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Interview with Manos Kondoleon
By Yannis Papadatos
Yannis Papadatos: Let’s start our conversation with an observation. You use a different narrative technique in most of your books, which number more than 30. And you are developing constantly, in terms of both style and subject matter. Do you have any comments about this?
Manos Kondoleon: I believe absolutely in the close, immediate relationship between an author’s daily life and his work. As a man, then, although I may look like a low-key person, I am nevertheless full of passions and dreams, contradictions and insecurities. All these elements, i.e. my social identity, exist and determine my work as a writer. I like digging around, doubting what I’ve gained and then going ahead, surprising people, even shocking them. The many faces of a human being, the multiple expressions of an author.
Y.P. You have written books for young and old, but at the same time you have a strong presence in writing critiques and reviews. Could you point out the main milestones in your work?
M.K. It is very difficult for a writer to single out specific milestones, but I’d say that the major watersheds in my work appeared somewhere around the end of the 1980s. That is, when my novels No. 33, Two of them and the other two, I decided to kill Ermolaos, and a little later, Dominic were published, as well as Magic Mother and Love stories from childhood, which are collections of short stories. I also consider one of the main milestones to have been Taste of bitter almonds, a novel which, because it was so popular, paved the way for me to write the most integrated milestone in my career as a writer, which is my recent book Mask on the Moon.
Y.P. I’d like to suggest another two: Aspasia’s brother and Ghosts in the garret. They are two children’s books written in a very special way.
M.K. They were written a special way, I agree, and I’d have to say that I am frequently surprised by the letters I get from readers. Not that I’m surprised to get letters, this happens to other writers as well. What surprises me is the very personal way in which readers talk to me. I think I really do write with the intention of establishing this personal contact with my reader. Aspasia’s brother and Ghosts in the garret are both books I like. My readers also appreciate and like them. Both books bear my personal seal. But given the question you asked me, I had to mention those books I regard as landmarks.
Y.P. What you just said obviously implies that authors writing for children are not appreciated as much by critics and literary circles.
M.K. That’s the way it is. There are people who don’t even recognise children’s literature as a genre, and I say this unequivocally: they’re wrong. Literature for children has its own measures and secrets, but it remains within its own context and capabilities within the boundaries of literature in general. Commercially it is a special genre which is why many publishers have discovered untalented writers and publish their books. The public, on the other hand, who are essentially uninformed by reviews and criticism, cannot easily formulate evaluation criteria, which they can in the other types of literature. But finally authors who are of value stand out, and above all, survive. The only problem is that they survive in the absence of literary criticism. That is, the relationship of the author who writes books for children and young people with his readers is much more direct than is the case with adult readers. What is absent is intermediary critical discourse. It is rare to see columns in newspapers and literary magazines devoting space to reviews or critiques of children’s books. And what does appear is often not very appropriate from the viewpoint of an objective critical approach.
Y.P. Your last phrase has brought me very close to the theme of your most recent book, the novel Mask on the moon. In this novel, through the theatre, art becomes an occasion for the main protagonists to acquire self-knowledge, and to overcome problems. On the other hand, the actor Lucas Alexiou, the invisible protagonist of your book, through art, commits suicide.
M.K. Art, I believe, functions as a catalyst and a liberator. Perhaps in this particular book, it may lead the two main heroes to self-knowledge and maturity and the invisible protagonist, as you described him, to death, but in both cases we are dealing with the same quality of self-awareness. I don’t think it was the theatre that led to the suicide, but life. This has always been my view of the function of art. Regarding the questions that arose while I was writing the novel, apart from what I can say from my own experience (however metaphysical this may sound), I’m not the one leading the characters along their way in the novel, but the characters themselves. After I bring them to life, they themselves determine how they’ll react. Take the case of Lucas Alexiou: he was the one running the show, believe me. Even I was surprised when I had the idea for the book, how suddenly and with what vitality this man appeared before me and talked to me about his whole life, from the moment I left him, after finishing With data from personal interviews, up to the day of his death. I believe that, in his own way, it was he who determined what I was to do with the other characters in the book as well.
Y.P. You have used this relationship of the writer with his heroes at other times too. And frequently you come in, sometimes as an ordinary spectator of events and at others, as one of the people taking part in the action. What role does this self-reference play in your work?
M.K. When I write, I regard myself as a little god. I am the one who creates the characters that will come to life in the pages of my book. But they, in turn, are looking for a reader with whom to share experiences and feelings. In fact, I myself am aware not only of my capacity as author, but also of my capacity as a sensitive reader. And in this latter capacity I have met some extremely interesting people. Blanche Dubois, for example, or the members of the Forsythe family. This is why frequently in my works, heroes and readers and the author all co-exist. One way and another the reader of every book is the one who gives it its final form. That is, I believe, in creative reading.
Y.P. You used this technique in what I would say was its most extreme form in the novel No.33. You even refuse to write the end of the novel and leave it in the hands of your heroes and your readers...
M.K. That’s right. No. 33 was I think something absolutely pioneering in Greek literature for children and young people, in terms of its technique. The same is true, although in a different way, in Taste of bitter almonds.
Y.P. Yes. From one point on the reader suspects that the entire novel has been taken from another novel that the heroes of the first one are reading. And I think something similar happens in Mask on the moon.
