An Excerpt from the Introduction to The Boundless Garden: Selected Short Stories, Volume I

Alexandros Papadiamantis Alexandros Papadiamantis
"Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851-1911) was the most important literary figure of nineteenth-century Greece and arguably of modern Greek literature more generally. Through his lively, tender, and profound short stories of the simple lives of the Orthodox faithful of his native island of Skiathos, Papadiamantis reveals a world of organically lived Orthodoxy, largely lost in the disintegrating order of modern life." (From the forthcoming book by Protecting Veil Press entitled Greece's Dostoevsky: The Theological Vision of Alexandros Papadiamantis). I cannot think of a better way succinctly to state why everyone, but especially Orthodox Christians, should read the writings of Alexandros Papadiamandis. I mentioned him recently in the context of the writings of Elder Paisios the Athonite. Now I am very happy to announce this outstanding translation of his short stories. May his wonderful descriptions of "organically lived Orthodoxy" help us to recover a more full and traditional Orthodox way of life. — Patrick Barnes

The short stories of Alexandros Papadiamandis are graced with an almost indefinable quality common to all great writers. This quality would seem to derive from an enthralment combined with a certain perplexity, an irresistible pull exerted by the author's descriptions of a world of beauty and marvels which at the same time is filled with predicaments, human tragedies and humble triumphs. Like his contemporaries in the great European tradition of story-telling, Papadiamandis explores the souls of men and women as they succumb to or struggle against the power of evil — the Raskolnikovs, the Uriah Heeps and the Kareninas — people living on the edge of man's capacity to deal with evil and who are tragically driven, by an irrational process, to the extremes of human vulnerability.

Papadiamandis knew this European tradition intimately, learning his craft while translating many of the major authors of his time — Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, de Maupassant and Alphonse Daudet — as well as some of the minor literary figures, including Bram Stoker, Hall Caine, Bret Harte, Georges Ohnet,[1] and although he himself objected to it, he was even compared by some of his contemporaries to Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens, most likely because of the tragic tenor of his work and his habit of marking Christmas and Easter by turning out a seasonal story. His literary field of reference, however, extended far beyond the nineteenth century and along with Homer, Plato and Hesiod he also drew on Dante and Shakespeare, easily integrating scenes and passages from their works into his writing.

Papadiamandis lived in the midst of an uncertain age of transition. Born in the middle of the nineteenth century (1851) in a period of post-Enlightenment turmoil and a generation after Greece's War of Independence, his reflections on and observations of Greek life in both his native island of Skiathos and in urban Athens continue, almost a century after his death, to define the modern Greek experience in a way unattained by any of his now forgotten contemporaries.

The century that separates today's reader from the world of Papadiamandis has brought a radical transformation in the political, social and religious landscape of the world he describes. This complex landscape has undergone so many changes during the past hundred years that the way people inhabited it and related to one another, the objects that surrounded them, the animals and inanimate things that defined it — all of which he describes so compellingly — have utterly disappeared or have been transformed out of all recognition. These changes inevitably influence the way we view his world, a world which no longer exists. The attentive reader will realize, however, that this is not solely due to a temporal distance: Papadiamandis himself was also alienated from the literary and religious establishment of his day. Several of his stories reveal his rejection of the conventional assumptions of his time concerning events such as the liberation of Greece from the Turks, the reign of the Bavarian regent, Otho, the ideological alignment with the West, the revival of the Olympic Games, or social idees recues such as the position of unmarried women.

Nevertheless one cannot simply assert that Papadiamandis was as much misunderstood and misinterpreted in his day as he appears to have been in our times. In recent years, he has acquired both enthusiasts and detractors, each group of critics focusing on its own area of interest, dividing, as it were, the seamless garment of his work into reductive, conflicting pieces, none of which fit or do justice to the whole fabric of his vision. Separated from the whole, each becomes a caricature. He has been claimed by the religious establishment as one of their own, hailed by the social ethnographers as a natural if instinctive folklorist, decried by the Greek modernists as a reactionary, and remains a scandal to both sides of the purist versus the demotic language question.[2] Papadiamandis resists all such easy or narrow classifications....

