Antonis Samarakis Essay - Critical Essays

Samarakis, Antonis

Samarakis, Antonis 1919–

A Greek poet, novelist, and short story writer, Samarakis writes as a member of the Resistance, voicing the need for freedom and human rights in his taut and incisive fiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

From the start [Samarakis] was a renovator of contemporary Greek literature and a major world writer: a voice from Greece speaking to all humanity in acutely relevant and modern terms—about absurdity and disquietude, against depersonalization and dehumanization, war, violence, poverty, loss of freedom, and just plain hunger. His stories were beautifully written, stark but not grim, racing swiftly to the point. In other hands the author's affection and concern for Man and his fate might have led into the trap of sentimental homilies, or their converse, cynicism. But Samarakis does not preach—he shows. He shows his characters in situation, in action. We respond to their response, their speech, their inner dialogue. The author's deep mistrust of artistic gymnastics, of gratuitous formalism, of what he and his heroes scornfully call "literature," results in utter simplicity of style, classical in its density, its painstaking craft, its immediate impact. Samarakis does away with precious ornamentation, with nineteenth-century verbiage, or with the crowded rhetoric of today's "new" novel. He pares things down to the basic issues, gets to the heart of the matter and the nitty-gritty. He is also uncannily cinematic. No other body of high-quality fiction reads like so many scenarios ready for Take One. (pp. 531-32)

In the early stories ["Wanted: Hope," 1954], the typically lonely protagonists suffer from the impossibility of finding any human companionship; at least, while waiting for Go-dot, Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon have one another, nolens volens. In Samarakis, helplessness is total, be it a question of metaphysical or of social anguish….

Many of the original themes are amplified in "Danger Signal" (1959). The economy of means and the filmic surprises are now augmented by irony and humor. (p. 532)

A former Resistance fighter during the occupation of Greece, Samarakis has remained … a totally committed man who fights for ideals "in a world full of ideologies and stripped of ideals," with a unique mixture of realistic and fantastic writing. Ethically and artistically his works are remarkably consistent. The stories in "I Refuse" (1961) and in "The Jungle" (1966), longer than the early "microstories" but still amazingly compact, develop some of the most poignant situations in contemporary literature. As in classical tragedy, they arouse fear and pity in the reader, but contrary to Aristotelian rules, they can also excite indignation. Not that the heroes are completely good—we do not really know, for Samarakis does not produce traditional portraits with as many facts filled out as the short-story format tolerates; instead, his "camera eye" selects those points of reference which will submit that, as an individual and as Everyman, his protagonist's misfortune is undeserved.

The world of Samarakis has a rather definite substructure as well as the kind of identity that true talent confers. A central figure, usually an anonymous and solitary man, moves about a sparse, Chirico-like urban landscape, tormented by the anguish of our time which he embodies. He is exceptionally sensitive, one might say pathologically so, were he not simultaneously rooted in tangible social indignity and in symbolic inhumane distress. (pp. 532-33)

It is impossible to summarize Samarakis' already terse parables, especially the episodic ones: "The Jungle," "The Window," "The Knife." Nor can one do justice to his style, now clinical, now a litany, now breathless, always distinctive—without examples. Language as a tool for the affirmation of a relative hope attains its high point in "The Flaw" (1965), a novel which ranks with the great works of Kafka, Orwell, or Koestler. It is a thriller, a political detective story which absorbs completely; it is also a metaphysical thriller, like Oedipus Rex and Crime and Punishment. It is the struggle for man's soul, the struggle between self-respect and the powers of darkness. (p. 533)

Edwin Jahiel, "Antonis Samarakis: Fiction as Scenario," in Books Abroad (copyright 1968 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 42, No. 4, Autumn, 1968, pp. 531-34.

The voice of Samarakis is heard again, years after The Flaw (1965; English [translation], 1969), one of the major humanistic thrillers of our time, and the splendid collection, "The Jungle" (1966). To Diavatírio (["The Passport"],… 1973) contains nine stories, six reprinted from "The Jungle" (now out of print) and three written in 1971–73 and previously published in Greek newspapers and periodicals. That the junta allowed Samarakis's works to be reprinted (and all of them are, regularly) and that it permitted the publication of new stories in which the criticism of autocracy is hardly veiled, is something of a puzzle—but we do have some clues in the title story.

