Books are journeys – across time, across space, and into the depths of the soul. They are intersections of fantasy and reality, and can transport us to places unseen. The literary works of great Greek authors, for instance, can lead us into a realm unbound by laws or borders. A realm where everyone belongs. These masterpieces of Greek literature and poetry become vehicles of a journey that enriches the soul, giving it wings to soar.
Here, we have handpicked 10 remarkable works of Greek literature and poetry, available in English translation, that will take you on a unique journey to Greece – a country rooted in history and memory. These books are woven with vibrant and dark threads alike, and they continue to shine, both in the light of recognition and through the ashes of time.
1. Zorba the Greek – Nikos Kazantzakis
A gripping tale that unfolds before the First World War, centred around a young English writer who travels to Crete to claim a modest inheritance. There, he meets Alexis Zorba, a middle-aged Greek man brimming with life. Zorba, a man who has lived and loved deeply, gradually transforms the Englishman and the reader alike. ‘Zorba the Greek‘, Nikos Kazantzakis’ most celebrated novel, draws its roots from the author’s experiences in the Peloponnese in the 1920s. The adventures of his charismatic hero continue to captivate readers worldwide, decades after its first publication in the 1950s.
2. Life in the Tomb – Stratis Myrivilis
‘Life in the Tomb‘ is a profound war novel, penned in the form of a sergeant’s journal from the trenches. Since its serial publication in 1923-1924, it has been the most successful and widely read serious work of fiction in Greece, selling over 80,000 copies. It has also been published in multiple translations and is the first volume of a trilogy that includes ‘The Mermaid Madonna’ and ‘The Schoolmistress with the Golden Eyes’.
3. The Great Chimera – M.Karagatsis
Eager to flee the parochialism of her French upbringing, and a painful family past, the young and beautiful Marina falls in love with a seductive Greek sea-captain she meets at the port of Rouen. She follows him to the Aegean island of Syros to begin a new life as a married woman in the home of her formidable mother-in-law. Enchanted by the beauty of her surroundings, and fascinated by her husband’s erudite younger brother, she aspires to learn all she can about contemporary Greek culture and live up to the ideals of her classical education. But when disaster upends her husband’s shipping business and the comfortable stability of their life together, Marina’s world slides into a vicious circle of love, passion, and death.
Set in the early decades of the twentieth century, The Great Chimera is an exquisite account of the inner life of the heroine, and the collisions of different cultures and ways of being. In prose that ranges from the lyrical to the tersely realist, Karagatsis weaves a classic tale that is wide-ranging in its literary references, and devastating in its psychological nuance. This modern Greek tragedy has been made into a TV series and a highly acclaimed stage play, enjoying three sold-out seasons in Athens, and an international tour.
4. The Murderess – Alexandros Papadiamantis
The Murderess is a bone-chilling tale of crime and punishment with the dark beauty of a backwoods ballad. Set on the dirt-poor Aegean island of Skiathos, it is the story of Hadoula, an old woman living on the margins of society and at the outer limits of respectability. Hadoula knows about herbs and their hidden properties, and women come to her when they need help. She knows women’s secrets and she knows the misery of their lives, and as the book begins, she is trying to stop her new-born granddaughter from crying so that her daughter can at last get a little sleep. She rocks the baby and rocks her and then the terrible truth hits her: there’s nothing worse than being born a woman, and there’s something that she, Hadoula, can do about that. Peter Levi’s matchless translation of Alexandros Papadiamantis’s astonishing novella captures the excitement and haunting poetry of the original Greek.
