The Ir­ish­man who loves, mourns Greece

Ir­ish Times colum­nist and founder of the Dur­rell School of Corfu Richard Pine dis­cusses his lat­est book, writ­ten af­ter 15 years in the coun­try

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY NICK MALKOUTZIS

Richard Pine’s pas­sion for Greece is not only deep, it has been a key part of his life al­most from the start. “I was pre­dis­posed to love Greece be­cause of my ed­u­ca­tion in the clas­si­cal Greek lan­guage,” said the Ir­ish author and theater critic dur­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion of his lat­est book, “Greece Through Ir­ish Eyes,” in Athens on Wed­nes­day.

Pine, 66, de­scribed for a group of jour­nal­ists at the James Joyce pub in Thi­seio his won­der at step­ping onto the stage at An­cient Epidaurus dur­ing a visit to Greece as a school­boy. “It was an emo­tional, hum­bling mo­ment to find that what one had been study­ing in school came to life on the stage that had been used by the an­cient Greeks,” he said.

In this re­spect, a sub­se­quent ca­reer at the Ir­ish pub­lic broad­caster RTE, at the Ir­ish Times and Ir­ish Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment among oth­ers seems to have only been a pre­lude to the ful­fill­ment of a boy­hood dream, which saw Pine move to Greece in 2001 to set up the Dur­rell School of Corfu on the Io­nian is­land.

Ded­i­cated to im­prov­ing un­der­stand­ing of the work of Lawrence Dur­rell and his brother Ger­ald, the school hosted sem­i­nars on lit­er­a­ture and the pro­tec­tion of the en­vi­ron­ment un­til 2014, when it too be­came a vic­tim of the Greek cri­sis.

How­ever, this did not di­min­ish Pine’s pas­sion for his adopted home. In fact, he di­rected his en­ergy to­ward us­ing the “Let­ter from Greece” col­umn that he had been writ­ing for the Ir­ish Times since 2009 into a book.

Ir­ish Am­bas­sador Noel Kilkenny said that the peo­ple read­ing Pine’s col­umn had “learned so much about Greece” over the past six years. “Ev­ery Ir­ish per­son knows about Alexis Tsipras and SYRIZA, and Richard played a sig­nif­i­cant part in this,” he added.

Pine’s book, though, is not just about the cri­sis or Greek pol­i­tics. It is a sweep­ing look at the many el­e­ments that have con­trib­uted to make mod­ern Greece what it is to­day, in­clud­ing his­tory, cul­ture and the arts. Pine also probes at the var­i­ous com­plex ideas and ideals that com­bine to form the con­cept of “Greek­ness” (Ellinikotita), which he be­lieves can be broadly de­fined by five key words that cen­ter around “free­dom” (eleft­he­ria).

“I am still try­ing to find what Greece is,” he ex­plained on Wed­nes­day but stressed that many of the prob­lems that have arisen in the coun­try’s deal­ings with its Euro­pean part­ners over the last few years stem from the in­abil­ity of “nonGreeks to un­der­stand what Greek­ness is.”

“We think of the cri­sis as what hits our pock­ets,” he said. “But the cri­sis is a cross­road be­tween two mind-sets.”

Pine ex­hibits a vis­i­ble frus­tra­tion with many Euro­peans for fail­ing to take the time to un­der­stand Greece. This is es­pe­cially the case with some of his coun­try­men, as the author feels that there are “enor­mous sim­i­lar­i­ties of a psy­chic kind” be­tween Greece and Ire­land.

Pine, though, is not blind to Greece’s deep-rooted prob­lems. He be­moaned the lack of “in­cen­tives for suc­cess” for young Greeks in their home­land and spoke with real emo­tion about the teenagers in his vil­lage that may have to move abroad in the fu­ture. But, as Pine makes clear in his book, Greece’s con­tra­dic­tions and the con­trast­ing emo­tions it pro­duces are what de­fine the coun­try.

“You don’t love Greece to­day and mourn it to­mor­row,” he said on Wed­nes­day. “You have to do it at the same time.”

Kathimerini English Edi­tion caught up with the author ahead of his book launch in Athens to find out more about

what lies be­hind his lat­est work.

The cliche – or any other of the cliches ap­plied to Greece and the Greeks – is so un­fair that the only way to re­move it was to at­tempt “Greece en­tire” – which is equally elu­sive. But, as I say in the book, it was nec­es­sary, es­pe­cially in the light of the cri­sis, to “ex­press the very se­vere – and pos­si­bly fa­tal – con­di­tion of Greece, its econ­omy, its ad­min­is­tra­tive sys­tem, its geopo­lit­i­cal po­si­tion, its peo­ple, in terms which go be­yond the daily grind of aus­ter­ity and its causes, and pro­vide a por­trait of ‘Greece en­tire’: its ad­her­ence to be­liefs and be­hav­iors so deeply en­grained in the Greek psy­che, so rad­i­cally af­fected by its ecol­ogy, so cel­e­brated and yet so mis­un­der­stood. To keep faith with this ‘Greece en­tire’ be­came an im­per­a­tive be­cause it looks for that which is peren­nial and per­dur­ing, which can­not be changed or de­stroyed. Po­lit­i­cal crises have sought to af­fect Greek­ness, but the Greece I have found and which I de­scribe can­not be af­fected by mere pol­i­tics or the va­garies of the mar­ket­place.”

There are 11 mil­lion peo­ple, al­most 200 years of mod­ern his­tory, many dif- fer­ent re­gions and I con­sid­ered it es­sen­tial to ex­plain this di­ver­sity to the reader who knows lit­tle or noth­ing of Greece, even by means of a su­per­fi­cial de­scrip­tion of each area of in­ter­est.

Well, af­ter 15 years in Greece I’m still car­ry­ing too much Ir­ish bag­gage and not yet enough Greek bag­gage. But yes, the par­al­lels are strik­ing – some on the good side, some on the detri­men­tal side. I’ve had fre­quently to tell Ir­ish peo­ple who are too ready to crit­i­cize Greece (and the Greeks) that they should not throw the first stone, given the ap­palling sit­u­a­tion caused by the Ir­ish bank­ing cri­sis, the cor­rup­tion in Ir­ish bu­reau­cracy, the Ir­ish names on the “La­garde list.”

I love the strengths of Greece and I mourn its weak­nesses. Strengths in the peo­ple them­selves, their cre­ativ­ity, in­dus­tri­ous­ness, per­se­ver­ance, en­trepreneur­ship and – dare I say it – charm. They refuse to be de­feated. They de­mand the right to be wrong.

And the weak­nesses, which are be­wil­der­ing be­cause some­times they seem to emanate from the same sources: the sti­fling of that en­trepreneur­ship and dulling the nat­u­ral en­ergy of its young peo­ple, by fail­ing to stim­u­late it through in­cen­tives, and al­low­ing emi­gra­tion of its best brains; com­pla­cency; and of course the crony­ism and clien­telism which you your­self have iden­ti­fied as stem­ming from that pre­cious phe­nom­e­non of the fam­ily and spread­ing through­out ex­tended fam­i­lies into the wider com­mu­nity of both blood re­la­tion­ships and other bonds/in­debt­ed­ness in com­merce and pol­i­tics.

I would have to ar­gue with you on this: If the Ir­ish protested less, it was to their detri­ment com­pared with the Greek protest, and may be due to Ir­ish sub­mis­sion to force ma­jeure; the ap­par­ent will­ing­ness to sub­mit in par­tic­u­lar to the ef­fec­tive mort­gag­ing of ev­ery man, woman and child to sal­vage the bank­ing sys­tem; and the ca­pac­ity to ac­cept the bank­rupt na­ture of mod­ern Ir­ish pol­i­tics.

Ire­land sur­vived and ex­ited the bailout only be­cause it has a far greater ca­pac­ity than Greece for gen­er­at­ing wealth, through the cor­po­rate tax haven, the con­se­quent pres­ence of so many multi­na­tion­als which have made Ire­land the Euro­pean hub, such as Google and PayPal, and the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal and com­puter com­pa­nies. Th­ese, with lit­tle in­dige­nous help from the Ir­ish, saved Ire­land from even worse de­cline, and en­abled the Ir­ish fi­nance min­is­ter [Michael Noo­nan] to lecture Greece con­de­scend­ingly.

I can­not be “wise” or “wiser” be­cause I have looked and I have found only a part. As I say in the book: “One mag­nif­i­cent Greek word which, for me, en­cap­su­lates so much of what is at­tempted by Greece’s voyeurs, is ski­ag­ra­phy: Tech­ni­cally, it’s a term for the process of xray­ing (and also the con­struc­tion of sun­di­als) but lit­er­ally it means ‘writ­ing with shad­ows,’ skia be­ing a shadow. This is what we do, those of us who try to de­scribe Greece, whether we are in­sid­ers or vis­i­tors: We en­gage with the shad­ows that are all Greece is pre­pared to of­fer us, and we try to make pic­tures from the shad­ows. Maybe we achieve noth­ing more than a sil­hou­ette; maybe our ‘xray’ re­veals per­spec­tives that might oth- er­wise re­main hid­den. Who knows?”

I hope – and be­lieve – that I have found some shad­ows that en­able me to love but I know that those same shad­ows show me the le­sions of dis­ease with which we have to live. The im­por­tant thing is to love and mourn at the same time – not to com­mute be­tween the two – to live hope, hap­pi­ness and re­al­ity all at the same time.

I don’t think re­search was of much use, apart from my hav­ing read as much as I could in his­tory, pol­i­tics, so­ci­ol­ogy and an­thro­pol­ogy, as well, of course, as the vast lit­er­a­ture in nov­els and short sto­ries.

Re­search falls down in the face of ex­pe­ri­ence – watch­ing peo­ple at work, at leisure, in ar­gu­ments, shop­ping in the mar­kets, drink­ing cof­fee, mak­ing love – th­ese are real peo­ple, liv­ing their cul­ture 24/7, and ex­hibit­ing it in the gallery of the open streets and plateia (square). This is what helps me to un­der­stand Greek­ness, or at least to ap­pre­ci­ate its epipha­nies. I am con­stantly sur­prised, and a cul­ture that con­tin­ues to sur­prise is a vi­brant cul­ture, a vi­brant peo­ple. Di­min­ish the cre­ativ­ity and the elas­tic­ity that is within ev­ery­one and you di­min­ish Greece.

I have to take is­sue with your as­sump­tions about “progress” and “regress.” I am not at all sure that mod­ern Greek his­tory is a nar­ra­tive of “progress,” ex­cept in Western terms of mod­ern­iza­tion, which in­evitably means leav­ing be­hind some tra­di­tional as­pects of Greek­ness. I’m not so en­am­ored of “the glory that was Greece,” with its slav­ery, its ex­po­sure of new­born in­fants, its col­o­niza­tions, which di­min­ish its un­doubted world sig­nif­i­cance in terms of democ­racy and phi­los­o­phy. I don’t sub­scribe to the myth of “Ther­mopy­lae” and the 300. But I do mourn the re­place­ment of tra­di­tional Greece by as­pects of mod­ern “so­ci­ety” that are in my opin­ion less valu­able than what is be­ing jet­ti­soned. It’s a para­dox – I be­wail the ru­ral de­pop­u­la­tion which is tak­ing the young peo­ple out of the vil­lage, never to re­turn. They are en­ti­tled – usu­ally as first-gen­er­a­tion col­lege stu­dents – to find a bet­ter, more re­ward­ing life, but their coun­try owes them the chance to live that life in Greece, not in the USA, Canada, the UK or Aus­tralia. I asked a boy in the vil­lage who is study­ing elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing, “How will you vote in the [July] ref­er­en­dum?” His re­ply was heart­break­ing: “My head tells me that I must vote ‘Yes’ so that I can stay in this coun­try when I grad­u­ate; my heart tells me that I must vote ‘No’ to save the coun­try, even if it means I can never work here.”

I ob­ject to the way the EU has de­vel­oped from the vi­sion of its founders, into a cen­trist, de­ter­min­ist, Ger­man-dom­i­nated financial cen­ter, not least be­cause the cri­sis in Greece, Ire­land, Spain and Por­tu­gal demon­strated so clearly that the eu­ro­zone was ill-con­ceived and makes the whole EU vul­ner­a­ble to supra­na­tional and supra­con­ti­nen­tal forces which are joyrid­ing the uni­verse.

I re­gret that the his­tory lessons of geopol­i­tics and ge­o­fi­nance have not been learned since 1821, that Greece, de­spite its re­sis­tance, seems will­ing to sub­mit to the re­alpoli­tik of Brus­sels and Ber­lin. I re­gret that [Alexis] Tsipras had to kneel at [An­gela] Merkel’s feet to achieve the third bailout. I la­ment the way that [Ya­nis] Varo­ufakis – ad­mit­tedly his own worst en­emy – was de­spi­ca­bly treated by his peers, sim­ply be­cause he at­tempted to talk rea­son and eco­nom­ics in­stead of plat­i­tudes and “Where do I sign?”

I would like to end our con­ver­sa­tion with a quo­ta­tion from the note­books of Odysseas Elytis [Each one of us is our own Golden Fleece] – a clever ap­peal to the mythol­ogy of the Golden Fleece to il­lus­trate an es­sen­tial hu­man point? He’s writ­ing of self-dis­cov­ery and self-worth, and he says, in ef­fect, "Don’t look out­side for your true self, for the trea­sure, it’s within you” – and I be­lieve this ap­plies to all Greeks. And I be­lieve it ap­plies to Greece it­self – don’t ap­peal to the for­eigner for help, be­cause the for­eigner can­not know the real “you.”

Ir­ish Am­bas­sador Noel Kilkenny (left) and author Richard Pine (right) pose at the launch of the lat­ter’s new book at the James Joyce pub in Athens on Wed­nes­day.

Richard Pine’s book is pub­lished by The Lif­fey Press, which is based in Dublin.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Greece

© PressReader. All rights reserved.