Sotiris Dimitriou’s novels and short stories are known for their focus on the underside of contemporary Greek society, in particular the experiences of an immigrant underclass. Importantly, they are equally well-known for their daring and provocative use of language: Dimitriou mixes a number of ethnically marked vernaculars and registers of language to recreate the Greek language and also challenge the preconceptions of a mainstream reader. Dimitriou thus places language at the very center of his politics and aesthetics in a gesture that is meant to provoke and disturb, particularly in a linguistic and literary context that has long been concerned with notions of purity and continuity.
My main challenge as a translator was how best to replicate the aesthetic, emotional and cultural impact of Dimitriou’s use of a subaltern language and experience. As a scholar of the African-American literary tradition, I was struck by the parallels between what Dimitriou was doing with language and the experimentation with black vernaculars undertaken by writers of the Harlem Renaissance—like Zora Neale Hurston—who were similarly challenging normative definitions of literary language and mainstream English in the American literary context. Like many Harlem Renaissance writers, Dimitriou uses vernaculars both to immerse the reader in the voice and viewpoint of a marginalized culture and to reinvigorate and reinvent mainstream language. Moreover, as in much of Hurston’s writing, it is this vernacular dialogue and not the narration that drives the story forward. Besides this broad resonance between the political and aesthetic agendas of Dimitriou and writers like Hurston, I was also struck by a couple of salient thematic parallels. Dimitriou’s use of song, for instance, is very reminiscent of the role of song—particularly the blues—in the African-American literary tradition: the two songs in his excerpt act as a type of punctuation/chorus for the narrative, functioning as a distillation of the pain and loss that runs through it.
The songs become the ultimate expression of the narrative’s complicated and evocative layering of pain and rapture, humor and despair, and thus call to mind the famous lines in Frederick Douglass’s slave narrative: íThe [slaves] would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out—if not in the word, in the sound—and as frequently in the one as in the other. They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone (…) they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves.” This coded, multivalent use of language is exactly what Dimitriou is practicing in this piece. Dimitriou’s excerpt also recalls another favored motif in the African-American literary tradition: the telling and passing on of stories among men—at times, exaggerated, competitive, and often filled with bravado. In all cases, however, they are a means of sharing and thereby diffusing painful cultural memories.—Patricia Felisa Barbeito
Around noon the cement arrived. It was raining cats and dogs, but it had all been secured with plastic sheeting. They all fell to, even the mason, unloading it and piling it on the ground floor.
“We were held up, boss, at the warehouse,” the driver hollered at the contractor.
“No worries. And we were stuck inside with this weather. Who’s that there? Why, if it ain’t old Mihos! Hey there, chief. How you been? Good?”
“Praise de Lawd.”
“Bah, you always say that, you devil!”
“Haw, haw, haw! Dass right, dass right. An’ I doan say it enuf. As long’s mah eyes is open, I’m gonna praise ‘im.”
“Solid, suh. Fit as a fiddle. The engine’s a-tickin’ still. The ole soundin’ rod sure moans when I lays mah hands on. Haw, haw, haw.”
Mihos was a big-boned, sixty-five-year-old man. An open face; guileless, smiling eyes; big teeth with two or three gold ones at the sides of his mouth. He laughed and it made you want to laugh, too.
“Pour the boys a glass.”
What had come over the emigrant who had hired them? He’d dug out from among his housewares some glasses for wine. They even had tsipouro 1 from Povla.
“Hey Miho, my man, what happened the other day? What was that laughing in the middle of the night about?”
“I kep’ yuh up? Sorry, suh. I dreams, boss-man Stavros, dat I waz dere, in Albania. An’ I had me a nightmare, a little soov’neer from prison, an’ dere was no wakin’ me. In prison, dere waz always someone to gimme a poke an’ de nightmare pass. But who’s tuh poke me heah? I tries agin an’ agin tuh wake up—I also had tuh pee—until I was woke by a boat from Italy droppin’ anchor. I goes lak dis and checks: I wazn’t in no cell. Out I goes —the sun’s jes risin’. I finds an olive tree tuh pee.
“Dere, somethin’ takes a-holt of me right up in mah chest. What I do? Laugh, cry, whimper lak a babe—on mah life, I couldna tell you. You tell me, chief. Eight years in Igoumenitsa, dat’s what brokes me.”
“The wife woke me. Listen to Miho, she says. I got mad. Bah, what’s wrong with that devil, I say. I got up to give you an earful but the wife wouldn’t let me. And then she started bawling, too.”
“Dat dere waz thirty years of hard time bustin’ outta me.”
“Yassuh, Miho, my man, go on and tell your story. I’ve heard it before but I can’t get enough,” Stavros told him.
“Dere’s plenty more where all dat come from, mah frends. In ’62 my brother-in-law, he comes in from Filiati. Five thousan’, he says, fo five hours tuh go and den back from Albania. You in?
