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The Beggar , by Andreas Karkavitsas

The Beggar (UNESCO collection of representative works) - Andreas Karkavitsas, Translated by William Wyatt


The plain of Thessaly.



Odysseus as a conniving, vengeful beggar with the moral sense of a cockroach - this is the antihero of Andreas Karkavitsas' (1865 - 1922) Ο ζητιάνος (The Beggar, 1896/7), which is apparently the first novel written entirely in demotic Greek. After preferring the purist kathareuousa prior to around 1892, Karkavitsas published a collection of his earlier stories prefaced by a rejection of the language in which they were written(!):(*)


But if not because they belong to the past, yet it were better that these stories remain forever in deathly silence because of their language. It is an embalmed language: a language which a number of clever people, instead of leaving it in its venerable coffin, have raised up and given a little life, and with the crutches in their hands, with spiders and the dust of ages, have set in motion to take them limpingly and haltingly back to the age of Lucian and Xenophon. 




I confess that often while I was making corrections in the proof and saw my entire past in false clothing and suppositions I yearned never to have written these works. 


Karkavitsas was a physician who wrote fiction strongly influenced by French naturalism, and he gives us a full dose of misérabilisme in this story of beggars and poor, ignorant, superstitious villagers in the outer reaches of Thessaly, a region which had only recently been regained from the Turks and to which Karkavitsas had been posted.(**) Recalling Odysseus' return to Ithaca disguised as a beggar, his murderous intent - savagely carried out - and his legendary cunning, Karkavitsas' antihero, Tziritokostas (henceforth Kostas), is at least a distant relation to the Homeric hero.




Mount Olympus



Karkavitsas describes the humble lives at the feet of Mt. Olympus with much naturalistic detail, and aims a nonnegligible amount of sarcasm at the corruption of every official all the way down to the court stenographer, and at the faked infirmities and woeful fables of the beggars, who, their mendicants' journeys in filthy rags completed and their purses full, return to their home villages, change into decent clothes, shave and bathe, and then proudly strut down to the square to tell of their successes. He also focuses his ire on the unfortunate fact that, because the Greek government had guaranteed the economic rights of the former Turkish beys for political reasons, the Thesallian peasants were the prey of both Greek and Turkish big shots.


Into this setting comes the larger than life figure of Kostas, who, though he somehow is able to appear as a feeble old man begging to eat for the first time in five days, is a guileful, ruthless and powerful man with "arms of iron and steely muscles and strong shoulders, the neck of an ox and the strength of a bull," who is willing to take a savage beating from a much smaller man in order to obtain a somewhat larger handout from the ultimately rueful assailant. Nonetheless, he never forgets a wrong done against him and, whenever advantageous, adds another to the long list of murders in his account. He trusts no one and manipulates everyone; nothing is excluded if it leads to some concrete gain; even if the gain is worthless, it still enters the great book of Kostas Takes Another Mark. 


People die and lives are crushed as the villagers do their worst at Kostas' behest and all the vultures/the servants of the powerful descend upon them. 


Though rich with realistic detail and miserable lives, The Beggar is written in a heightened prose style that allows deliberate exaggeration, irony, even a kind of early magical realism at the advent of the new Beggar King, Kostas:


The revered countenance of the elders who formed The Twelve of the village council shuddered in wonder and joy at this new star which was rising brilliantly to illumine their fatherland. The bones of Pelalomoutres, Kalligopsilles, Pastrogonias, which were buried deep in slumber in the courtyard of the Church of the Virgin, wearied with the weight of their many journeyings and their immense reputation, stirred, coffin and all, when they heard the new beggar who was coming to eclipse their memory. And even the beggars' staffs which were hung on the walls of the houses shook with an almost religious excitement, wondering which of them might be honored to accompany the new prince of rogues on his first journey.




One of the cliff-hung monasteries at Meteora, Thessaly.


The edition I read was supplied with extensive notes "designed for the most part to answer geographical and historical questions," as well as an informative Appendix by P.D. Mastrodemetres which provides biographical information on Karkavitsas and describes the context of 19th century Greek literature. Karkavitsas and Alexandros Papadiamantes (whose The Murderess and Tales from a Greek Island I recently reviewed) are apparently the most important representatives of a literary movement during the years 1880 - 1920 known as ethography, a mixture of naturalism, realism and Greek folk customs. The regard in which the Greeks hold Karkavitsas is indicated by the existence of no fewer than three series of Collected Works available in Greek.


(*) Elsewhere




I have briefly discussed the controversy concerning the literary language of the new Greek state that emerged after more than a decade of inept and deadly armed rebellion against the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 19th century (very nicely described in Greek War of Independence: The Struggle for Freedom from Ottoman Oppression).


(**) Due to an intervention by the Great Powers in 1881.