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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

Europe in My Prose and My Theatrical Work

Panos Ioannides
Traduction de Atreas Tsiflakos

Texte intégral

H Ευρώπη είναι η κοιτίδα του σύγχρονου
ανθρωποκεντρικού πολιτισμού. Θεμέλιός του λίθος η
Πρωταγόρεια ρήση “πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον άνθρωπος

1The question we have been called upon to answer at this conference, the way I understand it, could be put like this: what is the core of our literary work and how is it expressed in terms of topic, questioning, form, and structural material?

2In order to answer this question properly, I sought the elements that constitute Europe, apart from the geographical region and the peoples who reside there. From my list, I have singled out as most important the following three: history, religion, and culture.

3Having specified my objectives and defined my coordinates, I will examine these questions through the spectroscope of my own work. But, before doing so, I feel the urge to attempt a brief historical retrospective. I consider this essential for those of my readers — and I presume there will be many — who are not completely familiar with Cyprus.

4The island has been populated since the fourteenth century B.C. by the Achaeans and other Greek tribes, which brought with them their languages, cultures, and religion — the twelve gods of Olympus. According to mythology, the goddess of beauty and eros-love, Aphrodite (Venus), or Cypris, was born in Cyprus. It is also known that for many centuries celebrations and mystical religious festivities were held in honor of this goddess, attracting visitors from all neighboring countries.

5In Cyprus Christianity was taught by the Apostle Paul and his travel companion, the equal-apostle, Barnabas, the Cypriot from Salamis, beginning in the year 45 AD.

6Due to its geographical position and rich natural resources, the island had always fallen prey to plunderers from the East, such as Persians, Arabs, and Turks, but also to many Western European kingdoms or knightly orders. Throughout the entire period of the Middle Ages, the latter occupied the island as a maritime base-of-operations for the Crusades and a huge protective shield against Asian invaders. They exploited its key position and its riches and enslaved its native Greek inhabitants. In ancient times, Cyprus was occupied, in chronological order, by the Egyptians, the Persians, and the Romans. During the Middle Ages it became a Byzantine province, which was then occupied by English crusaders, the Naites, the Hospitallers, the French Lusignans, the Genoese, and the Venetians. In 1453 it was conquered by the Turks, who retained sovereignty over the island until 1878, when they sold it to the British. During the four centuries of Ottoman sovereignty a Turkish minority emerged, which has remained on the island since then and, by 1974, had come to comprise eighteen percent of the native population. After two centuries of British dominion, and as a result of the liberation struggle of the EOKA (National Organization of Cypriot Fighters), Cyprus won its independence in 1960. Then came the secessionist mutiny of the Turkish Cypriots in 1964, the creation of a small pseudo-state in occupied northern Cyprus in 1974 following the coup of the Athenian junta against President Makarios, which the Turks used a pretext for invasion, occupying approximately forty percent of our territory, a state of affairs that continues to weigh heavily upon Cyprus.

7The recent European Union summit meeting, held in Copenhagen on December 13, sanctified incorporation of the Republic of Cyprus, for now simply the free Greek-Cypriot region, into the EU. So the century of discordant relations between the island and Europe at large has come to a happy end.

8During its twenty-five centuries of recorded history, Cyprus has kept its Greek language, religion, and identity intact. Despite the tragic events and the inhuman conditions its population has endured, Cypriot culture never ceased to evolve and develop. There were chroniclers from ancient and Byzantine times, medieval poets, such as Stasinos the mythical father-in-law of Homer, philosophers, such as Zinon Kitieus, the founder of Stoicism, the chroniclers Leontios Mahairas and George Voustronios, the unknown medieval poet, who composed flawless, erotic Petrarchan sonnets, the first in the Greek language, Constantinos Eusevis Anagnostis, who wrote the Circle of Passion, one of the oldest and most important Byzantine mystical works. And there are a lot more, older and contemporary, writers and scholars, who, having produced a significant literary corpus in the Greco-Roman tradition, have marked the cultural map of Europe with a Cypriot stamp.

