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Love and Death in
Taste of Bitter Almonds
An interview with the author Manos Kondoleon
by Poly Miliori
Athens, 20 May 1995
Taste of Bitter Almonds is the title of Manos Kondoleon’s most recent novel, which is part of the series “Presences” published by Patakis Editions.
“A poison makes it bitter”, says the author. “But the amount in one bitter almond does not kill you. It creates shock. And the desire to be careful of the next almond you eat.” However, one could say that the taste of bitter almonds brings to mind a certain smell, an association of sweetness and bitterness together, both dangerous and attractive. The longing of youth, sweet sin, yes and now. Something suspended in the air.
At this moment, Phaedra and Odysseus, the young protagonists of Manos Kondoleon’s book, are suspended in time between the childish yesterday and the adult tomorrow. Around eighteen. In modern Athens. Students. From middle-class families. With dreams of the future. With a lively participation in their present. They love science, art and people.
But as happens to almost all young people, and as happens in almost all novels, Phaedra and Odysseus are in love. They are at the age in which their bodies discover love, and the exchanges of the soul that take place through the body. But in present-day Athens, and indeed everywhere, young people must add to the inhibitions of earlier generations the fear of a disease that is truly a death sentence. They have to take AIDS into consideration.
AIDS doesn’t affect others only. It affects the people in Taste of Bitter Almonds. Odysseus’s previous girlfriend, Malvina, becomes ill. The young student learns that he is a carrier, after having made love with Phaedra. It affects his girlfriend and her parents, Odysseus’s father, Ayisilaos, and the reader of course, who sees the entire world of the novel in danger of disintegrating.
Love and life are victorious. Phaedra escapes the danger. Odysseus will go forward on the road that all people travel along. But as long as he lives, his life will be worthy of the name. Because that was the author’s decision.
In the interview that follows, Manos Kondoleon explains to us why he decided in this way. Why and how, in the story he narrates in Taste of Bitter Almonds, calm walks the tightrope with fear, humanity with racism, love with hate, love with death.
In your most recent book Taste of Bitter Almonds, at first glance, the subject is AIDS. This is its timely and rather commercial aspect. However, the protagonist is not the killer disease. Nor are Phaedra, Odysseus, Malvina, or their parents; they are the people who advance the action. I believe the theme is how existing human relations are judged when lightening falls on them. Do you agree with this reading?
Undoubtedly, the novel seems to be thematically based on AIDS. But although I had been thinking for some years of writing a novel on this subject, I knew that, if I ever did write it, I wouldn’t be able to portray the stages of the disease dramatically, but rather how its existence affects relationships between people.
The purely medical events and the ways in which these take place, not only are not my field of knowledge, but also (fortunately) are improving with each passing day. Human relations, however, have suffered and they can only with difficulty be brought back to their initial form, even if the problem that shaped them in a particular way has ceased to exist or to have the same intensity.
On the other hand, I didn’t want to see this disease as the scourge that strikes only certain social groups. For one thing, it’s not true, and besides, in our present-day society it is very difficult to find closed social groups. AIDS is a social scourge. It has a negative effect not only on our behaviour in love, but on our human relations more generally.
This was your intention, in other words, from the beginning. To see how this modern disease affects human relations.
Are we ultimately bound by these transformations? I mean perhaps there is no way to fight it? This was a question I asked myself, in a manner of speaking, when I started planning the novel. When it was finished I became aware that, if we have to fight it, first of all we must be prepared on the theoretical level..
We don’t wait for the disease to strike us. We have prepared ourselves to deal with it. Everybody is talking about and promulgating safeguards during the act of love. Perhaps something like this is in reality the only protection, irrespective of whether I believe that it is less tragic for young people to experience the joy of love through plastic wrappings and with the anxiety of a possible deficiency in some protective measure... But beyond this protection that affects our body, how are we to protect our mental health and our humanity?
My reply is unequivocal. By enhancing our human relations.
What did you, Manos Kondoleon, as a social person, not an author, think and feel about AIDS before writing this book? And how did the adventure of your heroes that were fighting AIDS in the pages of your book make you change your position?
Before I dared to start Taste of Bitter Almonds, two other authors were bolder than I and had already submitted their views as writers. Pericles Sphyridis in two short stories and Litsa Psarafti with her Egg of Echidna. Both of them – each in his or her own way – had focused on the social dimension of the disease. Reading their books, together with other contacts and information I received, helped me to form my own viewpoint. And I looked for ways of transferring this viewpoint from the theoretical level to the literary one. Years passed and I still hadn’t managed it. I once had the feeling that I was protected and that, for this reason, I approached the entire subject in a rather cerebral manner. You see, when you’re nearly fifty and you have a full conjugal relationship, you imagine that you are invincible to AIDS. Irrespective of whether this thought is full of holes... nobody is ever absolutely sure of anyone or anything. I had forgotten that I was also the father of two children. And suddenly my daughter finished senior secondary school, entered university, and began having more of a personal life, a life which I could not (nor would I have wanted to) control; on the other hand, one could not be absolutely uninterested. It was then that I understood that if I wanted to deal with AIDS I’d have to act as though it were outside my own door. I was... I am... and in fact all of us are, at any moment, potential victims.
