Damian, the writer of this diary, is now ten years old, at an age when he has to make his first Big Decision, as he calls it. The only trouble is that he still doesn’t know what that will be, nor even what to write in the diary he’s decided to keep. Finally things happen by themselves.
He starts off writing about his family, first about his sister Aspasia, who is in the second year of senior secondary school, and who on her good days is all sweetness, but when she’s having one of her “dark” days, is much more difficult; about his mother who is an English teacher and writer, and his father who is also an author, but writes children’s books.
The first Big Decision Damian has to make is to improve his handwriting. The incentive here was that it proved impossible to publish his writings because nobody could decipher his handwriting.
And when the radiator in his room sprung a leak and flooded everything, Damian realised that many of his possessions could have been saved from the flood if he had just put them away. But his most important Big Decision was when he worked hard to correct his inability to pronounce certain consonants, and he did this so well that he later read at the presentation of the new book by family friend Mrs Penelope, who was also an author. He read so well and clearly that everybody was impressed.
Thus everyday events unfold in Damian’s diary: at Christmas with the fairy tale he wrote and gave to Aspasia as a present, discussions about how the household chores should be divided among all the family members, a masquerade party at Carnival time and the thousands of things that make up each day.
But perhaps the most important event, and the one with which Damian’s diary closes is that all the adults – Dad, Mum and Mrs Penelope, as well as Dad’s publisher – who read the Christmas fairy tale that Damian gave to Aspasia liked it so much that they decided it should be published. And so Damian can feel very proud of himself for two reasons: both because he became a writer, but also because he knows how to stick to his big decisions!
by Vangelis Iliopoulos, Author - educator
Kondoleon is also among those Greek writers who follow developments abroad in the field of literature. Throughout his twenty-two years of continuous presence, his books show a high degree of originality both in their subject matter and in their narrative style. Virtually no two of his books are the same, and he never takes the easy road of a successful formula. This has won him a large readership, who look forward to every one of his new books like a new surprise. He himself enjoys the adventure of writing, having stated that he likes to try new approaches, and that for him, the challenge is to discover a new means of expression each time. It should be noted that Kondoleon has written in virtually all prose genres.
His book Aspasia’s brother made an impact when it was first published eight years ago, and ever since then has kept up its sales among young readers.
This book, written in the first person, is the diary of a ten-year-old boy who describes what happens to him every day and talks about the BDs he has to make in his life. And what, you may well ask, are the BDs? They are his Big Decisions which, however trivial they may seem, essentially show his willingness to surpass himself along the path leading from childhood into adolescence.
Damian, the hero of the book, lives in an average middle-class family, with his parents and his older sister. He decides he has to make BDs about the problems he’s having in his life, and to put these decisions into effect. His first and most important big decision is not to keep a diary but to improve his handwriting! This is how he got the idea of keeping a diary: as a kind of practice. Another BD is to become tidier. His role model here, although he won’t admit it, is his sister, who is not just older but good at everything! It’s hard to live up to a model like this, much less go beyond it, as its authoritative presence oppresses you. Their affection, rivalry and fights are boundless. Their parents - their father is an author, their mother a translator – are a modern couple trying to raise their children as best they can, by equipping them with what they need. Damian lives his life and interprets it in his own way. With his family at home and his classmates at school, he experiences happy moments as well as other, difficult ones, moments when he believes he isn’t being treated fairly, and feels like crying. He quarrels and wrestles even with his best friend, he gets sick, sometimes even for real, frightening his parents enough to call the doctor. He also follows all the family traditions on the major feast days and in ordinary, everyday things. These are all traditions which, without our even being aware, make up the fabric of family life that we remember with great nostalgia when we get older.