“Back den I waz countin’ pennies fo de ticket tuh Germany. I pinches an’ I scrapes, an’ den I puts it all on de card game at de café in Pilion. Dat waz de drill. A real dead-beat. Ise gotten ninety-nine pe’cent of what I needs. An’ instead of wakin’ up an’ smellin’ de coffee, I had me three kids. The poor wife, what all I puts her through! Waz Albania an’ prison made me a man.
“So dis waz lak an answer to mah prayers, an’ I gets mah ticket wit enuf lef’ over fo de wifes tuh take care of herself.
“Come noon we makes tracks outta Filiati, three of us civilians wit a guy from de A2 unit2 an’ we gets tuh de Gelili outpost. Dere’s another one waitin’ fo us dere. We all arrives at Divri at nine. Pass de night in de forest.
“In de morning, ouse assemblage sets out fo Saranda. Wese a regular band den. We waits one day, two days, on de third still nothin’s happenin’. Twaz night when we tries tuh leave Stougara. De band wanted tuh see an Albanian outpost. Twaz pass three in de a.m. and wese still on de march.
“De snow’s frozen solid. De path’s narrow, slippery, an’ wese teeterin’ between de rock an’ a hard fall. Wese holdin’ on tuh de fir trees. Over Griazdani one goes an’ loses its damn branch an’ I falls down de deep precipice. Dere waz a big pile of snow, dat’s where I lands. Blacked out fo two days in de snow, wit all mah fixins on me. Only mah head stickin’ out. On de third day I comes tuh wit a dog barkin’ in mah ear. It’s de dog from de outpost.
“‘Fore long, de soldiers pile in. Dey pull me out; dey guns strapped ‘cross dey chests, spankin’ new jackets, binoculars. Caught wit mah hand in de cookie jar, as dey say.
“Dead tuh de world, I waz, an’ dey takes me tuh de guard-post. I waz cuffed tuh de chair hand an’ foot wit mah legs swole an’ numb lak deyse made of clay. I goes lak dis an’ sees mah head in de little mirror hangin’ on de wall: snow-white.
“Dat dere’s somebody else, I says. I takes another good look, wiggle ’round a bit: it’s me. It’s what dey say about hair turnin’ white from one secon’ tuh de nex’. Cotton-wool, I tell you, lak what you see now.
“Dey question me an’ I tells dem de whole, exack truth.
“Why dey pick you?
“I’m from Heimaro, I tells dem, I knows dis terrain. In de army I waz trained tuh use firearms.
“Jes’ a sec, mah frends, a little break. Mah brother, who’s in Heimaro, he wen’ tuh de War Museum in Tirana. Dere’s mah guns, de jacket all on show, an’ under de lot mah name an’ it says èspy, lieutenant in the Greek army and a spy for the 6th American battalion.’ Who? Me, de one who spen’ day an’ night at de Pilion café!
“Six days pass an’ dey takes me tuh Saranda tuh de hospital. The doctors kep’ cuttin’ an’ cuttin’ dead meat off off mah legs an’ in de end dey save ’em. Now dey tells me when dere’s gonna be a change in de weather.”
“Telli, pour our man Miho some tsipouro. That’s it, to our health, brothers,” said Stavros and started to croon. Before long, all the others had joined in.
No, no, I ain’t no killer
No matter what you say
No, I ain’t kissed a gal
No, I ain’t killed, no way
Ain’t done no wrong, it’s true
I’m jes blue.
Cause in these here streets
Where I’ve grown
There’s a sweet, sweet gal
An’ her name I don’ know
But she’s taken mah heart
An’ she won’t let go
Oh, it’s true
I’m jes’ blue
For a little redhead from down home.
“Go on, my man, tell your story.”
“From dere, dey takes me tuh Tirana, tuh de hospital fo fifteen days—dat’s where dey fixed me up. Roussan Golemi—dat’s de woman operated on me. Den, until dey tries me, four years in a dirt cell measurin’ three by three. Dat’s where you did yo eatin’, yo sleepin’, yo personal business. In four years I washed mahself twice—skin dry lak rollin’ paper.
“Oh, an’ another thing, mah frends. When I fust got back tuh Greece, I wen’ wid mah gal tuh de mountains, tuh see some land dat’s mine, or useter be mine anyways. I takes two steps fo’ward an’ turns right back. Mah daughter she’s thinkin’ Ise gone an’ loss mah mind. I waz in cells lak dat fo thirty years. You all think you can forget jes’ lak dat?
“After four years I gets mah day in court an’ dey sentence me tuh fifteen years fo bein’ an èenemy to the state’—a spy an’ all. Four years in de Latsi camp on de plains of Kroes, where we, de prisoners, built de fertilizer factory. Den on tuh Reps an’ de copper mines. From de fat into de fire. If I didna make mah cut I spends a month in de cell wit half a loaf of bread a day, some salt an’ a blanket. Seventeen below outside; de barracks solid ice in winter, an’ hellfire in de summer.
