Elias Petropoulos - In Memoriam


The death in Paris last week of Elias Petropoulos has passed unobserved in the English-language press. I offer the text that follows in memory of a decent man. In 1999 I travelled to Paris to meet him to clear up one or two problems arising with my translation of his book Rebetologhia. From our discussions I prepared a Preface for that volume. What follows is the text of that Preface. Please feel free to circulate it to anyone who might be interested.

"I meet Petropoulos, up the winding wooden staircase that leads to the study where he spends his days working and reworking texts on the manners, morals and modes of Greek culture. Books, boxes, card-files, dictionaries galore, and small packets containing the artwork for books that are just about to be consigned to the printer for publication - his 500-page illustrated History of the Condom, his history of The Cloth Cap in Greece, his Dictionary of Modern Greek Slang and his photographic volume on The Graves and Cemeteries of Greece.

"In the hours that we spend together he takes me down the hidden paths of rebetology. The stories of the singers and players of rebetiko music. The strange and unimaginable etymologies of rebetiko slang. The hidden meanings of the songs, and the stories behind them. The fine detail of how to pack a nargileh with hashish. The workings of the male sexual hierarchy in prison. The man is a walking encyclopaedia, a poet of life as she is lived, a national treasure of that Greece on which he turned his back in 1975 to live, instead, in Paris.

"Why, in the end, did he leave Greece? Because of his imprisonment? Because of the fascist junta which ruled that country? No. Simply, he says, because he found Greece so ‘tiring, so very tiring…’

"If there is anyone that Petropoulos hates, it is the nationalistic academicians of Athens and Thessaloniki. The lies and nonsense that they invent about the modern Greek language, the nationalism which they assert at every opportunity, and the way in which they try to limit the growth, creativity and multicultural vibrancy of languages. He seizes a large pair of scissors from the desk: ‘The academicians, they try to stifle language, they say you must say tipote [nothing] and not tipota, or tipotes, which is what people say in real life. And that’s like trying to cut off people’s tongues!’ He snips furiously with the scissors. The play on words works better in Petropoulos’ ponderous and forceful French, where langue is both ‘tongue’ and ‘language’. ‘Ils sont tous des cons…!!’ He merrily trades insults with them in the articles that he writes for various newspapers, and fires off linguistic provocations whenever the occasion permits. He learnt his respect for the vulgar tongue from his mother, who was reputed as being the most foul-mouthed woman in the neighbourhood, ‘at a time when ladies did not use that sort of language’. Italian had Dante for its De Vulgari eloquentia; modern Greek has Petropoulos.

"Sexology, scatology and women’s arses are also favourite fields. Photos of ladies’ bottoms are the first thing you see on entering the office - plus the odd dildo hanging about the place, and priapic figures with large penises. He has published a book of collages of this aspect of the female figure and has devoted various poems to the subject. In part the interest is erotic, but in part it is also sociological. For instance, he is bothering over a question: how and where did women piss in the days of society balls and huge, cumbersome crinolines? He discovers the answer in an advert for female hygiene appurtenances, published in a magazine at the turn of the century - small contraptions that could be strapped to a lady’s inner leg under her crinolines. And why were the ladies for ever going out onto the balcony to gaze at the moon? Sometimes to be able to piss in private. And sometimes to fart, because they were so tightly laced into their corsets that affluences of wind became positively painful.

"His discourse is full of such down-to-earth and vulgar observations. As we delve into the translation difficulties of the book, he expresses a regret that it cannot be more comprehensive in its coverage. But even one word (kavasis, dais, koutsavakis) requires a full ten minutes of explanation and anecdote to bring us anywhere near the full sense, meaning and derivation of it. He says - and this is an indication both to you the reader, and to the good man who is my publisher - that this kind of detail is contained in the very many newspaper and journal articles that he has written over the years, all of which deserve reading and all of which need to be translated.

"As an example: on the day I arrived, Petropoulos was preparing a newspaper article about the concert parties that were organized by the British army in Salonica in 1917-18, at the end of the First World War. He has a small pile of programmes for these events - produced on yellowing paper with a typewriter and multiple carbon copies. Private Such-and-Such will sing a Humorous Song entitled ‘The Maiden’s Lament’, and suchlike. And then the photographs: young British officers, posing with beautiful doe-eyed young women, handsomely dressed and gazing adoringly into their eyes. Only when you look more closely do you realize that these young women are actually British squaddies dressed exquisitely in drag. Treasures indeed! And where does he get all this stuff? Well, that is a story in itself, full of derring-do, but a story perhaps for another occasion…

"As a writer, Petropoulos is continuously and appallingly provocative to nationalists, religion-mongers, academicians, hypocrites and anyone with an exaggerated sense of their own importance. He has twice been imprisoned for his writings. He describes how those same fascistic laws of censorship are still on the statute book in Greece - it is only the pressure of public opinion that prevents them being applied. Were he to set foot back in Greece now, there would be the prospect of instant legal proceedings, because of his delightful habit of slandering and abusing priests. The blasphemy laws are rigorously enforced in that country…

"And he collects. Doggedly, consistently, over the years, accumulating, filing, annotating and documenting. Some idea of the breadth of these knowledges can be gained by a quick look at the Bibliography included in this volume. And for those who, after his death, will want to continue this kind of research, he is depositing his archives in the Library of the American University in Athens - the Gennadius Library. It is there, for instance, that his entire and utterly precious rebetika archive is now to be housed.

"So. We did the work. And this book is the product of that work. And do not imagine that, at the age of seventy, Petropoulos is resting on his laurels. Far from it. As I made my way down the winding wooden staircase into the bustle of late afternoon on the rue Mouffetard - ‘my village’, as he calls it - he called after me with a last-minute request:

‘Si par hazard vous avez quelque chose sur le cul… Je suis en train de faire une trilogie sur le cul…’

"I promise to send him all the materials I can. And so on my way. And as I wend my way slowly homewards via chuggy-chuggy train and the cross-Channel ferry, for I still like to think that I live on an island, I turn to thinking of the beauty of the small verse with which he prefaces his most recently published volume:

Sti zoi einai kala na kerdhizeis, alla prepei kai na xereis na chaneis. Kai, kyriws, na dhineis

“It means: In life, yes, it is important to earn and to gain. But you also have to learn how to be able to lose things. And, most importantly, to be able to give things. And for the generosity of Petropoulos’s giving we have much reason to be grateful.”

Ed Emery

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