The success of his father and of the other family members exerts great pressures on Damian because he, on the contrary, isn’t good at everything. He’s having trouble at school, especially in mathematics where, as his Mum says, “he doesn’t have a mathematical mind” or as his Dad believes “he refuses to sit down and think”, and with the fact that his handwriting is poor. A sword of Damocles, in the form of examinations, threatens him. Of course, we all know what exams mean to a child. Damian finds the courage not merely to survive, but to succeed and to make everybody recognise and accept him. After another BD, he is able to read texts at a literary gathering; he writes a superb fairy tale and finally a publisher is interested in publishing his diary! The diary is none other than the book Aspasia’s brother. Anybody wondering about the title should know that Damian entrusted his sister to choose whatever title she thought best. And since he assigned this task to her and promised that he would accept whatever title she chose, this was the result. Instead of the book being called “Damian” or “Damian’s diary”, it is entitled “Aspasia’s brother”. Now we understand why!
It is obvious that the hero has a good sense of humour, which helps him keep his balance and cope with situations. Also, Damian is a sensitive and tender-hearted boy, often insecure and sometimes stubborn. He is, after all, a child of ten. And this is one of the ingredients that has made this book so successful. Young readers recognise him as a real person: in him they can see their friends or even themselves; they identify with him and experience the various situations that lead him to making BDs. The reader can follow how Damian’s mind works and how he finds the will power to make his big decisions, since even though they may seem silly to adults, they require awareness and courage for a child. In his diary we recognise a child’s thought through which, with its naivete, humour and disarming innocence, he expresses the subtle psychological fluctuations that children experience.
And this was perhaps a risk, but one that Kondoleon has dealt with successfully. The use of the first person is a real tightrope, even more so when it is in the form of a diary, where a child records his own personal concerns, feelings and innermost thoughts. An author needs great talent and ability to be able to write such a text, especially when it is addressed to children. If the text did not ring true, if it did not express real children’s thoughts, the book would have failed altogether and its young readers would have rejected it.
In the case of Aspasia’s Brother we have statements by children who have read it either alone or in class; they told us that the hero thinks and reacts as they do, and that they recognised situations they too have lived through. It is plain that the result looks absolutely real. The reader can see that what happens to him can happen to others as well. And Damian, in his struggle to cope with the various situations, comes out on top. Because he really does have to do better than the role models, but also he has his own imperfections to combat. The reader who identifies with the hero suffers with him and is co-vindicated with him, coming out a winner as well.
It is hardly accidental that the writer has his hero confronting two of the most important issues in a child’s life: sibling rivalry and problems at school.
Aspasia is good at everything so her brother has to struggle to keep up with her. The difference in their age makes communication even trickier. Her sarcastic remarks can hurt as much, if not more than a slap. But down deep there is real love between them and Damian is frequently surprised to discover this.
Nor is it accidental that the hero is also facing problems at school. The author’s view is that every problem of this kind can be overcome by strength of will. Damian decides to make the big decisions and to reach beyond his own limit. This requires effort, resolve and hard work. There’s risk, suspense and struggle. But he finally succeeds, on his own. Damian does nothing more than use his own abilities, and he who felt so insecure, manages to be vindicated. His parents contribute to his effort and support him.
Any child reading this book will draw encouragement and strength from it to try and use his or her own abilities better. We can’t all be good at everything, but when we’re good at something, we should do our best at it.
The book can be easily read by older children, and even by adults, as it depicts a cross section of family relations. Both old and young will recognise something of themselves and smile, and at the same time they may be led to consider their own behaviour and what effects it can have. The love and mutual support of the family are shown to have almost miraculous power.
In conclusion I’d like to point out the excellent use of language that flows effortlessly despite the restrictions implied by the fact that it is narrated by a child. Also worthy of note are the illustrations that accompany the text, but not merely to adorn the written word. The illustrations by Antonis Kalamaras enter into the heart of the text and emphasise the points on which the weight of each incident falls. It is obvious that the illustrator and author collaborated closely on this, in order to provide a harmonious result. With the aesthetic of good comics that children are so fond of, the illustrator has created a lovable Damian, absolutely recognisable from the author’s description. And finally, I should like to close with the phrase muttered by a pupil reading the book: “Boy! I wish I were Damian!” and when asked why, he replied “because he tries hard and he succeeds.”
