Yannis Ritsos was born into a wealthy landowning family of Monemvasia, but he did not have a happy childhood. His father’s fortunes declined because of the land reforms under Eleftherios Venizelos in the early 1900’s, and their wealth was obliterated by the Asia Minor campaigns between 1919 and 1922, when labor was unavailable for the harvests. In addition, Ritsos’s father gambled compulsively, accelerating the family’s decline. As if this were not enough, Ritsos’s older brother and his mother died of tuberculosis when Ritsos was only twelve—a prelude to the hardships and suffering that would mark his adult life.
Upon his graduation from high school in the town of Gythion, Ritsos moved to Athens; the year was 1925, a time when that city was desperately trying to assimilate a million and a half refugees from Asia Minor. He managed to find work as a typist and then as a copyist of legal documents, but in 1926 he returned to Monemvasia after coughing blood. There he devoted himself to painting, music, and poetry, completing a group of poems that he called “Sto paleo mas spiti” (in our old house). He returned to Athens in 1927, but a new crisis in his health confined him to a tuberculosis sanatorium for three years, during which, while continuing to write poems, he also began to study Marxism. By 1930, he had committed himself to the communist cause. Transferred to a sanatorium in Crete, he found conditions there so abominable that he exposed the facility’s managers in a series of newspaper articles; this led to the removal of all the patients, including Ritsos, to a better facility, where his disease came under temporary control.
Back in Athens, Ritsos directed the artistic activities of the Workers’ Club, appearing in in-house theatricals and also on the stage of the Labor Union Theater. Meanwhile, his father was confined to an insane asylum. While eking out a living as actor, dancer, copy editor, and journalist, Ritsos published his first two collections, Trakter (tractor) and Pyramides (pyramids). His career took a leap forward when, in May of 1936, he composed his Epitaphios immediately after the slaughter of twelve tobacco workers by Thessaloniki police during a strike. Issued in ten thousand copies, this became the first of Ritsos’s poems to be banned. The Metaxas dictatorship, when it came to power in August, publicly burned the 250 unsold copies at the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
In this same year, Ritsos composed To tragoudi tes adelphes mou (the song of my sister), after his sister Loula was committed to the same asylum that housed their father. This private dirge, balancing the public one for the slain strikers, so impressed Kostis Palamas, Greece’s most influential poet at the time, that he hailed the young poet as his own successor. Ritsos suffered a brief recurrence of his tuberculosis, requiring another period in a sanatorium, after which he worked again as an actor, all the while publishing new collections of verse.
During the period of the Albanian...
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