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Neighbours, yet so far away



First of all, let me thank you for the invitation, and for your hospitality as well. It’s nice to be here today, it’s great to be back in Sofia, this very old, but at the same time very young and youthful European capital.

It is a sad thing that I’m not able to speak to you in your language. It is also sad that I can’t speak to you in my mother tongue either, that is in Greek. But this very fact is illustrating how great is the distance between us. We are neighbours, of course, we share a lot of the past, not to mention our European present, but a Bulgarian writer who understands Greek or vice versa is the rarest thing. What we are missing in this corner of the European continent and the Mediterranean Sea is a really common medium. Every time we are trying to get in touch, all of us have to translate ourselves into a foreign, third language. But English can never be this communication medium we are looking for; no international basics can play this role. Trade exchanges and political consultations are one thing, cultural contact is another. For the first a lingua franca is more than enough. Nevertheless, mutual understanding without immediacy, without direct access and deep knowledge is always something risky. A great deal is getting lost in translation anyway. Consider what happens when the translation is indirect.

My point is that we have to build from our geographical and historical neighbourhood, a cultural one. We have to bridge the distance. And if English or any other third tongue can not help us in this, we might find out that literature and poetry can.
Before I go on, let me try to explain what I mean with the word “distance”, for there are many kinds of distance. There is for example the geographical distance. If the maps are reliable, Bucharest is only 740 km away from Athens. Some 1200 km is the straight line distance between Nicosia and Sofia. Only 800 km are separating Rhodes from Ramallah and the West Bank. Even among countries that do not share common borders, the straight distance is surprisingly small. Between the northern tip of the Greek territory and the southern tip of Romania, there are no more than 250 km.
On the other side, the distance of our countries to Western Europe or to North America seems to be daunting. More than 2.400 km are separating Athens from London. Bucharest is almost 2000 km away from Paris. More than 7500 km are separating Sofia from New York.

Maps are not lying of course, but they don't say the whole truth either. If the physical distance, the distance of transport, communications and commerce, are these, in another crucial area, the area of cultural exchanges, the distances are inversely proportional. When it comes to literature, philosophical thought, the arts and human sciences, the distance between our cities and Western Europe, or even between them and the transatlantic metropolitan centres, is shrinking dramatically, is almost disappearing. And while some of our venerable scientific or artistic institutions could very well be located on the left bank of the Seine or the south bank of the Thames, (so close are they to the ideas which are born there), at the same time the banks of the Danube seem in our eyes that have been transferred "to the very edge of an improbable map" (Odysseus Elytis).

Let us think for a moment. What does the average, even the well informed, Greek reader know about the contemporary Bulgarian literature? Very few, I am afraid. What the average Greek knows very well is that many Greek enterprises, a lot of banks especially, are making good profit in the Balkan markets, in lands such as Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia. We also know that a lot of Bulgarian men and women have found a job in Greece on a temporary or permanent basis. Given our financial troubles, we can easily imagine that the direction of investments and migration might change in the years to come. We have only to wait and see. But when it comes to literature, our knowledge is very poor.

Of course, a couple of Bulgarian names are familiar to some of us: Tzvetan Todorov, Julia Kristeva. But wait a second, these authors write in French, don’t they? What about the Palestinian writers? Edward Said is the most famous name. Well, he wrote in English. And what do we know about the Romanian authors of the past century? Some names of course are well-known to everyone: Tristan Tzara for instance, the legendary leader of Dada and surrealism. He wrote in French. Eugene Ionesco, Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade. They all wrote in French or in English. Even Paul Celan, if  he was not the German-speaking poet he chose to become and remained loyal to Bukovina and the Romanian language instead, would be now nothing more than just another exotic name – like so many others.

No wonder, this is the fate of the so called “minor languages”. It is easier for a mediocre English or North American writer to have an international career than for the best and most talented Greek or Serbian one. Our literatures have been greatly influenced by the West European tradition, already from the Renaissance onwards. But only in very few cases they managed to compensate for this influence through influencing foreign writers in return, even if on a minor scale.

On the other hand, the encounter of our poets and writers with foreign literatures was not always without risk. They sometimes come out to lose their own voice through their attempt to adjust to the English, French or American standards. These phenomena, as I believe, do not appear only in Greece. In a very peculiar way, the geographic distance between our countries and the great western European or American centres seems to be minimized, but this applies only to our literary imports. When it comes to our literary exports, we find out that we have still the same long and tedious and uncertain way to go. If a Bulgarian or an Arab writer is to become known in Athens, he must first conquer the American or German book market, he has first to take Manhattan or Berlin. Rhodes, Ramallah, Sofia, our cities, our countries are neighbours on the map. But on the map of the arts and the ideas they remain still so far away.

My country, Greece, is getting through its worst crisis since WW II. It’s a very tough time for us and we will have to leave the crisis once and for all behind us, before we are able to face the future in a more optimistic way again. But even in this crisis, even under these circumstances, looking for solutions and asking ourselves how we could move on, I wouldn’t dare to compare our problems with the hard transition period, the Bulgarian and the Romanian people got through, in the early 90’s, in the years just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Our civil war lies some 60 years ago, many old Greeks might remember it and might still be suffering under its trauma. However, I personally lack the means to understand the enormous catastrophy the people of the West Balkans got through, during the war in the ex Yugoslavia some 20 years ago. And of course, none of us is neither able, nor dares to compare his personal experiences with the pain of the Palestinian or the Cypriot people during the last decades.

We might feel shocked, we might show our compassion too, in many different ways, but it’s not the same. Understanding is not an easy game to play, neither mentally nor sentimentally. Each of us, in his or her singularity tends to believe that his or her troubles are more or less unique. So we underestimate the pain of the others.
Literature can teach us the right thing. Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto – “I am human; therefore nothing human is strange to me”, the Romans used to say. The classic authors of all times always knew better.  The History of the Peloponnesian War of Thucydides tell us more about the war in ex Yugoslavia or Palestine than all the CNNs, all the News Channels of the world could ever do. César Birotteau, Balzac’s astonishing novel, tells us more about the debt and failure and bankruptcy of Greece than all economic manuals together. And if we, as guests, want to experience your way of life here in  Bulgaria and get the real feeling of Sofia, a city tour is not enough. On the contrary, we have to read your poets and novelists. If we want to reduce, if we want to eliminate the distance among us, the real distance this time, not the fictive distance of the maps, we have to take this way, we have to learn this common language.

In this context, the cultural programmes of the European Union, especially this very one of the European Commission,  the project “Meeting Cultures Between the Lines”, that brought us together this cold day of January, are a good opportunity to come closer. Ironically, also this way, from Athens to Sofia and from Cyprus to Palestine, goes through Brussels, but we have to accept it.  Now, as you know, E.U. has its own jargon, its own way of speaking and writing. Personally, I am not very fond of this ugly bureaucratic dialect. Words such as multiculturalism, diversity, dialogue etc. are all overused; apart from not being quite exact as well.

In my eyes, there is no culture in a singular form. There is no such thing as t h e culture or t h e literature. There is no such thing as cultural uniformity, too. There are only languages, cultures, literatures and traditions – in plural. Each of them is a reach, fachinating world that invites us to figure out its numerous sides and faces. At least we can try. As one of your great poets, Nikolay Kanchev, put it:

It is well-known of how many darknesses the darkness is made.
It is visible of how many lights the light is made.

Kostas Koutsourelis | Sofia, 19.1.2010