Greek novelist Dimitris Sotakis talks on the universality of human agony and the appeal of Greek literature in Egypt – News – Books

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It all began with last year’s Cairo International Book Fair when Greece was the guest of honour.

This provided an opportunity for publishers to work on producing Arabic translations of modern and contemporary Greek literature, publishing new titles and drawing attention to some previously translated literary works. Among these  newly translated texts is greek novelist Dimitris Sotakis’s  novel The Resurrection of Michael Jackson, whose Arabic translation was first published in 2022 by Safsafa Publishing House.

This novel, which is less than 200 pages long, is compelling and easy to read and is both captivating and intellectually engaging. Like the rest of the work of this contemporary and widely translated novelist – Sotakis’s work has been translated into over 11 languages – the text stands somewhere between the surreal and the real. It raises questions about a man who is trying to “manage” his depression and his “dream of suicide” through a journey where isolation becomes the norm until it gets challenged by “the resurrection” of Pop star Miachel Jackson a year after his death.

According to Sotakis, the novel, which was written before the pandemic, depicts the horrifying impact of depression on individuals who cannot cope. During the pandemic and the sense of isolation and fear of illness that came with it, the novel, according to Sotakis, attracted even more attention.

Sotakis argues, however, that this fear of illness and this drifting towards isolation is not an exclusive phenomenon that accompanies pandemics. Even if these feelings tend to increase at times of adversity or hardship, such as during pandemics or wars, they have become much more common than many people tend to think. A case in point are the feelings of isolation, fear and loneliness that accompanied Greece’s economic depression a decade ago.  

Sotakis says that the whole point of works such as The Resurrection of Michael Jackson or The Miracle of Breathing – another work by him which caught the attention of many readers inside Greece and abroad – is to demonstrate the “universal nature of the issues they deal with.” The settings of these works, says Sotakis, could be anywhere and the heroes could be anyone. At the core of all these works is what Sotakis calls “the agony of human existence.”

Sotakis does not hasten to name the protagonist of The Resurrection of Michael Jackson, although the best part of the novel is a first-person account. The idea here, according to Sotakis, is that people can sometimes drive themselves to isolation or be driven to it. Sotakis also portrays the ambivalence his hero feels towards isolation. This is how the protagonist of this particular novel oscillates between feeling lost for losing his isolation and feeling regret for letting Michael go. He is comfortable when he is alone; he is afraid when he is alone; he is happy when in company; and he is afraid when in company.

Examining this complicated dynamic is integral to the work Sotakis has been publishing since his first collection of short stories came out in Greek in 1997. He insists that the attention his work has received and the translation of many of his works to a number of languages did not provoke him to write genre fiction that can be easily recognisable by anyone anywhere in the world. Such uniqueness, he argues, could be the reason why he has been getting much attention. He says he loves to explore the endless quarrel between attachment and detachment,  and  the metaphysical. After all, he said, literature is a very personal matter.

Still, he believes that modern and contemporary Greek literature is attracting more attention – which he finds quite promising. It is quite a shift, he argues, form a dominating interest in classics and folk-based stories. The economic crisis that Greece went through, he argued, did two things: it gave birth to much more literature and it attracted foreign publishers’ attention to young and relatively new writers like himself, a writer born in 1973.

Having Greece as the guest of honour at the 2022 Cairo International Book Fair, he said, helped introduce his work and that of other contemporary Greek novelists to both Egyptian and Arab readers.  

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