Author - educator
Humour and society
Manos Kondoleon is one of those authors who, through constant experimentation with structure and form, is always comfortable in the particular stylistic and ideological context of the many genres of prose in which he writes. He retains the main features of his personal style – simplicity, clarity, and a rapid pace – and in his most recent works there is abstraction and symbolism as well. What I think may perhaps be his most important virtue is that he combines them all, transforming them, wherever necessary, through images and feelings, into a polysemic poetic language. With the breadth of his subject matter (ecology, science fiction, child-parent relations, divorce, sex-love, drugs and others), he may be said to be the writer who, as very few of the other so-called children’s authors, has created a reading public among adults even for his books that are addressed to children and young people.
His new novel uses the comic element and humour to record ordinary, daily events on two levels, the social and pedagogical. It is well known that humour, despite its proven social and pedagogical value, is very hard to find in Greek children’s literature.
In this book, events taking place in the family environment, at school and in the social surroundings more generally, are recorded from the viewpoint of the boy Damian, in his diary. In this particular book, humour is used as a stylistic element in a variety of ways and degrees, from subtle mockery to simple satire, from self-criticism to “control”, and from ironic wishful thinking to plain sarcasm. Patterns are used that create a pleasant atmosphere from which laughter springs forth spontaneously, situations and characters are made fun of in a profoundly pedagogical, comprehensible and above all literary way, without advice or moralising. Indirectly, however, sharp criticism is directed against certain aspects of the general social and pedagogical atmosphere.
This is perhaps one of the few times in Greek children’s literature where a family model is presented in which various stereotypes are overthrown, or better still destroyed by its members’ behaviour, seen with humour. This is done either by demythologising them or by the attitude of its members, i.e. through their acceptance or rejection, which does not mean retreat, compromise or sterile negativism, but creative thought and action to such a degree that one can even detect a pedagogical proposal.
Among other things, the process of curing Damian’s speech problem through the use of his own capabilities, and with the appropriate encouragement from the family environment, is a familiar theoretical position, but here it has been transformed into a marvellously convincing practice.
The illustrations by A. Kalamaras are delightful because at some points, the form of comics used, which is absolutely in harmony with the text, adds another dimension to the correct function of the image and offers a fresh point of view on some of the discreditable comics that circulate on the market.
And finally, here we have yet another book by Kondoleon which, in terms of both form and content, is a (children’s) literary work for all ages, thereby successfully reaffirming the author’s view as a theoretician, that literature written for children can and should have a broader reading public than children...
Yannis S. Papadatos
(In the newspapaer "Avyi tis Kyriakis"
A piece of charming children’s literature
Barely a week has passed since the day I was on the radio telling Lina Papaioannou that, as a student of the unforgettable Zacharias Papantoniou, I too believe that a children’s book is a failure if it cannot be read and enjoyed by adults. I have stated this belief in books, magazines and newspapers. And it came strongly to mind as I was reading the 135 pages of Manos Kondoleon’s latest book, beautifully illustrated and printed by Patakis editions, continuing a splendid tradition in this important field. Reading the novel Aspasia’s brother was a real pleasure for us who are neither children – nor even, regrettably, young.
But this was not the only reason for my pleasure. It was also the fact that these 135 pages put together by the author, who is well known for his contribution to children’s literature, are contrary to our literary tradition. This tradition, as I wrote in Exormisi on Friday 2-7-1993, normally requires our literature to be as gloomy as a lamenting woman from Mani or Epirus sitting bitterly by the fireside or anywhere else bemoaning her fate. This is of course is a necessary function of what are usually dramatic moments in our history. Now and then you’ll find a few cheerful pages, in Kondylakis, say, or some others, but especially in humourists who found this the only style of writing to counter the national cloud.
This is why I was so charmed by the delightful and spontaneous Damian, the 10-year-old “author”, and by his boundless good cheer and inventiveness, behind or above or beside whom stands, or rather towers, Manos Kondoleon. This is, I believe, an extremely interesting and original instance, worthy of study and attention. The young hero writing in his journal has a personality of immediate interest not only to literature but also to pedagogy. Damian is made up of 135 pages of a diary and represents a young and very likeable person who is striving and struggling to project his now independent personality in the social environment, starting with his family: first of all, he doesn’t want to be known as “Aspasia’s brother”, i.e. brother of his older sister Aspasia with the authority and experiences of her advanced age of 16. He demands to stand alone and to be proven independent from any other of his fellow human beings: the unique Damian, the personality .
He succeeds in asserting himself, and in dealing with his problems and matters pertaining to himself, his personality, his virtues, his capabilities and intiatives, functions and discoveries, altogether responsibly and personally as Damian alone! He knows of course that this is not at all easy, but he goes after it, and plans it. And he succeeds!
Here too there is an optimistic message, which is so necessary in the difficult times every person is going through today, including the Greek family and the national community, the nation, all of which need to overcome a great many burning problems. The hero’s family is an urban middle-class one. It has two cars – albeit of minor value – and a good deal of other support for their upward social mobility. One is, nonetheless, delighted by the witty style of the writer with his cheerful sentiments, absolutely appropriate to his age, education, social position and family upbringing, attitude and personality, morality and “noble” ventures. In other words, readers young and old have in their hands a truly fresh contribution to our children’s literature.
(In the newspaper "Exormisi" Friday 9 July 1993
I think you’ll agree with me that, when someone is ten years old, it’s time for him to make the first Big Decision in his life.
Anyway, that’s what I think, and this diary that I’ve started writing is proof.
Mind you, I can’t say I’m absolutely sure about how I’m going to fill the blank pages of a notebook with a thick red cover. The other day I heard my sister Aspasia who, with all the wisdom of her 16 years, was saying to Mum: “I’ve finished the second volume of my diary. I’d better buy a notebook to start the third one.”
That was when Mum was looking for the keys to the Sofiat. As usual, she had forgotten where she’d left them, and wasn’t paying attention to what my sister said, so she answered: “Go out on the balcony and see which car Daddy took, the Golf-tutu or the Sofiat.
Aspasia was having one of her “bright” days so she wasn’t cheesed off about Mum ignoring what she said (if it had been one of the “dark” days, she would have started her usual whining about how nobody ever pays any attention to her and nobody ever listens to what she says...). But it was one of her “bright” days and so she just smiled and said “Last night you were wearing your red jacket. Have you checked the pockets?”
Mum raised her head and looked at her daughter. “You may be right,” she said, and went to the clothes rack in the hall, where – under my green jacket, Dad’s raincoat, and Aspasia’s anorak and nightgown, having first said: “What on earth is your nightgown doing on the rack?” and Aspasia having answered “I haven’t a clue!” – she found her red jacket and shoved her hand in the pocket. “They’re here!” she said.
Aspasia shook her head. “There’s no organisation around here” she muttered, annoyed that, having started out the conversation about the third volume of her diary, she wound up talking about the lack of organisation in our house.
When Aspasia gets mad, the best thing to do is play the turtle and withdraw into one’s shell.
I buried my face in my arithmetic book, but at the same moment, decided that I should start writing a diary too. Since Aspasia had already reached her third volume, it was time for me to start my first.
But what do you write in a diary? Now there’s a question that’s as hard to answer as it is to find the third angle of a right-angle triangle, when the one acute angle is 35 degrees.
I have to confess that both questions kept me occupied for a while, but I couldn’t find the answers. The third angle, however I calculated it, when added to the other two angles, would always come out to a total of 120 degrees; so I was positive that somewhere I was making a mistake, since of course I know the rule: “The angles of a triangle always have a sum of 180 degrees”. So to keep getting 120 degrees, I must have been doing something wrong.
Now about my diary, I really don’t know what to write. Important people keep diaries (I once heard) or anybody who has ever been in love (like Aspasia, for instance). But I have to confess that I’m not important yet, nor have I fallen in love. I certainly like Mersini, but I never feel like hanging around with her and I never call her. Aspasia, on the other hand, gets all dressed up and made up every Saturday to meet her Dimitris and every evening the telephone receiver gets glued to her ear as she listens and then listens some more. What can they possibly find to talk about for such a long time?
Anyway, I couldn’t figure it out, so I decided to invade my sister’s den. Rash decision! Whenever Aspasia sees me standing in the door of her room, she usually says: “Beat it!” before I even have time to tell her what I want. “Beat it!” It bugs me every time I hear it, and so we start fighting and right away we have to put up with shouts from Dad “Stop that!” and Mum’s pleading: “Please, you two, I have a headache!”
But that afternoon Dad was away, at one of his famous meetings, and Mum triumphantly holding the keys to the Sofiat was on her way to her lessons. So I decided to stand in the door of the “den” holding my arithmetic notebook in my right hand and a fresh notebook with a red cover – that I’m writing in now – in my left.
“Aspasia, could you please explain a couple of things to me?” I said as sweetly as I possibly could.
“What?” Aspasia was in a very good mood.
So I asked. And you’ll see how well I understood what she told me. How could I have failed to find that the angle I was looking for was 55 degrees?
“You’re in a hurry, that’s why,” said my sister and mussed my hair playfully. I couldn’t believe how sweet she was being!
And then she told me what I could write in my diary. I could, she explained, write the story of my life and my Big Decisions.
But I have to say that the way she explained it confused me. What’s my life? The life of Robinson Crusoe or Alice in Wonderland? And what Big Decisions do I have to make?
I went back to my room and was putting things into my school bag, and as I was putting my first term report card into the pocket, I understood what a Big Decision was. Of course! And I’d already made one. So I could start my diary by writing about it.
And that’s how I started. I never realised how hard it is to keep a diary. Very hard! Look how many pages I’ve written, and I haven’t said anything. Not even what my Big Decision was or what my name is.
But my hand is tired; and when my hand gets tired, it’s even harder to stick to your Big Decision. So I’m stopping. Tomorrow I’ll continue. Tomorrow I’ll talk about the rest.
Good night, diary. Wait a minute. Do people say goodnight to their diaries? I’d better remember to ask Aspasia. Tomorrow. I’m too tired now.
In case I forget again, let’s start right away with my name.
My name is Damian. Unusual name, you might say. I don’t know if it’s unusual or not, but it certainly is rare. I like it that way.
Anybody with a name like that stands out. I mean, it’s not like being called John or Michael! Damian is my name. And I’ve just had my tenth birthday, but I already said that. I am in fifth grade of elementary school, which has been the hardest grade so far. Especially arithmetic, physics and geography! I’m having trouble with all three of them. Fractions and triangles and rulers and protractors... I never appreciated how nice it was all those other years when all we had were addition, subtraction, multiplication and division!
And as for physics! Kinetic energy and inertia and friction. I want you to know that I can’t even remember that stuff when I learn it by heart!
Geography confuses me, too. The equator is the imaginary circle that joins the two poles. Or maybe that’s a meridian... Never mind.
Luckily I don’t have any problems in the language classes, or to tell the truth, just one, and that’s what led me to take the Big Decision. But just one.
I read very well (must remember to write about when I took part in the evening in honour of Mrs Penelope), I don’t make spelling mistakes, I have good ideas in composition, and well... yes everything is fine, except for the problem that led to the Big Decision.
Mum says I don’t have a mathematical mind, nor did she. I inherited this from her, she says. But don’t you usually inherit something that exists? I mean if Mum doesn’t have a mathematical mind, how could I have inherited it?
The one who has it to hand down is Dad. He always thinks with mathematical precision, even though he finally became a writer, but he gave his mathematical mind entirely to Aspasia. This is the sort of injustice I just can’t stand. But what to do? That’s the way it is. Dad and Mrs Anna, my teacher, don’t agree with Mum, though. Mrs Anna says: “Stuff and nonsense.” They lecture me: “You just don’t want to sit your rearend down (that’s what Dad says, Mrs. Anna says ‘settle down’) and think for more than five minutes. In mathematics you have to think first and then reply.”