“Den off tuh Bals tuh de oil refineries an’ de gas fo a year. Den tuh de salt marshes of Avlonas. Leeks every mornin’—leeks, leeks an’ no trace of fat tuh wash ’em down. But, truth be toll, twaz dat plate of rice an’ leeks alon’ wit de holy saint dat saw me through an’ I didna grow fat in de belly! Haw, haw, haw, haw!
“An’ lissen heah tuh dis, mah frends. In Avlona dat’s where dey bringed dis woman from Povla who waz married in Pestiani, an’ right ’round den had lef’ Greece. Wese all look at her an’ secretly cross ourselfs. Dey says she waz a spy too. Later we finds out dat she’d run fo de hills ’cause her husband beat her. Dimitroula, I thinks, waz her name.
“They useter parade her ’round as an example, ’cause she supposedly excaped from Greece. We never hear of anyone else comin’ ovah fo asylum. She waz nuthin’ tuh look at. A real beat biddy.
“If dass what peoples looks lak in Greece, an inmate toll me, den heah wese in paradise.
“At some point dey takes her tuh de women’s prisons in Tirana an’ dey dumps her dere. Couldna have her bread fo free, could she now? The women in dose prisons is de ones sew de soldier’s uniforms.”
“That’s the sister of our emigrant boss-man over here that you’re talking about,” said Stavros, “so she did time in Avlona, did she, poor thing?”
“Ach, my poor, lost sister, my ruined Dimitroula! Germany finished us off, you an’ me both.”
“Germany, that’s where they met, she and that guy from Pestiani, from the very heart of the Arvanite region. They went to his village and a day didn’t go by when he didn’t beat her. The poor thing snuck away and went back to our village.
“It was Easter when we heard at Saint Pantos’s church that he was on his way to come get her, and she peed all over herself. That’s when she ran off. We searched everywhere—east to west—we couldn’t find her. After a while we found out that she’d crossed the border.”
“Where’s she now. You seen her?” asked Stavros.
“Don’t ask, my man, don’t ask.”
“Go on, uncle Miho,” said Stavros.
“In ’75 dey takes me tuh de mines at Spats—flint, copper—until ’85 when Hodja died.
“I works de wagons dere: seven wagons a day waz mah lot. I useter crawl in de earth in de morning an’ come out at night. Dat’s where I looks black death in de face. Ise in de death zone, all landslides. Youse never know if youse comes out in one piece. Get dis: ‘stead of greetin’ us wit good days an’ good nights, de guards dey useter wish us tuh come out alive. On de walls of de tunnels dere’s writin’ dat says yo cut or yo life, normë o shpirt.
“How I managed tuh survive dat only Saint Spiridon knows. Yassuh, ev’ry night I falls face down an’ says, Lawd, see me through tuh Saint George’s day. Dey waz extermination camps, all of ’em, mah friends. Hunger an’ pain. An’ if yo time’s up dey puts you on trial agin fo political agitatin’ usin’ false witnesses.
“In ’85, when I waz release, all de prisoners comes tuh de gates tuh see me off.
“Ti je Miho Oikonmou? says a guard at de gates.
“Unë jam, I says.
“Takes yo things an’ come dis way.
“Mah brothers, I yells, I’m off to trial agin.
“I gets another ten years fo supposedly cursin’ Hodja. Dey takes me tuh Lezha tuh de Zeimen camp. I waz a cook dere, so things waz good. What did I make? How I do it? No matter, de prisoners dey all happy wit me. Cosmas de Aeitolian, dey all calls me.
“Dass where a lad comes an’ tells me dat a guard waz tryna force hisself on him fo some dirty business. Had a taste fo de green ones, dat one.”
“We have that kind of lover-boy here too, don’t you worry,” said the contractor’s brother-in-law, the Corfiot.
The contractor was fit to be tied, blind with fury.
“I talks wit mah mates and we tells him dat we don’t gives a damn ’bout ourselfs, but if you lays a finger on de kid yo guts gonna get spill fo sure. I kep’ de kid close an’ he didna touch him.
“I works on a farm fo ‘nother two years an’ den dey takes all us ole goats tuh St. Vassili at Saranda. An’ in ’90 on de 15th of March, wit de amnesty granted tuh political prisoners I waz release. Three hundred prisoners throwin’ dey hats in de air an’ hooraying as I walks out de gates!”
“Gimme a cigarette, one of the good ones, son,” says Stavros, who smokes unfiltered, to Philippi. He took the one handed to him, lit up, and launched into song. Soon all the others joined in, some diffidently, others with brio.
Our hearts they are a-flowin’
And in company they find
A song to chase away the blues
The pain that’s on our mind.
Yes, tomorrow’s a new day
May it bring good our way
‘Til next we meet again
‘Cause time is all we have
And it’s all we know
Whether we live or die
Or to another world go.
1A strong, distilled spirit made from the residue of the wine press that is typical to the Epirus region, among others.
2A2 is the designation for military intelligence officers.