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

by Alexandros Papadiamandis

Introduction by Lambros Kamperidis

“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. —OCIC Ed.

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 idées reçues 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.

Lambros Kamperidis, May 2007

Endnotes

  1. Lakis Proguidis, in his La conquête du roman—de Papadiamantis à 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 Koraïs, 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 Koraïs believed that the modern Greeks were the descendants of their ancient compatriots. This initiated the movement for the ‘purist’ language, katharévousa. 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.
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Biographical Note

Alexandros Papadiamandis was born on 4th March 1851 on the small island of Skiathos just off the north-east coast of Euboea, so named because the shadow—skiá—of the northerly great holy mountain of Athos cast by the rising sun stretches across the Aegean as far as the island. His father, the priest Adamandios Emmanuel—familiarly addressed as Papa-Diamandis—came from a nautical family which in earlier years had counted monastics and abbots amongst its members. His mother, Angeliki, was the daughter of Alexandros Moraïti who belonged to one of Skiathos’s land-owning families and after whom he was named. His parents had nine children, two of which died at birth. Alexandros was their fourth child and eldest living son.

The young Alexandros had a diverse and interrupted education. He was schooled on his island until the age of eleven but as there were no further classes offered he spent the next three years mainly helping his father in his pastoral duties. In 1865 he was sent to the high school on the nearby more affluent island of Skopelos. He was given the grade of A for that year and described by his teacher as ‘entirely praiseworthy’, but because of his family’s economic difficulties he had to interrupt his schooling and return to Skiathos. The following year, in 1867, his parents were able to send him to the gymnasium in Chalkis, the capital town of Euboea, which he attended for two years, and for his third year he went to the gymnasium in Piraeus, but in February of 1870, after only four months at the Piraeus school, he left and returned to Skiathos.

In 1872 he travelled to Mount Athos with a childhood friend, who was later to become a monk, the one referred to as Niphon in his story ‘The Monk’, where they stayed until the end of the year. It is understood that Papadiamandis seriously considered joining a monastery at that time but he nevertheless returned once more to his island. The following year, after taking preliminary examinations, he was enrolled in the fourth class of the Varvakeio gymnasium of Athens from which he graduated in 1874, and then registered at the Philosophical School of the University of Athens. He attended the University for two years and one of his professors remarked on him being regularly present at lectures, but he was never to obtain his degree. It was during this period that his cousin, Alexandros Moraïtidis, introduced him into various journalistic circles.

In 1877 he was recruited into the army in which he briefly served until being given a deferment as a student even though he was no longer attending the university but struggling to earn a living as a journalist and writer. Papadiamandis experienced great economic difficulties during this period and frequently had to ask for money from his father.

Following the recommendation of one of his new journalistic acquaintances, Vlasios Gavrielidis, Papadiamandis’s first novel, a work of some 50,000 words entitled The Migrant, was printed in instalments in the Constantinopolitan newspaper Neologos in 1879. He was conscripted again in September of 1880, served until July of the following year, and not long after being released from the army his first literary work to be published in Greece, a poem entitled ‘Supplication’, appeared. A year later a more substantial second novel, The Merchants of the Nations, began to be published, again in instalments, in the Athenian newspaper Mi Hanesai, and at the same time Papadiamandis started to work as a translator for the Ephimeris newspaper. Two years later, in 1884, his longest novel, The Gypsy Girl, a work of more than 130,000 words, was published in Gavrielidis’s newspaper, The Acropolis, and the following year his novel Christos Milionis was printed in the literary journal Estia.

It wasn’t, however, until Christmas of 1887 that Papadiamandis’s first short story—The Christmas Loaf— was to appear, marking the feast and setting a pattern for his writing. The métier of the short story subsequently became his favoured form, and no doubt it was an easier form for him to accommodate within his inordinately long working days at various newspapers. Many of these hours were spent in translating major European novels, such as Crime and Punishment, Quo Vadis, Dracula, and The Manxman, which appeared in daily instalments, as well as numerous short stories by such writers as Chekhov, Bret Harte and Jerome K. Jerome, in addition to translating works of non-fiction. He relieved the incredible strain he subjected himself to by frequenting wine shops and chain-smoking but these all too human habits did not prevent him from regularly attending church services in which he acted as chanter and beadle.

It was in 1887 that he found what could be described as his spiritual bolt-hole in the turbulent and often harsh world of the metropolis: the small church of the Prophet Elisha, set in the courtyard of a private house in the old part of the city, under the rock of the Acropolis. There Papa-Nicholaos Planas, a simple priest born in the same year as Papadiamandis, a man of prayer and of great spiritual gifts, would regularly hold vigil services, gathering people from all walks of life into the crucible of the little church. Papa-Nicholaos was canonized in 1992.

Papadiamandis never married. He was a shy and retiring man, as the few extant photographs of him testify, a man seemingly not of this world despite his acute observations of it. He also had to provide for his unmarried sisters at home. But despite his introspective nature he had a small circle of close friends, including Pavlos Nirvanas and Yiannis Vlachoyiannis, well-known Athenian men of letters who at various times undertook the role of literary agents and helped him during hard times.

Except for two years when he returned to Skiathos, 1902-4, during which time he wrote his perhaps most powerful tale, The Murderess, a short novel about an old woman who thought it better to kill female infants so they should not have to endure the tribulations that life brings upon women, he continued to live in Athens, writing and translating, until 1908. That year, in March, the Parnassos literary society held an event in his honour under the patronage of Princess Maria Bonaparte: typically Papadiamandis was not present and spent the evening dining with the family of his grocer friend. But despite this recognition and the popularity of his stories, it would seem that none of his own writing was published in book form during his lifetime.

Shortly afterwards he returned to Skiathos where he lived from then on, cared for in turn by his sisters. In the winter of 1910 he fell ill with a severe chest infection, and died on 2nd January 1911 after having chanted the troparion of the forthcoming feast of Epiphany.

From the Introduction to The Boundless Garden: Selected Short Stories, Volume I, by Alexandros Papadiamandis (Limni, Evia, Greece: Denise Harvey (Publisher), 2007), pp. xiii-xv, xx-xv. This book is distributed in North America by Uncut Mountain Supply. Posted March 22, 2008 with the permission of the publisher. See also this important book on Papadiamantis from the publisher who brought you Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit.