A fresh per­spec­tive on the writ­ten word

Thana­sis Petrou, an in­no­va­tor in the field of graphic nov­els in this coun­try, talks about two al­bums to which he has con­trib­uted

Kathimerini English - - Life - BY SPY­ROS GIANNARAS

The graphic novel’s in­ter­na­tional pop­u­lar­ity, cou­pled with the enor­mous suc­cess of Apos­to­los Dox­i­adis’s home­grown “Logi­comix” and more re­cently the French ef­fort “Re­betiko,” in­spired by the char­ac­ters af­fil­i­ated with this fringe mu­sic style of the 1930s, have drawn more fans to the genre in Greece than ever be­fore.

Ac­cord­ing to Thana­sis Petrou – a news page de­signer at Eleft­herotypia daily and French lit­er­a­ture grad­u­ate who trans­lated David Prudhomme’s “Re­betiko” and also did art­work for early 20th-cen­tury writer Di­mos­the­nis Voutyras’s short-story col­lec­tion “Parar­lama,” an at­tempt at mar­ry­ing the graphic novel with con­ven­tional lit­er­a­ture – Greek read­ers are be­gin­ning to get over the bias that graphic nov­els are a prod­uct of a sub­cul­ture or in their more in­no­cent man­i­fes­ta­tions, read­ing ma­te­rial for kids.

Petrou re­cently spoke to Kathimerini about “Re­betiko,” its suc­cess, the genre and more.

Could the suc­cess of “Re­betiko” have to do with the fact that both the gen­res, one in lit­er­a­ture and the other in mu­sic, are con­sid­ered the prod­uct of a sub­cul­ture?

For years re­betiko was viewed as a sub­cul­ture by many cir­cles, so­cial and po­lit­i­cal. The right wing per­se­cuted it be­cause it con­sid­ered it an ex­pres­sion of the lumpen pro­le­tariat, while the left lam­basted it be­cause, they ar­gued, it con­trib­uted to the de­cline of the work­ing classes, a world that they had a duty to ex­alt. Af­ter 1980, re­betiko ex­pe­ri­enced a re­vival with the dis­cov­ery of some of the ear­li­est record­ings and of the rich mu­si­cal her­itage it rep­re­sented. In a sim­i­lar man­ner, comic books were con­sid­ered ma­te­rial for chil­dren, es­pe­cially in Greece. Else­where, mainly in France but also in Spain and Italy, there is a comic book cul­ture. Peo­ple read graphic nov­els as they do con­ven­tional lit­er­a­ture; no dis­tinc­tions are made be­tween the two. The mar­riage be­tween the two, re­betiko and comics, is defi- nitely a happy one and more so due to the fact that it was done by a French­man, be­cause a Greek would never had suc­ceeded. A Greek would face too much fire from too many di­rec­tions: From ex­perts, re­searchers and fans of the genre. Prudhomme’s “Re­betiko,” more­over, is fic­tion and not a his­tor­i­cal ac­count, though I don’t be­lieve that his few his­tor­i­cal in­ac­cu­ra­cies have any neg­a­tive im­pact on the qual­ity or the beauty of the novel. This is some­thing a Greek would never be al­lowed to do and cer­tainly some­thing that would never be a suc­cess if a Greek were to do it.

How well has “Re­betiko” done and why?

In France it has done very well in­deed. It was awarded the Prix Re­gard sur le monde [glance at the world prize] at the An­gouleme In­ter­na­tional Comics Fes­ti­val in 2010 and the grand prize at the Saint Malo Fes­ti­val the pre­vi­ous year. It has also re­ceived awards at other fes­ti­vals, though these were not ded­i­cated ex­clu­sively to comics. For ex­am­ple, in 2010 it was awarded best adapted screen­play at a film and lit­er­a­ture fo­rum in Monaco.

Its suc­cess in France is in­ex­pli­ca­ble be­cause the French know noth­ing about re­betiko mu­sic. Its suc­cess in Spain, the Nether­lands, Ger­many and Italy must be due to its orig­i­nal pop­u­lar­ity in France. Ob­vi­ously the sub­ject and the ap­proach are at­trac­tive to read­ers. It is a very bal­anced al­bum, as much in terms of nar­ra­tive as its col­ors and de­sign. It also presents a side of Greece that has noth­ing to do with its an­cient past, as is usu­ally the case.

Do you think that non-Greeks see re­betiko as a fad or as a new cul­ture?

I can’t say if it’s a fad. They prob­a­bly see it as be­ing some­what ex­otic, as they would any­thing else that is un­known, but also al­lur­ing. For Prudhomme, whom I have met, I think it was a rev­e­la­tion. An en­tirely un­fa­mil­iar world was re­vealed to him and I think that its au­then­tic­ity, its bravado, the mu­sic and the en­tire so­cial con­text that he dis­cov­ered were very at­trac­tive to him.