In this first volume there are Christmas and Easter stories; a tale of displacement and alienation experienced by a young student, ironically unfolding on the last night of Carnival; a personal tragedy of loss and exile seen through the eyes of the monk who has abandoned his monastery to live as a stranger in a world that cannot contain him; details from the lives of the seafaring islanders and their fascinating, long-forgotten rites at the launching of a new ship — all these elements still reflect the inner life of a 'modern' Greece in search of its soul. With an innate sense of what is happening around him, Papadiamandis grounds his stories in the realization that something irretrievable is in the process of being lost or has already been lost. While everyone is preoccupied with new distractions, adopting ways that have not been tested and unravelling what has taken centuries of spiritual evolution to achieve, the close-knit sense of community of country life and the relationship with another reality is being destroyed. This profound loss encompassed spiritual, social and political implications. With the creation of the modern Greek state, what was gained by the liberation from the Turks was lost in the new order that accompanied the Bavarian regency. It ushered in a highly centralized, impersonal, western style of government that soon replaced the local independent and autonomous administration of neighbourhoods and communities radiating from the nucleus of church and parish life. This bureaucratic process was democratically enforced through the new phenomenon of state-run elections. Papadiamandis went so far as to question even the most nationalistic assumptions of the modern Greek state and intimated, with a subtle sense of irony, that there was little difference between the former domination of the Greeks by the Turks and the present liberation imposed upon them by the Bavarians. 'Ah, the elections! This has been our sole preoccupation for the past seventy years since we have been liberated, that is, since we exchanged tyrants, whom we believe we may replace even more frequently by the means of elections ...' In the face of this erosion of the spiritual and social elements which held his world together, Papadiamandis holds up the image of another reality, manifested in a belief that this world was grounded in the supernatural world and taking tangible form in the worship of God and His saints, and which relates human beings to their saintly counterparts and every temporal or material aspect of their earthly existence to the eternal.

Papadiamandis believed that the only unifying principle capable of counteracting the erosion taking place in the natural world was the Church. He saw the Church from the traditional Greek Orthodox point of view as a microcosm of the Kingdom of God, recreated on earth in the festal cycle of the Church's liturgical year. As a living reality providing a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, the Church is not solely a manifestation of metaphysical ideas; it is the living Body of Christ. The priests who appear so frequently in the stories are fully integrated into the life of the community; they are married and must look after their large families; they lead ordinary, if not mundane lives within that society; they carry out the given ecclesiastical rites and together with their flock form a cohesive, homogeneous body. Like shepherds, they lead their parishioners through valleys, over mountains, on perilous voyages in stormy seas, in order to reach a deserted country chapel and revive it by celebrating a liturgy, in the company of goatherds and illiterate chanters who recite the sacred texts as well as their flawed memory permits. These priests are not hermits, meditating alone in their cells; rather, their mission in life is to merge with that of the people, to give life to the community, to keep alive the memory of places threatened by extinction, to be witnesses to that unified reality which animates everything with the living breath of the Holy Spirit. The liturgy, the consummation of the eucharistic unity of the Church's flock — the work of the people — is never, as it often seems to be in western religious practice, a private matter between the priest and God: it must involve all the participants, as they clean and prepare the holy altar and the church, light the fires that will keep all warm during the long night vigils, lay out the liturgical vessels, chant the necessary hymns and responses, and, finally, partake of a common meal, an indispensable component of the liturgy, drinking and eating with hearty rejoicing.

All the elements that contribute to the naturally supernatural reality of this liturgical, sacramental, ever-present 'now', as recorded by Papadiamandis, survive in these sacred rites. They include pagan beliefs of a remote past, supernatural stories and fairy-tales that have been transmitted orally for generations and retold in the very places whence they arose; magic incantations, spells and charms that have even crept into liturgical practices and now form a seamless whole preserved within the life of the Church. The natural world forms a living part of the liturgical 'now'. The spirits of the past lurk and hide everywhere, the elements acquire an other-worldly aura: the moon, the stars, the Pleiades casting their faint light over the sea in the depth of the night; a rock emerging from the waters like a mysterious human figure; the translucent daylight, the animals, trees assuming the form of the nymph who inhabits them, the fruits of the earth, and a myriad of natural phenomena are all transformed in the liturgical cosmos of Papadiamandis. These are so vividly described that it becomes possible to behold in nature the sacred, indelible stamp of the Creator, whose life-giving breath, the holy aura that inspires everything with divine life, moves the natural world, both pagan and Christian, towards its eternal source.

