“Landslides of words, empty wells and a wasteland await”. This one line from Yannis Kondos’s Absurd Athlete perhaps best describes the collection as a whole. “Landslides of words” suggests the intense power and emotional force harnessed in these pages while “empty wells” conjures images of starkness and emptiness, a recurrent theme in Absurd Athlete. The “wasteland” is of course Athens, where Kondos routinely finds inspiration. Being a native Athenian, the poet does not shy away from the less than appealing side of city life but gives an honest, if somewhat dark, portrayal of the Greek capital.
Far from idealism or awe-inspiring vistas that some may have come to expect of poetry, this collection focuses on the raw grittiness of urban life. Kondos does not write about objects of beauty but rather finds beauty in the mundane. Though his work is often laced with highly pessimistic – and at time sharply ironic – undertones, the magic of these poems lies in the way with which he manages to bring the reader into his world, a place in which even a “forgotten raincoat” becomes animated and in possession of “hopes” and “feelings”.
However, the apparent whimsy of these poems is juxtaposed with the pessimism, paranoia and irony, which are so much more characteristic of Kondos’ work. This is unsurprising, as he is a poet who, as his translator explains, reached his full writing potential and began publishing his works during the Greek dictatorship. A deep-rooted sense of imminent danger remains ever-present in his writing despite Absurd Athlete having been written over twenty years after the end of that dictatorship. In his poem “Shoes in the rain”, he expresses the fear of being followed:
Sometimes I think it may be my own
black, worn-out shoes,
or my shadow – that often
is drunk with love – no, no, this
is the persistent sound of a murderer
with a shady background and white eyes.
In terms of the translation, David Connolly has no small task. He states that his basic aim as a translator is “to allow the reader […] to discover something of the quiddity and ‘otherness’ of the modern Greek poets”. Arguably, Connolly does this successfully but nonetheless something of the power of Kondos’s images is somewhat blurred in the English translation. Greek is not a language that easily lends itself to translation in so far old sayings, pithy and idiomatic expressions are frequently used in everyday speech. Kondos, who uses colloquial speech and is a firm believer in making his poetry accessible to a wide audience, employs everyday expressions plentifully. Consider the final lines of the poem “Absences”, a poem discussing poets of previous generations and envisioning their lives:
But all the above
and much more
they put on the back-burner
In the Greek version, the literal translation of these lines would be: “But all the above and much more they wrote on their old shoes and died.” In Greece if you say that someone wrote something on their old shoes, this expression is used to convey a blatant and intentional disregard for consequence. The phrase “to put on the back-burner”, though certainly suitably English colloquial fails to grasp the full bitterness infusing these lines. In truth, the problem first arises with the title, which would directly translate accurately as “Athlete of Nothingness” and indeed that would perhaps capture the essence of these poems far better.
Absurd Athlete is a highly personal portrait of contemporary Athenian life. Kondos takes the reader on an almost cinematic journey through the seemingly unimportant aspects of everyday existence, framing in a subtle way, the beauty and melancholy which make up both sides of the urban coin.
Ed – poems from Absurd Athlete in the original language and translation was read at the DCA during Book Week Scotland in November. We liked it so much that we decided to review of the collection.