Margarita Karapanou - Her extremely muscular, tight prose makes a fine medium for the book’s relentlessly surreal, breathtakingly complex happenings, reminiscent of a Latin-inflected Pynchon

book cover of The Sleepwalker
Margarita Karapanou, The Sleepwalker, Trans. by Karen Emmerich, Clockroot Books, 2010.   


               
"Margarita Karapanou leads us into the labyrinth where God lives. One must read her as one reads Rimbaud or Blake... Karapanou's insistence on tearing off our everyday clothes and ridiculous masks makes her, indeed, a truly remarkable writer." - Jerome Charyn
At the opening of Margarita Karapanou's stunning second novel, in disgust at mankind God vomits a new Messiah onto the earth. Or rather, onto a Greek island. Populated by villagers, ex-pats, artists, writers, this island is a Tower of Babel, a place where languages and individuals have been assembled, as though in wait for something as horrific and comic as this second coming. The Sleepwalker moves deftly and dizzyingly between genres-satire, murder mystery, magical realism, its own brand of Theater of the Absurd-following Manolis, the new Messiah, as he moves through this place like a sleepwalker, unaware to the very end of his divine nature. Manolis, in his guise as policeman, leaves nothing unchanged by his passing, as the island shifts from a conventional locale for upper-class tourists and drifters to a place where the surreal comes to life and the sun refuses to set. In The Sleepwalker Karapanou has created an unforgettable depiction of a dissolute world, desperately comic and full of compassion, a world in which nightmare and miracle both uneasily reside.


Karapanou’s book feels like a naïve form of modernism, each of the text’s short, storylike chapters a work of bricolage built from the diverse materials circulating in her cluttered mind. Like the best art, her plots unfold without self-consciousness or apparent purpose, yet they resist simple interpretations and have an impressive structural solidity. Her extremely muscular, tight prose makes a fine medium for the book’s relentlessly surreal, breathtakingly complex happenings, reminiscent of a Latin-inflected Pynchon. Though the book thus described may sound like a mess, The Sleepwalker in fact exudes a sense of strong thematic unity in its slow, relentless progress toward apocalypse—which, when it does arrive, is just as rich, satisfying, and inevitable as everything that has led up to it. - Scott Esposito


Reading the late Karapanou's (1946–2008) dizzying novel, which won the French prize for best foreign novel, is like sleepwalking, as the title suggests. The story takes place on a small, unnamed Greek island steeped in intrigue, sexuality, deception, mysticism, and crawling with cheeky expatriate artists. Manolis is the police officer who governs the town but more than that, he is the handsome, slim-hipped, tortured, and violent son of God. Each chapter, told from the perspective of Manolis and the various ex-pats, is a short story of its own, ranging in style from magic realism to horror. The sum of these parts is an engrossing novel that entrances readers, enabling them to understand its cast of motley characters' incomprehensible actions—many played out in dreams. The tenor of Karapanou's (Kassandra and the Wolf) final novel is best summed up by Manolis himself, as he observes the group of characters who come and go from his island: "The others just drank and cried and used art to disguise their hopelessness; for them art was the last stop, their final excuse to live a little longer." - Publishers Weekly


On a Greek island where writers and painters gather, a new messiah sent down by a bored and bitterly disappointed God introduces mayhem to set straight the "small and ridiculous" beings who put pleasure and beauty above Law.
Originally published in 1985, but available in English only now, Karapanou's second novel (following Kassandra and the Wolf, 1974) helped establish her as one of Greece's most admired postmodernists. The author, who died in 2008, also established herself with these books as one of the most wicked and unsparing observers of modern life. Her artist characters are all suffering to begin with, bogged down in unfinished or unrealized works and lost in unfulfilling relationships. A painter is able to turn out only headless figures. A novelist who is too self-absorbed to enter his characters imagines "a violent death that might put me, just for a second, into the state you need to be in if you're going to write." His fantasy is realized. When the messiah, a cop named Manolis, takes his place among them, all charm and comfort on the surface but with devilish aims inside him, dark forces sweep through the community, leading to rape and murder and disappearances. Part crime novel, part satire, part metafiction, part phantasmagoria, the book is anything but somnambulant. Karapanou writes with a headlong intensity, maintaining a jaundiced but playful tone even when the violence is at its most shocking. There's a kind of centrifugal force at work, pulling the large cast of characters helplessly toward a heart of darkness.
An absurdist tour de force about lost souls and a lost deity by a criminally neglected Greek novelist. - Kirkus Reviews