What to think? I already know that the opposite sides of a parallelogram are equal. And since I already know this, what’s to think about? I get confused, I have even confused you. Hey! Who are you that I’m talking to? Readers of my diary? But I’m the only person reading it. “Put my diary down!” shouts Aspasia every time I go to flip through one of her volumes. “ People are not supposed to read other people’s diaries,” she says.
Did you notice (again I’m writing as though I have readers, but I don’t care. That’s how I want to do it, that’s the way I write) did you notice what Aspasia said ... “people” and “other people’s”? Repetitious. As you can see, Aspasia may have inherited Dad’s mathematical mind, but she has none at all of our parents’ literary talent. I’ve got it all. I write fantastic compositions – but then you know this already from the pages you’ve read so far.
Mrs Anna, my teacher, always has kind words to say when she returns my composition notebook. “Good for you, Damian! How well you write! Too bad...” She always pauses here, and that was what led me to make the Big Decision.
Since I can’t be bothered writing out Big Decision all the time and then two lines down Big Decision again, from now on I’ll write BD. I’ve seen many writers who use this trick in their books. It’s easier and I like it, too. It’s like a code. BD – the code for a secret promise. Made to me by myself.
I’ve done it again! I’ve written a lot and said nothing. I’d decided to introduce myself and to talk about my family, but the only thing I’ve actually said is my name. Everything else I’ve written is confused and topsy turvy. Mind you this isn’t my fault, since I didn’t inherit the mathematical mind, but at least I have to put some order in my diary.
So now you know about me. Now it’s my parents’ turn. My Dad is an author – but I’ve said this somewhere earlier. He is a university graduate in literature, but he doesn’t teach. He works for a publisher and writes all kinds of books from fairy tales for young children to novels for adults. My Dad writes everything, but his children’s books have made him famous and that’s why people are always phoning him to come and speak at schools in the afternoons. Children just love my Dad’s books. I like them too, but to be honest, he isn’t my favourite writer. There are others I like better, but I don’t want to mention any names; anyway I have read a lot of books – reading is my addiction. That’s why I have a good vocabulary, as Mrs Anna says (what other child of my age would know how to use the word addiction?)
Mum is a writer too, only she writes for big people. Maybe this is why she sometimes gets uptight and distracted and is always complaining about her head aching. Looks to me like writing books for adults is a big headache. I don’t know, I haven’t yet read any of those yet. But Mum’s books – she’s written two so far – seem to be particularly good, because you hear people who’ve read them saying to her “How wonderful it was! What innovations you’ve made!” I don’t really understand what they mean, but when Mum hears about innovations in her books, she’s all smiles. She also does translations and gives private lessons in English.
Which is why we have two cars. One that Dad uses to go to his meetings, and the other that Mum takes to her lessons.
One last thing. I’d better explain why we call one of our cars Golf-tutu and the other Sofiat. But my hand is starting to get tired of writing, and when I get tired it’s harder to stick to my BD
So that’s all for today. I wrote about my family. About me, Dad and Mum. I’ve already said lots about my sister. And maybe I should also say that she’s in the second year of senior secondary school and then stop. So much for my BD. I’m stopping. And anyway, “Tomorrow is another day” as my grandfather used to say and now my Dad says it.
I didn’t go to school today. When I woke up this morning, Mum said to me: “I hope you’ve fixed your school bag.”
I answered “Yes!” but even though I opened my mouth and moved my lips, the “yes” could not be heard. Mum looked at me in surprise.
“What’s the matter with you?”
The matter with me was that I’d lost my voice.
“Of course. With the ice-cold water you insist on drinking in the middle of winter...!” complained Mum as she heated some milk for me, and I went back and lay down on my bed.
Luckily for m