IRENE NOEL-BAKER   Poet
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Translation of Modern Greek Literature - Kostas Hatziantoniou: Agrigento

WINNER OF THE EUROPEAN PRIZE FOR LITERATURE 2011 - www.euprizeliterature.eu

Kostas Hatziantoniou, Agrigento (Ideogramma, Athens, 2009)

Translation rights: Livanis Publications SA.

Translated into English by Irene Noel-Baker

Agrigento

“Agrigento” is a hymn to Sicily, set in the forever vivid landscape of the European intellect, carefully crafted, poetically written, it is a cultivated book that entertains, sets one thinking, and defends the hope of a true life, with its eternal interplay of love and strife.

Mythical Sicily is brought to life as Pausanias, sensing that his own time is running out, immerses himself in the story of ancient Agragas, following in the footsteps of Empedocles, the city’s ancient philosopher. While “glorious” Akragas is in decline, real, modern-day life speeds on, with its reversals and coincidences, and the final bridging of all gaps, both in the story and in time.

As the writer traverses the historical strata of this pre-eminently European location (Sicily has known Greek, Roman, Norman, Spanish, German, French and Italian, as well as Carthaginian and Arabic, cultures), he conveys an image of all the forces that jostle for position in the soul of a European of the South.

Vivid descriptions of place weave their way through the narrative, and so the influence of the landscape and the weight of its history are shown to define the novel’s modern day characters on their journey to Agrigento.

From Agrigento by Kostas Hatziantoniou, translated by Irene Noel-Baker

... For years now he had seen this beach deserted, winter and summer. He hardly remembered the epiphany of a sicilian morning - cloudless sky, listless afternoon turning the day to a voluptuous haze. He no longer bothered to question the cause of that mistiness that softly unfolds and freezes the sight, hours before it extinguishes the flickering day, and the sea brings live captives back from its narrow horizon. He had kept his summer joys hidden deep, very deep within him, with their fiery colours, innocent laughter, playfulness, safe from the changes of the outside world.

Until now. But today a chill, hard fought calm, is cracking. As if something has broken the ice of his eyes and the images which surface, like stills from a silent movie, can no longer obscure the distance between him and his loss. The images pass before his eyes with the same lucidity as they ever did. But the roar of the waves is no longer the same humming of an old film projector, whirring and bringing back scenes from a contented summer. He could still see Bianca, pretending to be asleep, and Isabella, two year old lily, running towards the sea, falling, laughing, getting up again. He saw the remains of the shed he had made her with little branches of osier, and further on he remembered where they found the piece of a broken terracotta plate, buried, and further still the shell, and the starfish, rosy crown for some castle in the sand. For years these scenes had brought him comfort, now all he felt was despair. Their music had changed.

It is the end drawing near and he isn’t afraid for himself but because it will separate him forever from the dead. Within this wild violet refracted light, however much the moon looms white in the east, however much the sun in the west fights to save a little colour, it won’t be long before the clouds and mountains fall into ash. The draperies people call memories, dark wraiths over slopes and souls, will all be lost behind the mountain peaks and among hidden pathways. Earth, sky and sea will then become one, a final darkness, impassable. Only a wisp of smoke left lightly rising from altars and funeral pyres, in a world ever fragrant with frankincense from its unending sacrifice.

...The people who sought refuge in his surgery were usually difficult or unusual cases. To anyone else it would have been sheer martyrdom. But Anchite had developed a new, experimental curiosity. He listened with the patience of Job and asked discreet questions, noted down symptoms and generally drew up a full history in each case, after an extensive and in depth investigation. If occasionally some of them grew angry, piqued by his bizarre questioning which spoilt the serious image they had formed of their condition, Pausanias would explain to them that no question was superfluous: “My dear, the secret is to be indifferent to what we wish to become. Without that indifference, a desire for health will make the body sicken”. He said such strange things and the patients looked at him in amazement. And the more complicated the state of their health, the more calmly he described it. “A farce, my dear”, was how he would inform bewildered relatives, “it’s all a farce, you mustn’t be concerned”. Some went away, remarking that he wasn’t in his right mind. But they would think better of it and come back, when they couldn’t find a cure anywhere else. And he would always receive them as before.

The peculiarly steadfast life of doctor Anchite had been thrown to the winds over the last few months with the arrival of unexpected events and new cares. The most significant of them was the breakdown of his own health. The diagnosis, rapidly deteriorating angina, put an abrupt end to his distinctive theories of inertia and indifference to what others call the truth. He threw himself, with an almost suicidal indifference to his weak heart, into a new, strenuous occupation. Something like a rummaging through history but it sprang from a far deeper need.

He wanted to explain why it was, despite his contempt for long words, pretentiousness and particularly anything smuggled in from the past, that all his life he had felt the weight of an inheritance which he would never be rid of till the end. Whole nights, months now, he read and kept notes until his mind, tired out, began to fade, with the gentlest lilt, a gift from the grapes of Marsala. Sometimes, after this lilting, his eyes would immediately close, seeking a natural darkness. He would climb the back streets of Girgenti, where a different trouble - of which we will speak later on - broke his meagre sleep. Or he would slip back into the valley again, passing by the temples, and arriving at the sea. There his thoughts would turn to memories. He was back on the home shore...

... They were the years “by the shore of the barren sea” or “by the shore of the loud-resounding sea” - he had memorized these homeric phrases as a child - studied the lives and labours of the ancient heroes, preparing himself on the beach at Gela for his own departure. How old would he have been, he wondered, when he took his first voyage, with a little boat made of split pine bark, a branch for a mast, string for a cable and a piece of paper for a sail? And why did it sink as soon as it landed on the water? He remembered that he had cried. He had longed to travel then. He had not yet come to know the dumb misery on furrowed brows, had not felt the significance of those washed up timbers on the shoreline. It was just a game then, that he played with his cousins, washing the deck, plaiting ropes, untying the rigging and for an anchor lifting up the dog’s chain. And without doubt, the most beautiful moment was when from up on the rope ladder - the ladder to the roof terrace - he would look down with contempt at the receding shoreline, and submit to the foaming sea below.

... Although he was dedicated to his new literary pursuit, he had no ambition to build, with words, yet another house of straw to be swept away with all the others at the slightest suggestion of a breeze. There were times when he despaired. But he persisted. Perhaps because he had always been beguiled by the type of sensibility that attaches itself to lost causes. It was not knowledge or some desire for literary recognition that motivated him. And though he wasn’t looking for any scientific proofs of continuity, neither was he looking to the past for refuge or driven to it by fear or nostalgia. It was his life he wanted to illuminate, moved by the same feelings as those who had started out from the Aegean. The last afternoon in a homeland watered from the East - myths, customs, tribes - before leaving for the West in search of something else. That was what he wanted to feel. And one night he had his first vision.

He saw his remote forefather Eratides, a grandee in the Doric Hexapolis, standing and gazing, for the last time, with a lump in his throat, at the temple of Athena. Afterwards proceeding to the highest hill on the acropolis of Achaia and surveying from afar the scattered houses and the shore of Peraia opposite. All around him the place was in decline, but he wasn’t looking for fixed contentment, nor for fading moments of joy. He wanted to be off. And not through cowardice or because he was looking for a new opportunity to be rich. He was not an opportunist. He wasn’t asking to be propped up by ancient things, but neither was he looking for pretexts in the modern. He wanted a place for a glittering life. He wanted to be free of all this. He longed to roam...

... Outside the wind had fallen. The rain fell slow and transparent. Inside Pausanias could clearly see his unknown ancestor. Tonight he could even hear him...

Irene Noel-Baker (2009-12)