I recently finished reading Άλφα by Βασίλης Παπαθεοδόρου (Alpha by Vasilis Papatheodorou). It is the first novel written in the Greek language that I have completed since 1985 when I read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.
I regularly read Greek. I have a Greek twitter feed which keeps me updated with publishing and library news. I read Greek library blogs, I occasionally read the local history essays from my dad’s region of Greece, Agrafa (mum’s area doesn’t have a local history section). I’ve read my bilingual publications of poetry, church guides and ancient plays with the English translations helping fill any gaps in my vocabulary. To add to all these, I read picture books, magazines and newspapers. However, these are all short forms of reading.
Greek Alphabet by Peter Bowers Elliott
I have struggled with choosing long form reading in Greek. Even though my local library at one stage had the largest Greek collection in the Southern Hemisphere the Greek librarians were a tad intimidating. 2 were literary in their selections and the 3rd had been my Greek school teacher when I was 13 and is only one of two teachers who gave me the cane (another story altogether). With this in mind, I was self led in my selections. Initially I chose romances that were translated from English, reasoning with myself that at least I would understand the context of what I had chosen as well as enjoying romance. Instead, I found stilted, clumsy translations that made me cringe (is this how non-romance readers feel when they attempt to read a romance?). This led me to consider that perhaps it was the nature of translated works that did not appeal so I tried books by Greek authors such as Γιώργος Χειμωνάς and Μάρο Δούκα but they didn’t stick either. I mostly gave up though occasionally I would try a book out.
Last week, I finally completed one of those occasional tries. It was a YA book that was suggested to me by my twitter contact/colleague/friend @ArgyrisK Argyris Kastaniotis. Άλφα is about a group of troubled youths taking part in the 1973 Athens Polytechnic protests. The main character was a young man called Alexis with a difficult home life that often found him sleeping on park benches or at friend’s homes. While he is part of the polytechnic occupation and takes part in it’s destruction, burning and trashing the buildings, for respite he takes shelter and rests in one of the art studios. One of the sculptures comes to life and takes him soaring over Athens to show him her beauty. This happens several times in the book and consequently changes his outlook from a pessimistic nihilist to an optimistic teen. Had I read this book in English I think I would have been annoyed at the trite insights to the protagonist’s self. It was quite easy to see the story’s moral (δίδαγμα) message but I think it aided my understanding of the whole book.
This is not a book that I would have chosen for myself and perhaps that is why I was able to read it through. It is unlike most of my reading but I felt the weight of the story. A big impact this book has given me is the way it informed me of how I physically read.
In English, I am a fast reader. I am one who needs to race to a book’s end and only if I enjoyed it will I then reread it, savouring every word. In Greek, I found that by sheer inexperience I have to be a slower, more deliberate reader. Where in English I skim ahead as I read my text, in Greek this was impossible. Through force of habit my eyes kept trying to glance down the page as I read but this made me lose focus on the paragraph I was on. In actual fact, I found it very difficult to connect one paragraph to another as I was focusing on understanding each on its own. At no stage did I feel my reading become subconscious and fluid. As I was reading in this fashion I questioned whether the the book would make sense as a whole when I have to think so hard to understand a full paragraph? I kept questioning my comprehension skills when I shouldn’t have doubted my Greek language skills.
I found myself delighted recalling that Greek punctuation is quite different to English. Quotation marks are only used in speech in the middle of a paragraph and not with “αβγ” but <<αβγ>>. I love the ανοτελεία (anoteleia) – the top dot in a colon which signifies a pause that is between a comma and a full stop in length. Questions are signified not with a ? but with a ; (semi-colon). This makes so much sense. What is a question but part of a sentence that can be read on its own.
I became aware of the physicality of my reading – the bend of my head, my eyes shifting across the page, my mouth needing to move as I read some of the more difficult passages yet stilling when I would hit a flow. This mouthing of words reminding me of both the modern connotations of moving one’s lips as they read being that of someone with low literacy, someone who needs the auditory experience to understand the written word. And that of reading during ancient times where the norm was to read aloud. My thoughts went to St Augustine who was perplexed by St Ambrose who would read to himself, lips moving but no sound escaping his mouth. Augustine reasoned that Ambrose could only be doing this in order to preserve his voice. So as I found difficult passages my mouth was moving and I found that my chin was pulling into my chest. I flipped my tablet to read in landscape as this gave me shorter lines and shorter pages thus turning pages more often so mentally I felt that I was reading quicker than I actually was doing – something that I rarely do when I read in English. I had control over the format. I was able to control the font (I chose to not change it from the default) and the font size (I chose the second largest size mostly due to starting to read while on a train when all it was dark), I knew how many pages I had to the end of the chapter, I could change the direction of my reading.
Before I chose to read Άλφα I went through the many books I had uploaded on my tablet. I tried several of them (all in English) but none appealed so I would not attribute the format to having completed the book. The format certainly helped however I think I finally conquered my first Greek novel in 28 years because of the clarity of Papatheodorou’s writing and that Alpha is a gripping good read.
Alpha is a free download from Ekdoseis Kastaniotis http://www.kastaniotis.com/book/978-960-03-5558-1