9This long and turbulent history and the recent violent upheaval and attendant sociopolitical changes that we Cypriots have experienced over the past years, especially since the beginning of the liberation struggle and territorial claims of the Turkish Cypriots, have served as an important source for my themes. The plays, Thy Were Killed for the Light, Fotinos, Onisilos, The Ventriloquists, Petros A, Mass/Liturgy For Kyriakos Matsis, as well as the stories contained in the collections In the Aerial Cyprus and Cronaca I and II, all refer to the period I have mentioned. I deal with the a priori doomed efforts of the Cypriots to gain their rights and freedom, either through peaceful means or gunfire. I simultaneously gain comfort from the prosperity and the Sybaritism of our Eastern and Western conquerors and share the misery imposed on the natives: “My daughter, my Arkyri, was exchanged by her master, porno-Mostris, for three oxen and a bond, written and sealed, for her new master Count Montolif to give her back to her old master in case she becomes a widow,” complains a common woman, in Petros A, which refers to the Frankish domination of the twelfth century.

10The language used by the protagonist in the metrical play Fotinos is different. Being a prisoner of the Turks, the young hero, nailed on a rock like a new Prometheus, advises his fellow prisoners:

We don’t beg for what is rightfully ours
to stand up for our own home
this is the right we claim
once we feel free and worthy
of the freedom we demand. And willing we are,
for the future of our descendants,
to spare our own miserable today.

11In addition to the riots in the name of freedom, I devote many pages to the conflicts of the native and foreign inhabitants of the island with the Eastern invaders, the Turks, the Saracens, the Mamelukes — in other words, the whole Islamic world of those days, which devastated not only Cyprus, but also many European countries. Being inexperienced in war, the Cypriots are called forth, dragged violently into combat in which they are slaughtered in defense of the throne.

12I am also accustomed to developing history in other ways, for example, by seeking people and events that have obvious similarities to current people and situations. I have no difficulty in finding these people and events, which very often seem to be reincarnated from one millennium to another, in order to underscore some eternal realities.

13Reading about the mythical archpriest and king of Pafos, Kinyras, who lived during the Trojan War, I detected astonishing similarities with the sociopolitical and religious aims of the Archbishop Makarios, first President of Cyprus, also from Pafos. In my attempt to comment on Makarios’ life and work objectively, I wrote a novel for Kinyras, trying to link the distant past with the present. These are its first lines:

The Archpriest King of Pafos played with his beard and smiled to his interlocutor. This is one more thing that characterizes a true leader. The ability to replace, when necessary — and it is necessary often enough — policy with fluency and consistency with generosity. Talthyvios, Agamemnon’s ambassador, may not have yet agreed with his recommendation to have a bath, rest, meet the new priestesses in the temple of Aphrodite or the cheerful adolescent from Phoenicia before he presents all the disagreeable reasons that brought him to Cyprus, but he could not have guessed the deepest thoughts of Kinyras. He waved to have the cups refilled ... The wine of Pafos, he thought, is more intoxicating for the foreigners than for the locals. Why shouldn’t he use this very wine now, to prevent, while he can, Talthyvios from indicating that neither the treaties nor the libations can be lapsed?”

14The tragicomic development of the myth, the way Robert Graves presents it, and of course my own novel’s development, in spite of all the differentiations, having the benefit of poetic license, justifies the effectiveness of the political philosophy and the pragmatic of the two immortal Kinyras, reminding us of Elliot’s classic verse from the “Four Quartets”: “Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future.” I have also attempted to perform similar connections, between General Grivas Digenis’ revolution of 1955–59 and a medieval rebel farmer, Rigas, or “Wolf,” Alexis, who engaged in the same romantic and heroic foolery as the general. Rigas Alexis, who was hanged by the Franks, dragged down to hecatombs of innocent Cypriots. George Grivas, involuntarily, due to his arrogant patriotism, brought on the coup, which brought about devastation. These millennia-long connections can only be made in countries with great historical depth; this is why I consider it to be a characteristic of the art of the old, much more than the new, world. Robert Graves in I Claudius, Jean Anouilh in Antigone, Margueritte Yourcenar in the Memoirs of Adrianos, and many other European writers performed similarly formidable strides towards a “perpetual” past, of course with their own, unique targets.

15The second principle European element I am dealing with is religion. Like History, religion holds an important place in my work. Both the twelve gods of Olympus and, mainly, Christianity, can be largely found in the story Kinyras and in the plays Thy Were Killed for the Light and Onisilos. The protagonist in one scene of Thy Were Killed for the Light is the Apostle of all nations, Paul, who commenced his mission of Christianizing Europe from the small island of Cyprus. The first European citizen baptized by Paul was the Roman Proconsul of Cyprus, Sergios Paul.

