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Translation of Modern Greek Literature - Niki Marangou: Yezoul

Niki Marangou, Yezoul (Hestia, Athens, 2010)

Translated into English by Irene Noel-Baker


This novel has been described by its author as a patchwork made up of remnants, or an embroidery from left over threads. It is a woman's work, pieced together from half-remembered and rediscovered scraps of history: the history of Greek Independence from Turkey and the attendant war, exile and loss in the Aegina, Corfu, Athens and Constantinople of the day. The book is sewn together with the threads of a modern narrative which brings in Cairo during the second world war, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and contemporary Athens.

The author, a Greek Cypriot living partly in Athens, has said that in writing this book she has laid her cards open on the table: she reveals many of her sources and lays bare the process of writing as she feels her way into the novel, discovers more about her own history and uncovers feelings about her own half buried or forgotten past. Her past is also her country's past, with its forgotten pieces of history, cast aside, and half-remembered or half understood. She comes from a country tossed about by the forces of imperialism and neglect. The author's narrative runs parallel to the journey of Loula, (loosely based on Byron’s ‘Maid of Athens’, Teresa Makri), who grows to womanhood in the early 19th Century, gradually finding her own independence of mind, picking up and taking hold of fragments of her own history as it develops alongside that of her emerging country, Modern Greece.

The novel works much like a piece of music - intensely evocative, dwelling on sudden details, and then moving swiftly and sometimes confusingly on, like history, like war, leaving one floundering a little. As Loula's voice becomes clearer and more recognisable, we emerge with her to the rapid denouement of the final scene and its startling conclusion, in which the author seems to surprise herself almost as much as she surprises the reader. It leaves us much as does the final note in a piece of music, with much to ponder, themes to remember and draw out. It leaves us free to seek out for ourselves the origins of those forgotten fragments that the author has pieced together: leaves us to take hold of the disposed of and the cast aside - to make them into something beautiful and new in our own memories. It seems to be a feminine story and the story of a nation that had been as if invisible, but then gradually found its feet, with the help of its friends, and was able to carry on alone. The story of Greece.

From Yezoul by Niki Marangou, translated by Irene Noel-Baker

He looked at me, and told me that in a former life I lived in Athens and was called Teresa Makri...

She could see the Englishman’s naked back through the window. He was shaving. His back was strangely white and different from the bodies she knew. It was strong but not at all the same as Petro’s, let’s say, who carted wood in the wheelbarrow naked from the waist up, suntanned and smelling of sweat from a long way off. Bitsa’s cousin had come to help them make orange preserve. They collected bitter oranges from the trees, washed them, scored them and took off the skins. Each girl had a needle and thread and after they had curled the peel they threaded it through. “Roll it properly or you’ll spoil my preserve”, Bitsa scolded Katingo who was careless, “Be careful!”. The Englishman had come downstairs and was observing them from a little way away. He came up closer and watched the girls with interest. He took some peel from the table and breathed in its scent. The girls started singing to pass the time.

One legged cripple
Hops to Const-inople
Const-inople to Misiri
On a pin he finds a pastry
Tips his raki in a tin
Eats and drinks until he’s dizzy
Claps his hands to bring them in
Will he catch her will she run
Marianna fat and grumpy
Or Loulaki thin and wan
Katingo who’s such a nagger
Now she’s grown so tall and grand...

Every morning I buy a bun from the baker’s on the corner. There is an antique shop opposite, in fact there are quite a number of such shops in the area. Lamps hang in the window, lighting up fruit bowls full of flowers, coffee services, opal dishes . I look at them in the same way that I checked the objects one by one in the restaurant in the Carpas, in the occupied area of Cyprus. After the check points opened I saw a picture there that my mother had painted. The place was full of objects, stolen things, stolen pictures, stolen plasterwork, stolen vases, stolen tables, stolen chairs, all from Famagusta. There were no two door handles the same in the entire restaurant. “My husband comes from where the sun rises”, his wife had told me. He must have been a Kurd. He wouldn’t give anything back. For him it was spoils of war. In Turkish they call it ganimet. But he was an artist at heart, you could tell that by the way he had arranged the objects, the way he had built a wall out of local stone...

...I looked at everything carefully, object by object, in case that vase was from our house, or maybe that window was the one that had looked out onto the sea, its handle.. I didn’t really want anything back, I looked at them though and felt upset, just as I felt now, and I started chatting to the antique dealer. He was called Aesop. Vassilis Aesop. Aesop had been her Godfather. He was the one who had called her “Loula” he didn’t like “Teresa”. The antique dealer was a man of indeterminate age, with eyes that looked right through you. “Are you from here?” I asked him, “yes”, he answered, “I was born in the parallel street, and you?” “I’m from Cyprus” I told him. “But we have a flat here and I come often.”

The flat begins to take on an air of home. Every time I go to the flea market I come back with a book. Old books have a different feel, when they’ve been read by others, when they’ve been thrown away at some point by descendants who don’t want them any more, or by a woman who has grown tired of dusting them.

On the train to Salonica the Thessalian plain is bright green in the morning light. I read the biography of Elgin. How his wife must have suffered! A clever and plucky woman, and he only interested in marbles, with his nose half eaten away, and she for the first time finding a man who understood her, when they were unexpectedly detained in France, and then Elgin taking away her children. I manage to fall asleep in the train, I arrive home and go across to the baker’s to buy a bun. While I am paying I catch sight of Vassilis opposite who greets me with a nod.

“Good morning”, I say to him, eating my bun.

“I’ve just prepared coffee, shall I pour you some?”

The coffee smells delicious and I drink it gratefully, still feeling dizzy after the train.

“Look at what came in yesterday”, he says and he shows me a tile with an Arab inscription. “Yezoul”, he reads “which means, ‘All Vanishes’”

“All vanishes”, I repeat mechanically.

“Andreas brought it, he lives near here, it’s from the house on the corner which was burnt in ’74”. I am too surprised to speak, “Where did you learn Arabic?” I ask him. “I lived for many years in Cairo”, he tells me, I went to school there”.

“Yezoul”, I go back home with the tile carefully wrapped. Why me, why would he show it to me? The inscription in Arabic, a blue ‘e’ upside down with two dots and two slanted lines, “Yezoul”. I put it on the shelf opposite and look at it.

© Irene Noel-Baker (2022)