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Yannis Kiourtsakis was born in Athens in 1941. He graduated in law in Paris. His studies devoted to the first Greek Nobel Prize-winning poet Yorgos Seferis (Modern Hellenism and the West in the Works of Seferis, Kedros, 1979), the Karaghiozis shadow-theatre (Carnival and Karaghiozis. Origins and Metamorphoses of Popular Laughter, Kedros, 1985), the carnival spirit in Bakhtin’s oeuvre, point out that verbal tradition and folk culture are tools for understanding the fundamental sources of modern Greek history and art. His essay “The Problem of Tradition” is included in the Bulgarian edition of “Who are the Greeks?”, a collection of modern Greek essays, (Foundation for Bulgarian Literature, Sofia, 2002, translated by Zdravka Mihaylova).
In the period 1995-2007 Kiourtsakis was working on the novel and essay trilogy under the general title The Same and the Other in which the author is himself the protagonist. As the literary critic Aris Marangopoulos wrote, “his work fits in the European tradition of self-referential rhetoric where, from Saint Augustine to Rousseau and from Thomas Bernhard to Nabokov the author, the narrator and the character of a literary work are the one and same person.” A few years ago Kiourtsakis presented his river-of-consciousness book entitled Like a Novel that sparked the attention of literary criticism.
Kiourtsakis belongs to the tradition of eminent Greek authors who alongside their original works of literature have interesting critical essays too. In 1986 he was awarded the second Greek State Prize for essays, and in 1996 he received the best novel award of the Greek literary magazine Diavazo. The use of the self as an anthropological “guinea pig” in a creative work-in-progress - which by definition reflects the variegated society in which he lives, is not limited only to that originality but the literary result is complemented by a vigorous language delightful to the reader that smartly intertwines critical thought with the best novelistic traditions. With his literariness, comprehensive reflection framework and anthropological vision Kiourtsakis’ works fit in the best inherited from the Greek critical self-consciousness. It, therefore, represents an ideal approach entering the complex universe of modern Greek world - from its social organization to the prevailing attitudes and cultural patterns.
Exclusively for GRReporter Zdravka Mihaylova talk with Yannis Kiourtsakis.
QUESTION: There is no Greek of the older generation who has not spent countless carefree hours of laughter with the shadow-theatre protagonist Karaghiozis. Karaghiozis is invariably a pauper, hungry, ragged, barefoot; he survives thanks to various tricks, people laugh at him, taunt him often, even throw him into jail. Karaghiozis is a figure of fun through his coarse jokes, his vagaries and those of his mischievous children. We often hear him exclaim: “Ooh, mama, now I’m really for it!" («Αχ, μανουλα, τι επαθα;»!) The Greek theatre of shadows revives ordinary folks’ hard life and their efforts to eke out a livelihood. Do you share the view that on a symbolic level Karaghiozis is an exponent of the Greek soul? Does this deep reservoir of the Greek people’s talent for self-deprecation have the power to overcome today’s crisis of values?
KIOURTSAKIS: For me, the identification of Karaghiozis with the spirit of the Greeks is an implied consequence of its collective creation by the folk audience during the years of its heyday at the end of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century. Even though the shadow theatre had been introduced after the independence of Greece from Turkey as an “oriental spectacle”, the verbal tradition and folk arts of our country so drastically “grafted” it little by little and ”mingled” it with so many Greek people's lives that it has become an authentic Greek folk spectacle. It is all about the natural result of its verbal nature, which, as I pointed out in my book Verbal Tradition and Collective Creativity, turns the personal business of those who play the Karaghiozis theatre into a common knowledge for the audience. This audience - part of the Greek people – in fact is the collective creator of the Greek Karaghiozis. Of course, something like this cannot be valid today when verbal tradition is obsolete. Therefore, there are countless performances devoted to this “grotesque” character the symbolic codes of whom are completely strange to us, but they were completely close and clear to a traditional audience. However, a self-deprecation society - in the theatre of shadows, or elsewhere, remains the first step towards collective self-knowledge. From this perspective it is a tool to cope with – I am not saying to necessarily overcome - an existential crisis like today’s. Just see how some caricatures in the press portray the current situation in the country better than any profound and insightful analysis.