New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
A new collection of multi-themed short stories, Landscape With Dog and Other Stories”, by acclaimed Greek writer Ersi Sotiropoulos, “a writer who has raised the bar for contemporary Greek Fiction”, according to John Chioles of New York University, is receiving high praise from many quarters. Published by Clockroot Books, the stories, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich, have been described by critics as “jaggedly sharp and unsettlingly beautiful,” and “electric, vivid, sensual, surprising”.
Ms. Sotiropoulos has written six novels, a book of poetry, and scripts. “Zigzag through the Bitter Orange Trees”, the first novel ever to win both the Greek National Literature Prize and Greece’s Book Critics’ Award, is her only novel thus far to be translated into English, however, numerous journals, including the Harvard Review have published her short fiction and poetry in English translation. Her work has also been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish.
Karen Emmerich, a translator of Modern Greek poetry and prose, was nominated for a National Book Critics’ Circle Award for poetry translation in 2006 for her Miltos Sachtouris’s “Poems (1945-1971)”. She has also translated novels by Vassilis Vassilikos and Amanda Michalopoulou, among others.
Ms. Sotiropolous answered questions from the sixth International Poetry Festival in Granada, Nicaragua, where, invited to read her poetry, she joined poets from 64 countries in the festival’s aim to promote cultural exchange between poets from different generations and nationalities.
GN: Your metaphors in Landscape With Dog can be breathtaking. Are you particularly influenced by any other writers in this respect?
ES: There are so many writers I like. I can’t say who influenced me in particular. But when I was growing up and as an apprentice writer, the main influences came from poets: Ezra Pound, Cavafy, E.E. Cummings were and still are my favorites.
GN: It seems that each story ending in the “Landscape With Dog” collection is either surreal, has shock value, hints at a moral message, is enigmatic — it seems perhaps for the sake of enigma, or implies “and life goes on”. Is this accurate?
ES: I don’t like so much the dramatic endings. What I prefer is an “open” ending or a moment of suspense that leaves the reader free to think and confront with his own life.
GN: if you were forced to choose a story in the Landscape With Dog collection that you feel is the most important, or a story which you think is closer to your writing ideal than the others, which would it be?
ES: I think “The Pinball King”.
ES: Because of the story itself, I guess. Very simple and complex at the same time. There are different layers of “meaning” and telling it: the remote Greece of the provinces gradually disappearing, the way foreigners are understanding or misunderstanding the country, and of course the relationship of the two siblings and the fear of all the unsaid things.
GN: What is the most important thing you wish to convey by being a writer? For instance, do you wish to pass on a message, to reveal your thoughts, to be remembered?
ES: None of those. For me writing is recreating the world, bringing order in the chaos.
GN: Do you have a predilection for any ancient writer?
ES: The Greek lyric poets, Alcaeus, Anakreon, Sappho. So simple and so modern.
GN: How old were you when you showed writing talent, when did you realize you wanted to be a writer, and were you encouraged?
ES: I started writing when I was around eight and realized that I wanted to be a writer when I was very young. Sometimes I was encouraged, but often I felt an outsider.
GN: What are you working on now?
ES: I have a new novel “Eva” just published in Greece, and some projects half way. Probably I will go on writing short stories before I settle down for another novel.
Karen Emmerich, although she was preparing to defend her thesis at Columbia University, also took time to answer questions for the Greek News.
GN: How would you describe the stories in Landscape With Dog?
KE: They are very much like little still lifes, only ones that take that phrase quite literally: they present little snapshots or cross-sections of people’s lives and relationships, in all their complexity. We have mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, friends, brothers and sisters. We have moments of tension and conflict, but also moments of unexpected togetherness. Many of the stories are also remarkably funny, with a kind of dry wit that makes you want to laugh out loud while you’re reading.
GN: What do you think is most significant about them as works of art?
What is significant about Ersi as a Greek writer/international writer?
It’s hard for me to think about Ersi’s work in those terms; I just think of her as a writer. She cares so deeply about language –and not
just the Greek language. Yes, she can spend months writing and rewriting the same paragraph in Greek until it’s just right, just how she wants it. But she also cares just as deeply about her works as they move into other languages, of which she happens to speak many.
For me it sometimes seems like this impulse to think of writers as representatives of their language or literary tradition — Ersi as a literary ambassador of Greece, in a way — confines them to too small and constricting a box. For sure, Ersi’s writing is often wrapped up in the lived reality of Greece. But she also reads widely in many languages, travels widely, and is part of literary conversations that are happening across languages as well.
GN: What aspects of Ersi’s writing were easy, or difficult, to translate?
KE: Ersi’s focus on the word, on the sound and rhythm of each individual phrase, sets the bar very high for the translator. You have to have a similar obsession with your own language in order to bring that passion across. But the process is an extraordinarily fulfilling one, however difficult and trying at times.
A description of “Eva” from the Frankfurt Book Fair:
On Christmas Eve, the incident of a snatched purse and the obsession of the victim, a young woman named Eva with the thief, after she has retrieved its contents. Somewhere in the distant background, there is and there isn’t a husband, a dying father in love with his nurse, and the mystery of a dead dog. This is Eva’s odyssey from a night club of alcohol and “substance abuse” to a furtive kiss in the toilets and out in the street and her acquaintance with the street woman Moira, who keeps warm by a makeshift fire and eventually leads her to the ill famed hotel, Parthenon. There, in a room kept by a certain Ramon, we meet Titika and Eddy and listen to an obsessive confession by the purse snatcher, who does not realize that Eva is his victim. The new day finds Eva returning home, and it’s Christmas Day, the end of a dubious flight, mostly within. This is a tour-de-force first person narrative by the awarded author of “Zigzag Through the Bitter Orange Trees”, which is expected to increase her already wide readership.