Does he speak Greek?

Not a word. He read Gail Holst’s book “The Road to Rem­betika” that came out in Greece in 1979. He read it in a re­print that was ac­com­pa­nied by a CD and was deeply moved by the songs. He went to the Greek book­store Des­mos in Paris and found more ma­te­rial, such as Elias Petropou­los’s “Songs of the Greek Un­der­world,” and be­gan work­ing on the graphic novel about re­betiko. From what I know, it took him over two years to com­plete. He be­gan in 2007 with a few rough draw­ings, which he then scrapped, he rewrote the story and then pre­sented the pro­ject to the pub­lish­ers at Fu­tur­opo­lis, who were com­pletely en­thu­si­as­tic about it and en­cour­aged him to keep go­ing.

Is it a real story or fic­tion?

The story it­self is com­pletely fan­tas­ti­cal, fic­tion. It is based on real peo­ple, though: Pi­raeus’s fa­mous re­betiko band com­pris­ing Markos Vam­vakaris, Gior­gos Batis, Anestos Delias and Stratos Payioumtzis. He has taken Payioumtzis out of the pic­ture and added a guy called Stavros, who re­sem­bles Yian­nis Pa­paioan­nou a lot, though he never played with any of the mem­bers in that group. He added an­other imag­i­nary char­ac­ter to the group of four, who is the nar­ra­tor and re­counts one day in their lives: their com­ings and go­ings, their mu­sic, their re­la­tion­ships, but also their fights with the po­lice and so on.

Was it strange for you to trans­late a story about re­betiko from French into Greek?

It was a very at­trac­tive pro­ject be­cause I lis­tened to re­betiko as a kid and now I play it, and I’m also into comics: I draw and I work in a field that is re­lated to comics. Trans­lat­ing it was a great plea­sure, as was its fi­nal pub­li­ca­tion. Prudhomme did not draw much from French slang in or­der to ren­der the re­betiko world’s id­iom, but rather used reg­u­lar French with just a few id­iomatic el­e­ments. Ba­si­cally, I had to re­write the di­a­logue so that it seemed that peo­ple like Vam­vakaris and Batis were ac­tu­ally speak­ing, peo­ple who lived in Greece in the 1930s. I had to add the id­iomatic el­e­ments of the lan­guage my­self.

Is your sec­ond comics al­bum, “Parar­lama,” with short sto­ries by Di­mos­the­nis Voutyras [1872-1958], an ef­fort to marry comics with lit­er­a­ture?

No, the ini­tial idea was not to marry comics with lit­er­a­ture in or­der to draw read­ers to ei­ther one or the other. It was a test. We wanted to see how pos­si­ble the adap­ta­tion of lit­er­a­ture to comics is. The re­sult was very sat­is­fac­tory so we went ahead an adapted nine of Voutyras’s short sto­ries. I think that Voutyras’s work is es­pe­cially well suited to the lan­guage of comics be­cause he is, I would say, a very im­por­tant writer who was treated as in­fe­rior by crit­i­cal cir­cles. He is un­der­es­ti­mated. He was even cast out of the Academy of Athens at one point.

Do the worlds of Voutyras and re­betiko con­verge at all?

Yes, very much so, be­cause Voutyras’s sto­ries are mostly about the lives of so­cial out­casts who spend their days at tav­er­nas and cof­fee shops. They are drunks and alien­ated from so­ci­ety. Voutyras’s heroes are there­fore akin to re­betiko in terms of style and ethos. There are a lot of sim­i­lar­i­ties that aren’t im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous.

Are you at all con­cerned that “Parar­lama” may be con­sid­ered too much of a novel of man­ners?

Voutyras is right on the limit of writ­ing a novel of man­ners, but he is far too edgy to be de­fined as such. But I don’t re­ally see why it mat­ters. I would like it bet­ter if con­tem­po­rary comics were more nov­els of man­ners in the clas­si­cal sense, in that they de­scribe, present and com­ment on the con­tem­po­rary Greek way of life. Some ef­forts have been made here and there but be­cause this is not a home­grown genre and most comics artists were ini­ti­ated by read­ing Amer­i­can comics – few read French graphic nov­els be­cause of the lan­guage – they are heav­ily in­flu­enced by themes re­lat­ing to Amer­i­can cul­ture. “Dress­ing” your su­per­heroes in the man­tle of Greek re­al­ity makes no sense un­less it is done so in jest.

Thana­sis Petrou brought the lumpen

char­ac­ters of Di­mos­the­nis Voutyras’s short sto­ries to life in ‘Parar­lama’ (left). ‘Re­betiko,’ a French

graphic novel trans­lated into Greek by Petrou, and ‘Parar­lama’ share a com­mon trait in that they de­pict fig­ures that have been cast out of main­stream so­ci­ety.

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