M.K. Yes. In Mask on the moon the relationships between the heroes, writer and reader are realised in a purely novel-like form. The central figure lives and acts, sometimes as himself and at other times as Hamlet, Leonardo, Electra or Oedipus.
Y.P. How do you transmute this type of intertextual element in your works? How do you bring them in? From what I can see, you use many different types of narrative, from the most classic to the most sophisticated.
M.K. I always select the type of narrative I believe best suits the essence of the theme and what I want to say. I draw the theme out as far as I can using whichever technique, in my opinion, is the most suitable. In other words, I believe that form and content always go together. In Mask on the moon I wanted to juxtapose famous people of the international theatre alongside my own heroes. In essence I tried to blend the timeless with the current reality, and out of all this unity to create – and I think it is created – the starting point of a new timelessness. That is, Lucas Alexiou is a product of this blending. A character who started out being an ordinary person and vaulted himself into timelessness.
Y.P. The critics very early on pointed out the cinematic structure of your work. It seems to me that since the early 1980s, in your novel With data from personal interviews, you have been trying to graft cinematic narrative structures onto the narrative technique of literature. For example in Dominic, I could see some elements of science fiction from Spielberg’s films, but also touches of Tarkovsky, as regards the atmosphere and the colour...
M.K. ... of internal life. Yes, that’s what I’ve been trying to do. Cinema is the art created by the 20th century. Many people believe that literature is being jeopardised by the cinema. But the great evil, the great enemy of literature is television, which is parallel to the cinema in some way. I personally love the magic of literature. Although the cinema also fascinates me and I find that television is a very useful tool. Because I wanted somehow to “marry” all these, I have been led at times to write books whose structure approaches the internal structure of a screenplay. At the same time I have never stopped wanting my books to touch the beauty, power and substance of the classical element found in words.
Y.P. Some of your novels have been published in France. Do you consider yourself a modern writer?
M.K. Two of my books have been published in France, Two of them and another two and Taste of bitter almonds and yes, I’d say I was a modern writer, but as I pointed out earlier, I also want to use elements of classical narration; that is, I want my characters to be well constructed and well rounded. I want magic in what I write and what I read, with some transcendence of reality, at the same moment as this reality exists, with full awareness of its possibilities. I’m indifferent to at least some of the trends I’ve been seeing recently, especially in books by younger writers where events are recorded in a way that approaches a journalistic style. Art for me, and literature in particular, must have style and vision. You might be describing something vulgar, but the book itself should not be vulgar. I read a lot of foreign literature both in translation and in the original. What I have observed is precisely that there is a strong trend both in literature and in the cinema to create a kind of magic in the way we say the most ordinary, prosaic things. From this point of view, I consider myself a modern writer and a European writer.
Y.P. You are a director of the series “Presences” published by Patakis. These books were immediately embraced by the public as soon as the first book in the series was published. Tell me a bit about your activity in this field.
M.K. “Presences” was a new concept, which filled the gap in literature for young people from 15 to 20 years old. These are the readers who can communicate with any work of Greek and world literature, classical and modern. It was quite simply that each of the books included in this series possessed its own form of literary excellence, while at the same time dealing with a subject of concern to young people. The early books in the series were mainly from England and the US, but it is gradually being enriched with Greek novels, which makes me particularly happy.
Y.P. Taste of bitter almonds and Mask on the moon were part of this series. Can I assume that you have decided to stay in the field of novels for young people? that you are a writer for youth?
M.K. It’s a field I’m particularly fond of. And I will continue. I think I still have something to offer. Anyway, if I write books which are part of a series for children or young adults it is because my own childhood and adolescence have stayed in my mind, with vivid memories of all my joys and anxieties. Writing for children may mean that I am also writing for those who may not have forgotten the dynamics of their childhood and adolescence. I can’t say that I’ll never return to genres of literature in which I have worked in the past. Because from one point on, any decisions I make are related to my psychological situation, and to the more general way in which I want to react to what is happening to young people in Greece.
Y.P. Kundera once wrote that the novel examines not only reality but existence as well, in the sense that human capabilities progress to a higher level. He said that the writer, charting the map of existence, discovers human capabilities. In your book Mask on the moon, how far can your heroes go?
M.K. In one of the early chapters of Mask on the moon, the two basic characters are presented, two young people who find themselves in a coffee shop one summer’s day ordering two cold soft drinks. The waiter brings them two warm ones which they finally drink. The novel ends in the same place, a year later, with the same young people once again ordering two ice-cold soft drinks; and again the waiter brings warm ones. This time they refuse to drink them. They send the warm drinks back and ask for what they ordered. In this story that has lasted about a year, in a novel of some six hundred pages, the two young people will come into contact with characters such as Oedipus, Electra, Hamlet, and Othello, through whom they arrive at the point of experiencing the awareness of their existence and their intention to change the world, not only at the so-called great moments in their lives, but also in their ordinary daily life. I think that the function of art aims precisely at this: to transform the ordinary person into an everyday hero. I tried to transform this simple but important thought into a novel which, of course, from then on, includes everyday heroes who come into contact, as I said, with timeless heroes, and to give form precisely to this blend, and to the value of art. Each person overcomes his or her own weaknesses in this novel. They are weaknesses which in essence extend the human potential through the practice of self-knowledge. All the heroes in the novel are in touch with this self-knowledge, this transcendence; I believe that this is what art should offer and is what the reader should obtain from art.
( Magazine Diavazo, No. 383/98)