If Papadiamandis insists on an elaborate description of the rites associated with this life, most of them of an ecclesiastical nature, it is not because he delights in recording forgotten or quaintly irrelevant rituals, but because he perceives them as the authentic expression of a collective practice that providentially unites earthly life with heavenly realities into which the people can still pour their souls and declare their instinctive desire for a traditional way of life. Whenever this sense of the breath of the Holy Spirit ceases to be acknowledged as the source of life, everything begins to disintegrate and is threatened with extinction, as described in the tragic story of 'Village Civilization'. Here the new ways that have been introduced into the island are the indirect cause of killing off, in an almost demonic way, its hope for the future — its children.

Papadiamandis was well aware of the universal presence and power of evil and knew that by no means can one attribute all ills to the advent of the new mores. In his determination to explore the dark depths of the human soul and its capacity for sin in the absence of God, he reveals the universal human predicament in the lives of the people and the social order he depicts, a literary achievement far beyond mere descriptions of a traditional way of life. Nor does he espouse the heedless idealization of traditional rural customs offered by many of his contemporaries who excelled in the ethnographic depiction of life, tinged with local colour. According to Papadiamandis, there are vestiges of human paganism that remain unredeemed by Christianity, just as there are ancient spirits lurking in the natural world. 'One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.'[3] It is interesting to note that all the heinous acts in his stories occur in the idyllic setting of Skiathos, while almost no crime is committed in the urban environment of alienation that one would more typically associate with Athens.

Papadiamandis's insistence on an authentic expression of reality — that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled[4] extends equally to the way he presents and describes characters, events, landscapes, the ever-changing sea, a newly-launched tall ship or a run-down boat. His characters emerge from the narrative as they are, not as they ought to be; they merge with life rather than imposing themselves on it; they are not subjected to ethical scrutiny, neither are they judged according to their merits or failures. Their greatest worth is their humanity. They are at one with their environment: in village and city, in Skiathos and in Athens, whether they are traversing the seas of the Aegean or braving the whims of wind and wave in little boats, they are natural extensions of the world they inhabit, necessarily involved in the ebb and flow of good and evil, the constant flux of life and death. They live, they do not simply cope with life. They assume fully their commitment to life, knowing with resigned equanimity that they must be subjected to both good fortune and calamity.

It is fair to say that the growing contemporary preoccupation with and re-evaluation of the work of Papadiamandis convey a measure of its relevance for our times. Nearly a century after his death (1911), his imaginative insight of the Greek way of life, his uncompromising attitude with regard to the dilemmas plaguing the newly-created nation on the threshold of modernity, his caustic humour directed against those who vitiated the traditional ways, and his unyielding defense of ancestral values and revealed truths would seem to have been sufficient reason a generation ago to relegate him to oblivion. The enduring relevance of his work today is a living proof of the persistent significance of its message.

[1] Lakis Proguidis, in his La conquete du roman – de Papadiamantis a Boccace, Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1997, places the work of Papadiamandis in the European tradition and convincingly argues in favour of his undisputed place among the literary giants of the West. Mohammed Dib argues along the same lines in Simorgh, Albin Michel, Paris, 2003, p. 239–47.

[2] The language question was officially sanctioned as a national issue after the creation of the modern Greek state following the 1821 War of Independence from the Turks. Ironically, it was Adamandios Korais, a philologist living in Paris and a fervent spokesman for the introduction of the ideas of the Enlightenment in the nascent state of Greece, who promoted the idea of purifying the language from vulgar words and expressions, with a view to correcting the colloquial speech of the people so they could conform to the noble image of their ancestors; for Korais believed that the modern Greeks were the descendants of their ancient compatriots. This initiated the movement for the 'purist' language, katharevousa. The populist movement on the other hand espoused the language of the people, demotiki, in which it discerned a living source of pure linguistic forms and poetic sensitivity. It was this language that was taken up by the national poet Dionysios Solomos, who admirably expressed its merits as a medium for revealing the truths inherent in the worldview of the Greek people. The language debate continued until the final decades of the twentieth century.

[3] Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, III, iii, 176-9.

[4] I John 1 : 1.

Lambros Kamperidis


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