(by Simone Perotti)
Nanos Valaoritis is an elderly gentleman of 93 who has lived, to say the least, intensely. He welcomes us to his home in the elegant suburb of Kolonaki, in the city centre, at just a stone’s throw from Sintagma Square. I imagine that this minimum of comfort is the result of a life of hard work, which has produced a small reward in this final stage.
Poet, philologist, language and literature researcher and translator. What is Nanos Valaoritis?
He is, above all, a poet. “I started writing poetry as a teenager, when I was fascinated by the verses of Kavafis. I remember saying to myself: I want to write poetry like this”. The result has been an artistic production based on essentialism, poetic surrealism, perhaps due to the influence of many of his English and French friends, during his years of exile: “We were under Nazi occupation. My mother could see I was worried, they had killed several of our relatives, and I was also unhappy for a number of sentimental reasons … So she said to me ‘you must leave Nanos, go…’.
And I left, in a boat, towards the East, through the Cyclades. An Odyssey, like fugitives, for a tumultuous sea. We were forced to stay in Tinos for a week due a very strong Meltemi. One day I woke up and our boat was floating away, without us! I woke everyone up, and ran to the marina, a partisan of the guerrilla extreme-wing, carrying a heavy machine gun says to me ‘don’t worry, I’ll bring that boat back to you in ten minutes’. So we leave again, but as we were trying to reach Izmir our helmsman falls asleep at the helm and we end up towards Bodrum. A nautical catastrophe. But this doesn’t stop us from finding people who help us, give us food, and in the end we reach Alexandria in Egypt. Then I go to England, where I start translating the Greek poets, I meet TS Eliot, and other splendid persons. Then I go to Paris, the world of the Surrealists, where we were often in the company of Andrè Breton, a discerning intellectual of great creativity. A wife, a son, who in the meantime I lose, the other side of fortune … Then I meet my current wife, the surrealist painter, Marie Wilson…”
Nanos Valaoritis, often talks about fortune. I ask him if it is not perhaps a consequence of having started a journey, like Ulysses, opposed and helped by fate, but above all because he was man who was searching. He smiles, he eyes tell me that he is grateful for this comparison. And he admits it: “yes, of course, I left. And during the journey, almost everything happened. You’re right”.
We discuss the recession “we are being attacked by the cultures of Northern Europe. People are depressed, apathetic. But this recession is also an opportunity. People are starting to talk to each other again, to simulate each other. Young people can create new solutions, and what will ultimately pull us out of this swamp is creativity. We need to invent something new, and technology, the desire for well-being, the desire to enjoy life, are all very powerful drivers”. We then talk of the Mediterranean “This idea of an alliance between the countries of the Mediterranean is a splendid one, and would strengthen the position of each country while reinforcing those strong elements of common identity that have always existed”. I talk to him of immigrants, of the fact that History will condemn us as murderers, the creators of a holocaust. We speak of the fact that the immigrants that today are seen as nothing more than foreigners who want to enter Europe, tomorrow could be fellow citizens of the Mediterranean who move within the macro borders of a single Country. These suggestions inspire us, above all when Nanos Valaoritis gives Ulysses the merit of having created the concept of the Mediterranean with his long voyage in search of a home. “Ulysses indeed globalised the Mediterranean, from Asia Minor to the Ocean”.
We talk of art and culture as a tool of social criticism and recovery. “Athens has 600 small theatres, that risk closing down, but which are an enormous resource. I have done readings, with musicians and performers, and I have always seen so many people in the public. The people of Athens go to the theatre, they participate. They are interested, they follow events. This is very important stimulus”.
I ask Nanos Valaoritis if, after his long life and intense poetic production, he has a word, to which more than any other, he attributes a particular value, as a beacon in the dark, a concept which may be useful for the future and with which anyone can associate. What a difficult, selfish question. It is a word I need and my question might irritate him, catch him unaware. But Nanos stares into space, searching through his ideas, for something he knows, and then says that a word like that certainly exists. He doesn’t attempt to reply impulsively though, but remains in silence for a very long time, and then says “De Chirico had coined a term: the metaphysics of light. Perhaps the word you are looking for has something to do with that …”.
When we take leave of each other, above all because I do not want to abuse of his hospitality, rather than because he is tired, two hours have passed. We walk towards Sintagma Square in Silence, occasionally making comments, excitedly and filled with suggestions. The heat of Athens burns our skin, the coolness of the shadows refreshes us. We have meet a real poet, a man who has lived intensely. We are fortunate indeed.