16Both in sociopolitical and religious terms, the rivalry between the Cypriots and the European conquerors in the Middle Ages was intense, because they were both Christians. The conquerors were Roman Catholic and the conquered Orthodox. However, the Vatican, throughout the Middle Ages, had the unrelenting aim of imposing Catholicism by any means. This arbitrariness elicited the resistance of the Cypriots, sometimes through peaceful means, at other times through war and struggle. They both resulted in torment and death. This revolution is preserved in the chronicles of Leontios Machairas and took place during the rule of King Pierre de Louisinian I, known as Roi Pierre. It is mentioned in my homonymic play. The Commander of Nicosia, Sir Jean Viskountis, writes in the Haut Cour:

Riots broke out in the capital, outside the Cathedral. The Legatos of the Pontiff and the Monsenieur imprisoned ... the Cypriot Bishops. If they wish to retake their bishopric, they should agree to be subject to the Holy See. The orthodox refused, so the papists have been inflicting upon them the torments of hunger and thirst, for days and days on end. Dometios Salaminiotis, who dared to talk back, had his palms and soles and all the openings of his body parched.

17Such scenes of intolerance and cruelty are also found in the play Thy Were Killed for the Light and the story Gregorios and Euthimios. Nevertheless, there are also moments of reconciliation between the conqueror and the enslaved Cypriots. Roi Pierre de Lousinion fell in love with the humble freed Cypriot woman, Aradafnousa. Their love affair was turned into a folk song and a fairy tale. It also inspired sociopolitical reforms for the benefit of his enslaved subjects. Here are a few lines from the love confession of the Frankish governor to Aradafnousa taken from my play Petros the First:

The petty man you see, not Roi Pierre, but a simple man, if you want him fair and prudent, save young Aradafnousa for him ... If you want me wise, sympathetic, not tyrannical and tax enforcing, give me your love. Otherwise, if you leave me, I swear to God, my fierceness will be the most hideous and repulsive in the years to come ...

18Queen Eleanor d’Aragon, with the assistance of her lover and other courtiers, kills Aradafnousa. The king becomes insane from the torment and violently takes as mistresses the wives and the daughters of those who took part in the crime. He throws in the dungeons and puts to death hundreds of Franks and Cypriots. Furious at that insult and the reforms he had performed, the queen and the knights conspire against him and kill him. Even this love story ends up in a blood bath. Allow me to mention that this story inspired George Seferis to write the Demon of Harlotry.

19Let us now examine the third major European constituent that we noted at the outset: the universal theory, the intellectual and ideological basis of the perennial European, as well as the manner and the extent to which this can be found in my writing.

20Europe is the cradle of modern humanist civilization. Its foundation stone lies in the saying of Protagoras: “Man is measured above all in money.” Along with it the values and rights man embraces are of great significance, for these he has struggled and sacrificed himself: political and religious freedom, democracy, equality, justice, respect for human life, and the right to be different. In other words, whatever was taught by the Greco-Roman civilization. Christianity, before weakening into dogmas, Roman legislators, Justinian with his Civil Code, and numerous other contemporary European philosophers and writers. These values comprise the ideological pattern of my works and are externalized either as clear, visible aims of “enlightened men” or as their absence and the instinctive search for them by the common man, whom I de-scribe.

21At the same time, in both my prose and plays, my attention is drawn to the barbarity of today’s “civilized society,” whose only difference, compared to the Middle Ages, is its superficial sophistication, the loneliness and alienation by the Epicurean and Sybaritic lifestyle as expressed by uncontrolled overconsumption, power and its relation to the individual, the position of art — if art has a place in the age of internet and the modern mass media that flattens everything. An identity at a personal and collective level, the cheapening of values and so on. Everything, in other words, that my compatriots and I have lived through in all these years on our island and in the neighboring, tragic Middle East, outdistanced, for the most part, compared to the rest of Europe, which already lived through and overcame these ordeals about a half century ago.

22So these are the motifs, illuminated either on their dark or bright side, that permeate my work. The guerrillas, heroes of the short story “Gregory” to which I referred at the beginning, by putting their lives at stake, place their friendship and compassion above socalled “national duty.” Onysilos and Kyriakos Matsis, in the homonym theatrical, sacrificed themselves in order to set an example, to create a symbol. The thirteen orthodox monks of Kantaras, by refusing to espouse Catholicism, suffered the torment of being bound from the tails of the papal horses, dragged along a riverbank, and burnt at the stake. They went through all this fully aware that their actions would strengthen orthodoxy on the island. Roi Pierre, whose love for the humble Cypriot girl led to generous reforms, pays a heavy penalty for his political courage. The solitary hero of “The Meal,” who believes that if he exposes his body to the bright light of the day he will be transformed and gain Faust’s gift of youth, continues his experiments in complete isolation despite the fact that he ends up being a laughing stock. The simple foot soldier in “The Silent Infantry-man,” who, hurt by the cruelty of people, isolates himself for decades in a mountain cavern, is eventually defeated by silence and loneliness, thus he abandons his dark cave to seek human company. The low-ranking priest in “The Literate Man,” who plunges to his death from the archbishop’s balcony, underscores, through his suicide, his repulsion towards hypocritical piety. Kriton Stefanis, the hero of the story “The Bath,” is tormented by feelings of remorse and guilt due to his avarice, which made him fleece many people as a wholesale merchant of medicine, now in the twilight of his life, locks himself in the bathroom for eight hours a day, trying to rinse himself of the imaginary filth that distresses him.

