|Dimensions||13 × 20.5 cm|
Serenity Modern Greek Classics
Translated by Joshua Barley
Serenity follows the journey of a group of Greek refugees who were displaced from their homeland in Asia Minor and settled in the summer of 1923 in a desolate corner of the coast, near Athens. Told in the author’s characteristic sparse, lyrical style and inspired by his own experience of migration, it details their hatred of war, their love for the nature surrounding them, the hostility of their new neighbours and their struggle to find meaning as they adapt to a new life. Though published in 1937, Serenity is a timely evocation of the eternal condition of the refugee, as seen by a writer with a deeply human eye.
One of the greatest Greek novelists.
Ilias Venezis was born in Ayvali, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) in 1904. Ιn 1922, when 1.5 million Greeks were displaced from Asia Minor, eighteen-year-old Venezis was taken prisoner and sent to serve as forced labour for fourteen months in central Anatolia. This experience informed much of his writing, including his novel Number 31328. He was a prolific writer of novels, short stories, histories, travelogues and more. His work has been translated in many languages. In 1957 he was elected to the Academy of Athens. He died in Athens in 1973.
Joshua Barley is a translator of modern Greek literature and writer. He read Classics at Oxford and modern Greek at King’s College, London. His translation of Makis Tsitas’ God Is My Witness is published by Aiora Press. A Greek Ballad, selected poems of Michális Ganás (translated with David Connolly), is published by Yale University Press.
Read the first chapter
Summer 1923: a multitude of Greek refugees from the East seek their new land in the wilderness of Anavyssos.
This story begins in July 1923. Anavyssos is a desolate place on the shores of the Saronic Gulf, roughly ten miles from Cape Sounion. No public road leads there. All the roads skirt the low hills that enclose this barren land, where the traveller will not find a single tree for shade. Lentisk, thorns, rushes and sand are all there is. The land has remained untilled for centuries, so that the sand, rain and sun have performed their works without the sweat of man. The hills continue down to the sea, girdling it and forming a natural bay with a narrow throat. Through this opening the jackals, hares and hornets can see the serene line of Aegina, Hydra and the Peloponnese in the distance, and who knows what they say among themselves about those far-flung lands.
For the traveller approaching from behind the hills, one single footpath leads to the seashore. The path finishes at the salt pans, the only sign of human life in this wilderness. The soil is heavy with clay, the succession of hills creates currents of air that draw away the clouds, and the salt dries easily in the pans, forming pyramids, white and tragic monuments of silence.
In a difficult year, when the rains do not favour the Mediterranean vines, the villagers living behind the hills take this path with their families, seeking work in the salt pans to survive. Some succeed, others are beaten to the work by those from more destitute parts, and still others cannot withstand the fevers brought on by the marshy waters of the small plain. This generation will pass, the next will come along, and then the next, all in turn taking the path to the sea when hunger pinches. That is how this path was made—a solid construction of the needy.
One morning in July 1923 the meltemi was not blowing as it usually does in the Saronic Gulf at that season. On one of the bare hills of Anavyssos, two people were digging, naked to the waist and dripping with sweat. Below them the sea was shimmering in the sun. The air was close and hazy, and the water in the pans was so stagnant that it was itself a reflection of the time and place.
‘I’m exhausted,’ said one of the two. ‘This blasted heat!’
The other laid down his pickaxe.
‘So am I, Vassilis, I’m sick of it. Where’ s this heading?’
‘Let’ s be patient,’ said the first. ‘If we’re lucky, it’ll be our salvation!’
‘If we’re lucky, yes! But now we’re starving while the others are making ends meet.’
He pointed down to the still salt pan.
‘I think,’ he continued, ‘we should go down there too. I’m sick of this!’
The other did not want to give in.
‘We’ve been digging for a month. You think we should give up just like that? Anyway, the statue must be somewhere here. Green said so. And when we find it…’
He did not complete his thought, as they had spoken about it so often.
‘Are you sure,’ said the other, ‘that he’ll pay you the right price? Remember what happened with the woman they found three years ago…’
Yes, he remembered what had happened three years ago. Other villagers had found that beautiful kore with the closed eyelids, fondly preserved by the earth for three thousand years. Green had taken her from them for peanuts. But were it not for him, they would have had to give her to the authorities, again for nothing. They later read in the newspapers of the vast sum the smuggler had made from sending the statue to America.
As they were talking, one of them noticed in the distance a cloud of dust rising at the furthest point of the footpath, where it met the hills.
‘Look!’ he said with surprise. ‘What’ s that?’
‘A herd of goats, surely?’
He disagreed. ‘No herd would be on the path at this time. They’re people.’
‘People? Here? So many? The salt pans are full. What’ll they do?’
‘Just look! Look!’
