. Typography is a great art. How many would think or even suspect that great painters and engravers, such as, say, Durer or Leonardo da Vinci, were engaged in designing Greek typeface?
In your Academy of Athens award presentation, reference is made to the relation between your work and that of Papadiamantis, in terms of both language and choice of characters and themes. How do you comment on this comparison?
Certainly, this is not a comparison, rather a concurrence in the choice of themes and characters, as a result of a long and persistent apprenticeship, which applies to other Greek writers as well. Papadiamantis is one of my tacit teachers. As for the language, Papadiamantis knew very well that, according to Andreas Karkavitsas, “our language is one, and they’re wrong to divide it.” Language is the author’s sole weapon, it’s the source of reading pleasure – this is where the insurmountable difficulties of translation stem from.
The process of writing, as you say somewhere in your writings, is a matter of grace – it usually doesn’t last for more than few days, but it actually involves the act of recording, since the short story has been spinning in my head for months, sometimes years, which is where most of its writing takes place… How does this pregnancy set in inside your mind?
I’m an experiential writer – it is narratives of memory, then, that lie at the core of my short stories: the world of my personal memory has shaped my personal mythology. Situations that have shocked me, places that have recorded me, faces gone, figures from the underworld, images from everyday life, dialogues between desperate people, stares of animals sent to slaughter – all this, and much more, is crammed inside me; it abides, awaiting for a stimulus to begin to emerge on stage. Next, the individual elements will be mixed up, the (real) names will be confused, the (original) dialogues will be revoked, the persons will put on their disguises: the adventure of writing begins…
The sum of your work is dedicated to your wife, Niovi, also a doctor, poet and amateur painter. What does Niovi mean to you?
Niovi has tamed me… Growing up in multicultural Thessaloniki, a doctor herself with two University graduate siblings, she had much more radical views than a bourgeois raised in a conservative town of Morias, and, on top of that, a permanent Army doctor, like me. There were a number of writers, poets, and painters in her milieu. Unobtrusively, and thanks to her living example, I too managed to shed some of my authoritarian and militaristic baggage. Niovi is interested in each and every patient, loves animals, shuns socialite gatherings, scorns social conventions, is indifferent to the acquisition of material goods, and remains faithful to the teachings of Marcus Aurelius: “Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years,” which allowed us to spend our personal life reading (she is an avid reader), writing, painting, discussing and having fun among friends, taking pleasurable trips, and so on. She has been, and still remains, persistently inconspicuous, being the first authoritative critic of my writings, while her poems (which she used to keep exclusively for herself) came out, off the market, almost without her knowing it, receiving very favourable reviews. The least I could do was dedicate the sum of my work to her.
What is it that attracted you to Paros and what has kept you here?
At that time, during our summer holidays, Niovi and I would wander around the Aegean islands, mainly the Cyclades. In the summer of ’74, fiction-like situations led us to Paros for a while. We were fascinated by the beauty of the island, the sea, the tranquility, the serenity. We went back a couple of times after that, then a painter friend of ours helped us find a barley farm on sale, where we set out to build our house and grow our plants. We blended in with local life on the island, we made friends, so we now consider the place our own. Winters in Athens seem to pass by much more easily in the expectation of Paros.
You’ve spent a small part of your life in Pyrgos, your birthplace, yet, Pyrgos is a recurrent setting in your texts; also, you’ve planted trees sourced from your native land on your estate in Paros. What does one’s place of origin signify after all?
Today, the town of Pyrgos is broke – yet, when, in the late 19th century, black currant, the region’s main agricultural product, turned into black gold overnight (due to the destruction of the Italian and French vineyards caused by phylloxera), it went through a period of unprecedented economic vitality, which was far from equal and fair for the producer. The exploitation of the farmers was savage; the first anarchist movements did not take long to emerge – and the final reckoning took place on the occasion of the recent Civil War. I was born and raised in Pyrgos (a declining, at the time, Pyrgos) until I reached 18 – a spell considered anything but short. Unfortunately, I witnessed, also due to the location of our estate, quite a few atrocious scenes taking place during the Occupation and the Civil War: deaths, massacres, executions, arsons, home-fleeings, destructions. What’s more, I experienced the destruction of our property by the Italian Occupation troops; a local quisling, and later declared national benefactor, saw to it – “a scoundrel, a boatman”, as my poor mother used to call him, who later on went on to commandeer her paternal home too…
In your texts you deal with people and humble, modest and often distressed animals. Your gaze falls, with sobriety but also with a hint of irony, on social conventions and humanity’s distorted relationship with its environment. What do you think is the future of this society?
Authors write about the present. The conditions and circumstances prevailing on the planet raise reasonable questions and concerns. The dominance of technology has got out of hand, with artificial intelligence lurking around the corner, and no one knows where this is leading us. The predicaments are numerous and tangible: the by now acknowledged advance of climate change, local wars raging everywhere, the historic proportions of the phenomenon of immigration and refugee resettlement, the fact that a stretch of land equal to one football field is getting burnt in the Amazon every second, the one billion animals charred so far in this year’s wild fires in Australia, the news that just one of the great powers of the so-called European Union garnered nine billion dollars from arms exports in 2019, the 500 families that make up 80% of the world’s wealth…, “We are all within our future,” as Andreas Embirikos wrote.
Your interests brought you in contact with some of the most significant contemporary Greek writers, and especially poets. What did you learn from these acquaintances?
I’ve met a lot of people in the book field (writers, poets, publishers, critics, translators, printers, bookbinders), not only the prominent ones, but also the invisible, the marginal, the excommunicated: each one of them constitutes a unique, highly personal world of their own. Besides enjoying our daily conversations, I learned a lot from everyone. I was taught to recognize my limits; mostly, I learned to doubt.
We’ve known you as a writer, but could you introduce yourself to us as a reader? Do you read – and what?
It’s a fact that books make up our world. Books sent by other writers, poets, publishers – books selected by reviewers, books I instinctively choose, sometimes handwritten by friends. Lately, I’ve limited myself mainly to literature, and especially short stories – I don’t care much about thick, bulky books, a.k.a. doorstoppers. Every now and then, I’m relieved to go back and delve into old readings – Greek writers of the 1880s in particular. I also keep track of some of the latest print magazines and buy at least two newspapers daily.