5. A Tale Without a Name – Penelope Delta
An enchanting powerful fable as timely today as on first publication a century ago. The kingdom used to be a place of paved roads and well-filled coffers, with joy and the good life all around. But the old king went the way of all flesh years ago, and now the kingdom is derelict, a land of wickedness and ruin. But a young prince and his sister begin to see what must be done, and-if they can-to restore what has been lost. For a hundred years A Tale Without a Name has been one of Greece’s best-loved stories. This playful, wise fable is enchanting for readers of any age, as meaningful and moving now as when it was first written. “Constantly intrigues and excites…Like Animal Farm … thirty or so years later, it’s a political tract in thin but compelling disguise” Books for Keeps Penelope S. Delta’s A Tale without a Name is translated from the Greek and charmingly illustrated with all-new black and white drawings throughout by Mika Provata-Carlone, and published by Pushkin Press.
6. The Axion Esti – Odysseas Elytis
When Odysseus Elytis was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Swedish Academy’s citation singled out “The Axion Esti”, first published in 1959, as ‘one of twentieth-century literature’s most concentrated and richly faceted poems.’ It can be seen both as a secular oratorio, reflecting the Greek heritage and the country’s revolutionary spirit, and also as a kind of autobiography, in which the spiritual roots of the poet’s very individual sensibility are set in the wider philosophical context of the Greek tradition. In his evocation of eternal Greece, his vision of the war and its aftermath, and his concluding celebration of human life, Elytis is a true voice of our age A- a deeply personal lyric poet who speaks for humanity at large.
7. Christ Recrucified – A Novel-Nikos Kazantzakis
The inhabitants of a Greek village, ruled by the Turks, plan to enact the life of Christ in a mystery play but are overwhelmed by their task. A group of refugees, fleeing from the ruins of their plundered homes, arrive asking for protection – and suddenly the drama of the Passion becomes reality.
8. Diaries of Exile – Yannis Ritsos
Yannis Ritsos is a poet whose writing life is entwined with the contemporary history of his homeland. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this volume, which presents a series of three diaries in poetry that Ritsos wrote between 1948 and 1950, during and just after the Greek Civil War, while a political prisoner first on the island of Limnos and then at the infamous camp on Makronisos. Even in this darkest of times, Ritsos dedicated his days to poetry, trusting in writing and in art as collective endeavours capable of resisting oppression and bringing people together across distance and time. These poems offer glimpses into the daily routines of life in exile, the quiet violence Ritsos and his fellow prisoners endured, the fluctuations in the prisoners’ sense of solidarity, and their struggle to maintain humanity through language. This moving volume justifies Ritsos’s reputation as one of the truly important poets in Greece’s modern literary history.
9. Wildcat Under Glass – Alki Zei
The story is set on an island in Greece during the 1930’s as the nation is forced into a Fascist dictatorship. It is told through the eyes of a young girl named Melia, who relates the experiences of her family as they are forced to accept life under a repressive government. The book provides an interesting look at an important period of Greek history and tells it from a child’s perspective. The naturalness and liveliness of the dialogue is combined with the seriousness and depth of the meaning. In a playful atmosphere, the reader is aware of and enjoys a mature thought that deals with and analyses social visions while trying to discover the threads that move them. The value of the book consists in precisely this combination. One of its virtues and what makes it universal is also that the narration, although set in Greece at a particular period of time, seems somehow spaceless and timeless.
10. Drifting Cities – Stratis Tsirkas
‘Drifting Cities’ is a saga set against the backdrop of three cities – Jerusalem, Cairo, and Alexandria – as they descend into chaos in a war-ravaged Middle East. Its protagonist, Manos, is a poet and a lover of life who deserts the national army to join the leftists in their secret struggle against Greek fascists and royalists.
Underground operations take him from city to city, involving him in a chain of shifting and perilous relationships. Manos is forced to choose between his human impulses and the brutal dictates of Communist ideology.Combining an exotic brilliance of detail reminiscent of Lawrence Durrell ‘s The Alexandria Quartet with the sweep and historical passion of Andre Malraux, Stratis Tsirkas has, with Drifting Cities, established himself as a novelist of international importance.
A chronological outline at the end of the book accompanies the reader through all the important historical events depicted in the novels. The trilogy Drifting Cities has also been published in Arabic, French, Italian (The Club), Romanian, Spanish and Turkish.
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