They shielded their eyes from the sun. The great cloud rose higher, coming nearer. It was like a living substance, cautiously threading its way through the hills into this still landscape, silently making for the only friendly outlet—the sea—with the instinct of an animal.
‘It’ s like an army!’ said one of the villagers, even more startled. ‘But no!’ he corrected himself, ‘I can see women and children.’
They looked at each other in fear. What were they after—with women and children too—in the wilderness of Anavyssos? Had an earthquake destroyed villages and forced the people to take the path to the sea in desperation?
‘Let’ s go down quickly and look!’
‘Yes, let’ s!’
The long procession came nearer. The cloud of dust lengthened in the close air and, little by little, was
absorbed into it, mingling and disappearing with the adaptability possessed by things of this world. Beneath the cloud, however, the assimilation was not so easy. A multitude of women, children and old men were groaning loudly, embattled by the sun and the exhaustion of the journey. Dust, worked into the sweat on their faces, dripped like mud. The young men were few. Most of the crowd were barefoot, and all of
them carried a load on their shoulders—a full sack or a bundle.
‘Oh! Where have they sent us to live?’ cried one woman. ‘It’ s a desert here! A desert!’
Then the other women, taking their lead from her, began to wail and curse their fate.
‘We’ll die in this wild place! We’ll die, along with our children! We’ll die!’
The men, young and old, did what they could to abate the panic. Each one fought to calm the woman
—his wife or mother—beside him. But the despair coursed through the thick air, fertile as pollen.
‘Nothing…!’ they wailed. ‘Nothing will save us! This is our end!’
They cried out for a tree, just one tree under which they could find shade. But in the whole expanse of the small plain there was not one vertical line. The land was darkened only by lentisk, on which the sun shivered.
At that difficult hour came the misery of the water. When they set out from Kalyvia, the last inhabited place in the area, they had been told they would find two wells on the path, and then another near the sea. Having drunk at the first, they made for the next. The expectation of it appeased their terrible thirst and brought light to their hearts.
Then from the vanguard came the news: ‘It’ s dry! The well is dry!’
Incapable of battling their fate any longer, they sat down on the ground. The cloud raised by their bloody feet halted above them. A deep moan passed through this yellow veil, struggling up towards God.
‘What have we done?’ they cried. ‘What have we done to deserve this?’
Gradually their voices weakened until they were nothing but low groans.
Soon they heard the footsteps of one of their companions, who had gone ahead and was returning.
‘Get up! Get up! The sea!’ he cried.
The sea! Where? The fallen mass stirred as one, as a wave propelled by this friendly image and the extraordinary power of words.
‘Get up! Get up!’ shouted the men. ‘One more push! We’ve reached the sea!’
The cloud, which had sunk onto the people, filled
its sails again and moved with them like a boat in the sky. They ran downwards, skirting a low rise. A young voice, more fervent and violent than the rest, rang out, only to be dissolved in the dust: ‘Salt! Salt! Look down there!’
The white pyramids in the salt pans—motionless, expressionless monuments—were glimmering in the silence of the horizon, and the light. Nothing could be more motionless and expressionless in this arid landscape. For these people, however, the pyramids cast a spell that sailed on the waves and over the mountains to their distant homeland, where salt pyramids whitened just like these.
It was a sudden, joyous stirring of memory, a distant message from the land that had raised them.
‘Thank you, Lord!’ they cried. ‘At least there’ s that’—and they pointed to the salt.
Just then the two villagers approached from the hill.
‘Hey, you there! Wait a moment!’ they shouted to the crowd.
The crowd halted.
‘Where are you going?’
‘Is this not Anavyssos here?’ a voice answered. ‘We’re coming here!’
‘Who are you?’
‘We are refugees.’
‘And what are you looking for here?’
‘We were given the land!’ answered a voice from the crowd. ‘We are going to live here!’
‘The land? What land?’ said one of the villagers in surprise. ‘Only rushes grow in this land.’
And then, ‘You’ll die,’ he told them, ‘you and your children! You’ll die, if you are really coming to live here!’
But the crowd, driven on now by the sight of the
salt, continued down to the shore with its last ounce of strength.
The two villagers stopped short, watching the procession.
‘And now?’ said the first to recover from the shock. ‘Now…?’
‘Do you really think they’ll stay?’ asked the other.
‘Didn’t you see how desperate they are? They’ll stay alright!’
With this assertion they realised at once what the news meant: if the refugees took the land, all this mystical labour, this struggling for ancient tombs, would be lost for good.
‘The wretched people!’ one of them cursed. ‘They’ll take the land we’re digging! If they find out what we’re up to, you can count on them to turn us in. Just when we had some hope…’
‘We must inform him!’ said the other. ‘Let’ s go tonight!’