English PEN Launches the PEN Atlas with this piece by Athens based writer Gazmend Kapllani.

What does an author do in a city that is collapsing? Like all the other non-authors, he tries not to collapse. He hopes that the worst is over, and yet he fears that perhaps the worst is yet to come. He observes the falling snow and for a moment he thinks about the homeless who have filled the streets of Athens. To them, snow means death. Perhaps this makes a certain book come to mind – 

A Sun for the Dying by Jean-Claude Izzo.

If he uses the metro often, he’ll observe that since the economic crisis began, the number of people reading books on the train has increased. Unfortunately the number of beggars who move from one train to another with their hand outstretched, has increased even more. In any case, the metro is the only place in Athens where the crisis, with all of its hazardous force, has not yet been entirely felt. Every time I descend into the station, it’s as if I am in a shelter which protects me from the prevailing feeling of melancholy which persists above ground. The people waiting on the clean platforms have more relaxed expressions on their faces. It’s as if they’ve put on a temporary mask. Once you ascend to the surface, the mask falls.

You walk along the streets of Athens, “collecting” various images – broken storefronts, glum faces, burnt buildings and homeless people who are like sad witnesses standing across from burned-out buildings. The ruined buildings are some of the most beautiful in Athens. They are victims of violence at the hands of “neo-barbarians” who are “children” of an “eternal present” – with no recollection, without a past and without a vision for the future besides their only slogan: “a burning city is a blossoming flower.”

One of the buildings destroyed by fire is the Attikon cinema, one of the city’s oldest. It was at this cinema, in February 1991, where I watched my first film in Athens – An Angel at my Table – a movie which tells the dramatic life story of New Zealand author Janet Paterson Frame. Back then I was a recent immigrant, in Athens for only two months, without residency papers and knowing very little Greek. I can still recall some scenes from that movie. Janet Frame was horribly stigmatized and suffered a great deal but in the end she made it. Standing in front of this burned cinema in Athens, I hope that Greece will follow the same fate of this famous writer, coming out of its scary present stronger.Putting my memories aside, I continue a little further down the street. Near the cinema I notice an open-air stall selling used books. Five euros per book. Used books, especially during these times of crisis, are sold for pennies in Monastiraki, an area below the Acropolis in the center of Athens. So how do these books end up for sale at the bookseller’s stall for five euros? If you follow their trail perhaps you will understand something about how Greece’s economy works. Since the crisis began, the number of readers in Greece has dramatically decreased. The price of books, however, used or new, has not decreased and in some cases, the prices have even gone up.

How can one find the nerve to write in a city that is collapsing? In my conversations with authors, new authors and well-established authors alike tend to feel despondent. They say the market for books is collapsing as well. Rumors about publishing companies are circulating: some are not paying authors, others are in danger of closing their doors, while bookstores are closing down one after another. People have other things to worry about and reading was never their strong point. “Author” was always a risky and extravagant “profession.” In a city that’s collapsing, however, being an author is like jumping into a void.

I take a look at the best-seller lists in the newspapers. In fiction, mostly romantic novels and crime fiction are popular. Best-selling essays are those trying to explain the economic crisis and criticize ruthless capitalism. I talk with owners of bookstores who have shops in wealthy Athenian neighborhoods. They have not shut down yet, like hundreds of other bookstores in poorer neighborhoods which have had to close. They tell me that the “quality readers” are those who have been hardest hit by the crisis. And that many readers ask for books that will make them forget and not think about what is happening around them.  

In a city that is collapsing, what can an author write about? And in the final analysis, who will read what you write? But if you don’t write when everything around you is tottering and changing, then when will you write? I recall something that Dino Buzzati wrote in one of his books: “Please write. At least two lines, even if your soul is restless and your nerves are gone. Every day, write.” Writing is a shield and therapy; it is an escape, an analysis, a reminiscence and it is imagination. You write because you have the illusion that you can translate the incomprehensible into a story. To borrow a phrase from Sepulveda, to write means to endure. Especially, to withstand one’s own fear, one’s own misery and melancholy. Through writing, you discover how unforgiving time is. And how every so often, hope springs from despair….

Athens, February 2012

About the Author

GazmendKapllani was born in 1967 in Lushnjë, Albania. In January 1991 he crossed the border into Greece on foot to escape persecution by the communist secret services. In Greece he worked as a builder, a cook and a kiosk attendant, while also studying at Athens University and completing a doctorate on the image of Albanians in the Greek press and of Greeks in the Albanian press. He is now a successful writer, playwright, broadcaster and journalist. His best-selling first novel, A Short Border Handbook has been translated into four languages (English, Polish, Danish and French). A Short Border Handbook was published and by Portobello Books in 2009, and was translated by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife.

Additional Information

Jean Claude Izzo (1945-2000) French writer – Sun for the Dying (1999) published by Europa Books, 2008. 

Dino Buzzati-Traverso (1906 – 1972) was an Italian novelist, short story writer, painter and poet, as well as a journalist for Corriere della Sera. His worldwide fame is mostly due to his novel Il deserto dei Tartari, translated into English as The Tartar Steppe, 1939. Available in Canongate edition. 

Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (1489–1573) was a Spanish humanist, philosopher and theologian