"The Passport" is an ironical and autobiographical title, for Samarakis himself was forced to remain in Greece for several years because the government confiscated his passport. In the story, a middle-aged bachelor and typical Samarakis loner has decided to go abroad for the first time in his life. His preparations, his mounting excitement, are described in a colorful crescendo of short, feverish phrases and with affectionate irony. But the trip, this departure which in the best Samarakis tradition is both fact and allegory, aborts: the hero, an entirely apolitical employee, is refused his passport. His file is marked "dangerous." Finally he goes through the labyrinth of hostile officialdom and discovers that some youthful poetry of his, sentimental innocuous trivia, is now considered dangerous. The carrot of a passport is dangled before him, however, in exchange for his composing a poem lauding "the System" (the State) and then reading it on the air in a special broadcast. At the station, after some ingenious twists, our hero makes a last-second change which now will really earn him the label "dangerous." At one point, he asks timidly if he can write his assigned poem in free verse. The answer is: "Of course you are free to use free verse. What do you take us for?… What do you think this is?… We don't do things here the way they do in totalitarian regimes!" Which probably explains why, although the Greek government may have thought that Samarakis was too dangerous for a passport, it chose, on balance, to suffer his writings without much fuss, by pretending that "those things don't apply to us." (pp. 58-9)

These stories point to the relatively new directions taken by Samarakis, but we will not be able to judge fully until we see what else he has (probably) written but has not been able to publish since 1966. Even so, it is significant that the three new stories could be collectively subtitled "Arrests." They are longer than usual, taking up as much text as the six from "The Jungle." Samarakis seems to take more time here in establishing characters and situations. Yet this new development does not result in cautious circumlocution; instead, it gives even more richness to the writer's prose. Previously, Samarakis dealt constantly with the themes of resistance, solidarity and charity; but until The Flaw the heroes' protests were politically ineffectual. Now Samarakis has his protagonists plunge squarely into political action. In earlier writings, too, Samarakis made it clear that there is no such thing as neutrality. All of life is seen as struggle or agon, and the author's favorite words are "human," "war," "battle," "resistance," "conquest," "surrender," "duel," "agony." In this turmoil there is hardly room for love-making, but ample room for love. Typically, any mention of sex or of couples is made in terms of battles, duels and the like, whether it concerns the professor and his mistress, or the idealistic lover in the reprinted, earlier story symbolically entitled "The Conquest." Now, not just neutrality is out of the question, but privacy and private concerns too.

There is, however, no sudden rupture with previous writings. There is an evolution which is consistent with earlier fiction by Samarakis: the tone has become more grotesque, as befits the grotesqueness of government by little Caesars; and the changes in behavior have taken their next logical step. There is now active and overt resistance; but, as in previous works, the revolt is catalyzed by human, humane and personal factors—love for and loyalty to this man's soccer team, that girl's doll, that fellow's students—just as the captor in The Flaw betrayed his police-state masters, not for ideological reasons, but by succumbing to the sheer humanity of his prisoner. And this cautious but perceptible step toward optimism has already been glimpsed in Samarakis's work, namely in stories such as "The Window" and "The Apocalypse of John," reprinted in this volume.

In his newest stories, Samarakis's extraordinarily cinematographic writing is more pronounced than ever, in structures and in visuals. On a simple level, he uses tricks that Hitchcock calls Macguffins; but in a subtler fashion he reveals truth gradually, like Antonioni in Blow-up and Coppola in The Conversation. But, whereas Coppola's tricks become excessive, protracted and sly (not to mention his anti-human content), Samarakis's are revealed rapidly and honestly. There are many more cinematic equivalents in Samarakis. Repetitions of certain striking visual details, such as the spiders in the third story, could be annoying if seen strictly as text; but when interpreted as visuals, they become signposts that flash before our inner eye. (p. 60)

Edwin Jahiel, "Antonis Samarakis's 'To Diavatírio'," in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 1, Winter, 1975, pp. 58-61.