23Here are some of the recurring motifs of my work, none other than the quintessence of my experience, which we, as Cypriots, have endured over the last decades. Similar experiences can surely be found in the works of hundreds of European writers of the by-gone years or even in those of the contemporary ones, but also in the works of fellow craftsmen from nearby or more remote “neighborhoods of our world.” This is because, in final analysis, the terms “Europe” and “European” not only define the specific geographical area and its history, but something bigger and wider: they define man himself.

24Concluding this essay and apologizing for its omissions and imperfections (I have never been an essayist or critic), I would like to add a couple of words about the method of writing, the structure, aesthetics, and language employed in my work.

25I attempt to make my narration simple and coherent in its meaning. Many critics call it modernistic and elliptical, whatever these terms may mean. Perhaps the avoidance of verbiage in some parts of my novel Census and in a number of short stories in which words and sentences are abused and the straightforward narration is interrupted. I frequently attempt a deep introspection inside the consciousness, obeying the call of psychoanalysis. At other times, being a secret worshipper of poetry, I replace prose with a more substantial and succinct poetic word.

26In the novels The Unbearable Patriotism of P.F.K. and Census, I invert normal narrative conventions. In the plays Counterpoint and Key Made of Nacre, I interweave reality with a dream or a night-mare and realism with allegory and metaphysics. In the satirical play Leontios and Smyrna, my hero first disguises himself and is eventually transformed internally and literally into a centaur. The metrical description belongs to his mistress:

Leontios Leontiou, of the Immortal parentage,
Robust centaur, fully mature,
More than the Earth’s navel, a wise man,
Poet Laurel-crowned and sacred,
As for the rest,
From the loins to the foot
A very rare specimen of a vigorous bull.

27The structure of much of my prose is that of the theater. In this I am prompted by my love for the theatre, with its strong Hellenic-European roots. Indeed, after I have completed and published a story, I often rewrite it as a play, looking into its new potentials. Many of my plays emerge in this way.

28My language is multifaceted. I use a vocabulary originating from all “branches” of the Greek language: ancient, Byzantine, medieval, and of course the modern spoken language. Thus, I strengthen my efforts at the extension of myth into the eternity I always pursue. Neither do I hesitate to use words of foreign origin, the remnants of Frankish, Turkish, and English occupations, which have found their way in the Cypriot culture.

29To conclude, I would like to say, that I give myself the right to fulminate and inveigh against every evil, by using satire, sarcasm, and self-criticism. I do this perhaps more frequently than the small Cypriot community would permit me to, and as a result, I once became the object of fierce criticism, and my life was even threatened on one occasion. I believe that such methods are familiar to European writers. The above-mentioned technique started with Aristophanis and Meandros and went on to Plautus and Poplios Terence, reaching its peak with Molière, Chekhov, Gogol, and others, and arrives at our own times, revived and enriched.

30Summing up, I would like to add that in all my work, my prose, drama, and poetry, I try, using the heretical words of literature, to compose a modern fresco on which the current sociopolitical reality of Cyprus, but not only of Cyprus, is imprinted, a fresco whose ideal seal is nothing more than the anguished quest for a world ruled by the very values that give man substance and identity.


Further Reading:
Panos Ioannides. Cyprus PEN Publications, 1995.

Table des illustrations

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Born in Famagusta, Cyprus in 1935, the writer, essayist and playwright Panos Ioannides studied at the Pancyprian Lyceum. He worked as a journalist and a civil servant. In 1967 he won a scholarship to Syracuse University in the United States and then taught sociology and communication at York University, Toronto. From 1955 until 1995 he worked for the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation, ultimately as head of television and radio programs. Panos Ioannides is president of the Cyprus Pen Club. He has been awarded several prizes for his fiction and plays.

Atreas Tsiflakos (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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