As soon I saw things from this viewpoint, automatically I felt capable of writing the novel. My heroes had presented themselves to me, some of which talked to me and others waited to borrow my voice or the voice of people very close to me.
What was the relationship of the author with these particular people? Who are Odysseus, Phaedra, Angelos, Eleni, Ayisilaos, and Malvina?
I am certain that the characters in the novel are real living people. From the moment I conceived them, I knew, just as I knew when they were born, how each one of them grew up. Perhaps the most distant was Malvina – and for that reason, perhaps my favourite. It was decided in advance that Malvina would be sick, for reasons of writer’s economy. She was the only character I obliged to react in accordance with certain stereotypes, so that she could trigger the reactions of the others.
I am divided up among the other characters. I am the mother, Eleni, I am both fathers, Angelos and Ayisilaos.
It is of particular interest, that in this novel, as in others, while young people are the protagonists in the foreground, and therefore the reader expects that the viewpoint will be from the side of the young people in two-way issues, such as the parent-child relations, the author-narrator also sees through the eyes of his adult heroes. In this novel there are parts in which the narrator in the first person is Eleni, the mother, who in fact begins the book...
Yes, I’m Eleni, the mother. But strange as it may seem, I’m also18-year-old Odysseus. I wasn’t always fifty years old. I too was once a young man who deified love and I can tell you what an 18-year-old expected from love and sex, but also how he reacted when facing the formidable Eros.
Phaedra... I think that’s Anna, my daughter. She offered me a great deal of help. We had endless discussions, shaping our personal relations, at the same time she was helping me understand the behaviour of an eighteen-year-old girl. It is not accidental that I have dedicated the novel to her. This book brought us much closer together, however much we believed that we were already as close to each other as possible.
And finally I think that what some people regard as the disadvantage of the book, i.e. that AIDS as an event takes a long time to come into the plot, is rather an advantage. I wanted to describe relations and conditions, so that they took shape within a total life. And life always has surprises: pleasant, unpleasant and tragic. We have to be ready for everything.
And so AIDS is one of the tragic surprises.
As AIDS exists today, there was TB or syphillis yesterday, and perhaps there will be something else tomorrow. So we have to look at how we should react toward situations that require the marginalisation of erotic expression. Taste of Bitter Almonds proposes the transcendence of fear through a moral code. And finally I wanted to write a book that praised love and human relations, at the very moment when they seemed to be choked to death.
And so this then is finally the message that the reader is to get? Love? Human relations always exist. Even now, when they appear to be choked to death. The book has been published as part of the “Presences” series. So its readers, the receivers of this important message – the victory of love – are then young people.
The “Presences” series published by Patakis is my creation and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Stephanos Patakis publicly, as it was he who gave me the opportunity to create this series.
The series includes literary texts (only novels at the present time) written by modern writers both from Greece and abroad. The focal point of these novels is the modern young person, as he or she experiences or deals with significant or ordinary problems. Also, these works are written not just with the best possible literary form, but are also modern. In other words, they are texts which, although they can be read by any adult (and by readers who are more or less still in their childhood), they are clearly addressed to young adults.
You know this type of series is widespread abroad, not only that but the works they include are the best literary texts on the market. An effort is being made for some of these wonderful texts to be translated into Greek, and Presences includes some of them, such as for example the excellent works by Robert Cormiere I am cheese and The chocolate war, the very timely (this too about AIDS) Kites of Night, the ecological The Cry of the Wolf and many others. From the Greek side, the first text published as part of the series was The flea by Dimitris Spyros. Following Taste of Bitter Almonds will be novels by Nea Kokkinaki and Eleni Mantelou. The series is of course open to other Greek writers. I believe that it is worth seeing the problems of our young people in a literary way.
In terms of subject matter, or content, how is a series like Presences, or some isolated novels, defined as literature for young adults?
They say that as soon as young people enter senior secondary school, they stop reading literature. Of course they are having to cope with pressures on their time from their studies, but perhaps their distancing from reading is due to the fact that they can’t find modern texts that deal with their problems today. Because of course an adolescent and a young adult can read our classic writers and our modern ones. But in the texts of these otherwise marvellous books, they won’t find elements of themselves, so that this magic identity will take place between the reader and the hero of the novel.
I put Taste of Bitter Almonds in the Presences series because in this way I wanted to test myself in terms of the extremely interesting field of literature for young adults. The first results – I am talking about the reactions of my readers – are encouraging. The book has had an impact not only among young people and adolescents, but also among children and adults. Moreover, when I was writing it, I placed no limitation on my forms of expression. I think that I would write exactly the same novel, even if it were my intention to include it in a series of modern Greek literature.
This is an occasion for you to comment on one of the open issues of literature for children and young adults. Is it true or false that the motivation of some writers who address young readers is primarily pedagogical? That, in other words, it is their intention to impose a given view of the world, or do you believe that children’s literature is simply an open proposal to investigate the truth, as each writer sees it?
I firmly believe that literature for children and young people can exist only if it is precisely, as you so beautifully described it, an open proposal to investigate the truth. And I’d like to add: and to search for beauty.
Now, the fact that texts with more of a pedagogical than literary aim are written and published is a fact that, in my view, exists, as some adults have the tendency to overprotect the child.
Isn’t there some self-censorship among writers of literature for children?
Certainly. When you are writing for children, you are careful not of what you say, but of how you say it. Especially in books that are addressed mainly to children of around 12 years old, you have to be careful when writing to stress the optimistic side of life (which one way and another exists), and not to hurt (why should a writer become an executioner?) and certainly to language that avoids excess - aren’t the most significant works written in a simple language?
And finally I wouldn’t say the author who writes for children is self-censored, but that he exercises self-control in perhaps a larger number of ways than other writers.
Do you, the writer Manos Kondoleon, control yourself, then with in of the above ways, when writing for children?
Yes, with such criteria. I write various books but I also write as a critic. Moreover, it is for these stances that my readers read me. I mean there are people who think that certain books, both mine and those of other authors, are difficult for children and for that reason uncommercial, which means that many people do not choose to read them. Wrong. Even a book as structurally and conceptually “advanced” as No 33 has won the affection of the public. Children demand honesty. And it would be good for some critics to know this, who not only try to downgrade Greek production, suppressing its books, but also scorn writers who dare to speak in the language of honesty.
Anyway, and let’s finish with this topic, for me, a good book of children’s literature is first literature and then children’s.
Let’s go back to Taste of Bitter Almonds and to its themes. We agree that human relations are its main subject, and particularly for this age group, relations with the opposite sex, relations with parents, and friendships as well. How are they portrayed and how are these relations developed – with the opposite sex, with parents, with friends – for each one of the young characters in the book?
I am one of those who believe in the significant role played by love in our life. And this is true of everybody, especially for those who are living in the time of their youth. I also believe that a large part of the family and social upbringing of children is such as to prepare them for the role of lovers. Perhaps that’s why very frequently our erotic expressions are falsified, distorted or buried. Other parameters of upbringing, based on other pedagogical objectives, attempt to reduce the intensity of Eros.
In this book, I was especially interested in Phaedra’s dream, which prepared her for making love. It was a dream that “legalises” the contact with symbols of marriage.
Whatever we do, love determines our life. This is why AIDS, apart from its deadly nature, has one more terrible attribute: it strikes at our most human point, making love.
But it also affects relations within the family. Since these, of course, are so strong at your heroes’ critical age.
I’m a great believer in the importance of the family. I grew up in a warm family home. It was important for me to be able to create substantial relationships with the other members of the family, my wife and children. These relations – and you too know this very well – are created through constant struggle and require constant vigilance. I would like to believe that on a personal level I have succeeded, at least I have tried as hard as I could.
When I started getting into the climate of Taste of Bitter Almonds I mobilised all my experience and offered it to my heroes. The heroes of my novel have real and essential relationships between them. They may not live under ideal circumstances, but they do build a humane everyday life. This is why they are genuine parents, genuine children, genuine friends, genuine lovers – genuine in the ethical sense of the word. They have ethos. Their relations – yes, these everyday relations – can have an ethos.
I’d like you to present Malvina in the light of her relations with men.
Ah, Malvina. You know that we men, even subconsciously, are attracted by women who might be described as, and even become, femmes fatales. And I can tell you something else. Woe to the man who in his youth never knew such a woman. He will search all the rest of his life to find her, and if he finds her at the age of about forty something...
For many women too, in life and literature both, fatal men have been found, Mr. Kondoleon! Should I remind you of Anna Karenina? But your Malvina proved to be literally “fatal” for Odysseus...
Yes, for Odysseus this relationship was indeed lethal. And as a father, I would certainly not dare recommend to my son that he find even for one day his own Malvina...as I can state in all honesty that I would not want to have a daughter like Malvina... I’d be afraid... what can I say? Perhaps this is the conservatism of the parent.
Can I believe my ears? Kondoleon, a male chauvinist?
I understand that all this sounds somewhat anti-feminist. But in my view it’s not. You know very well how much I respect women, and how much I believe in the equality of the sexes. And perhaps, I just thought of this, that it would be of particular interest to write Taste of Bitter Almonds again, changing the sex of all my heroes. Then we could see how all these relations function and our thoughts about them...