Originally published in 1985 after her harrowing fictional debut Kassandra and the Wolf, Karapanou's second novel The Sleepwalker confirmed her reputation as one of Greece's most talented postmodern writers and one of her most imaginative chroniclers of human alienation. Part dystopia part satire, this surreal tale of lost souls, and a dethroned deity, is not so much a murder mystery as it is a murderer's mystery: the reader knows who is killing the islanders, but is left to wonder about the killer’s motives and real identity.â�¨ â�¨
The novel starts with an embittered God who, disappointed by the "small and ridiculous" human beings who put pleasure and beauty above Law, vomits a new Messiah onto an unnamed Greek island (clearly modeled after a real island in the Aegean Sea, Hydra). Emmanuel, as the Messiah is called, is a blond and strikingly handsome police officer who goes by the name Manolis; this Manolis is the murderer whose killings set the novel’s plot in motion. He is the savior men deserve, "made in their image and likeness." The islanders "adore" this beautiful cop—and particularly so the members of the island's eccentric community of bohemian expats, who worship beauty above all things.
Nearly all of these artists are suffering from a lack of creativity. They came to the island to find inspiration, but the island has betrayed them. "A prison smothered in flowers," the island is blindingly, flawlessly beautiful: it stifles inspiration rather than fuelling it. As one character, a devotee of Cioran, puts it: "would Kafka ever have written his Metamorphosis if he'd been smacked in the face with a view like that every morning?" The novelist Luka keeps repeating to herself "I have to write," but her hand seems paralyzed. To Mark, a gifted painter who can only turn out images of headless boys, the island is an infernal place: "this must be what hell is like . . . to have the same beauty constantly before you so your eye can never rest on anything ugly or plain." He used to draw the island incessantly and under his strokes the place would be born again. However, the harmony of the artist and his surroundings has ceased, and the island is now empty and full of frustrated ambitions.
In Karapanou's world, art brings neither redemption nor joy. In the words of the newly minted Messiah, "the island is full of writers . . . They all come here and drive themselves crazy, this one can't write, that one can't stop, they all go nuts in the end." What drives artists insane is their hubristic presumption to be able to capture man's fleeting emotions on paper (or canvas) and endow them with enduring significance. However, the artists fail because human feelings are transient and impossible to gauge. Through her blood-thirsty, tortured Manolis, Karapanou is tipping her cards: her writing repudiates any facile pretence of "realism." Instead it represents a wild celebration of the imagistic and the absurd. Karapanou’s writing style is fragmentary and cinematic, each chapter an almost self-contained vignette. She favors striking images (often laden with symbols) over psychological analysis. She deftly moves between opposite registers—the slapstick and the tragic live side by side in the same paragraph, and sometimes even the same sentence. This multifaceted tone is masterly conveyed by Karen Emmerich’s fluent and vibrant translation, which also enhances the almost electric, centrifugal quality of Karapanou’s sentences. The plot may at times seems disjointed and puzzling, yet her writing has a haunting, mesmerizing quality and a brutal, seductive power that keeps the reader engrossed to the very last line. And rather than looking dispersing or unnecessary, the fragmentary nature of the book acts as a vortex that sucks its readers in and allows them to experience the same disorientation and bewilderment Karapanou’s characters are going through. Her divine serial killer embodies her critique of Realism and rejection of bourgeois conventions, in society as well as in art.  In the words of the Chief of Police, Manolis is "a fag, a cocksucker, a lady's man, a sex fiend, a murderer—what can I say, I've never seen anything like it." Karapanou's Messiah is radically anomalous: at the same time a victim of God's inscrutable designs and victimizer, savior and assassin, homosexual and heterosexual, pious and blasphemous. In Manolis all traditional dichotomies blur, and yet the God fashioned by Karapanou appoints him as champion and restorer of the old order. â�¨
With the exception of Mark and Luka, the island's cosmopolitan artists are inveterate do-nothings who use art to disguise their hopelessness. They clutter the place with their idleness and disrupt the traditional societal structure the locals try to maintain with their rituals: "for Manolis that kind of disorder was worse than murder." The foreigners' Satanic drive is bent on altering God's prescribed order. From this perspective Manolis's killings are an indispensable service: "to kill was something clean, the nostalgia for a kind of order." These killings, then, are akin to sacrifices.  Sacrifice reestablishes and celebrates the divine order of things and man's place within it. God created the world "in a moment of unlawfulness," and his Son's murderous paroxysms mimic that instant of unlawful creation. Manolis always stabs his victims while having sexual intercourse with them. Rather than terror, what his victims experience is therefore death in a state of ecstasy, filled with "an inexpressible pleasure." Like in the myth of Semele Karapanou is obviously referring to, being pierced or penetrated by a god brings about deadly rapture. 
One morning the islanders wake up to find themselves totally surrounded by trash. No one bothers to collect it. The garbage comes to life and spreads like the gods' plague. Manolis takes upon himself the task of cleaning up the island: "If I don't do it, who will?" Like in Saramago's The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, God's motives remain unfathomable to the Anointed: "I'll never be able to understand your infinite perversion. First the murders, now this." He's only a blind tool in the hands of a superior, remote entity. He is the Sleepwalker of the title, carrying on actions he has no control over or no understanding of: "I'm at the center of a dream that lights up the world and guides it. I feel like the island is that dream, and I'm the one dreaming it." On the day of the Assumption, after the island's mules offer God the ultimate sacrifice by trampling to death most of the islanders in religious procession, Manolis vanishes—or rather, he meets his final apotheosis as Helios, the Sun god. From then on, the sun never sets and shines, motionless, on the island, disinfecting the ground and pushing all inhabitants indoors. Like one of Manolis's ecstatic victims, the island gives itself to the sun/Helios "like a body"—all human traces erased, the island is finally redeemed.
Karapanou's savagely ironic tour de force ends therefore with its very own catharsis, the horror and confusion expunged by an eternal summer day. Her main character's progression from Angel of Death to destructive natural force and her identifying salvation with the removal of mankind confirm Karapanou's ferocious misanthropy. She seems to relish the violence Manolis unleashes on the islanders—first as serial killer, then as scorching heat. A the same time though, her all-embracing sun that penetrates the painter Mark "with masterly strokes" reveals her nostalgia for a lost communion of man and Nature. It was that harmony that once allowed Mark's art to flourish and make sense of the world. Karapanou's tale of the "second coming" is all about recreating that harmony. Revitalized by the new Messiah's assaults, the artists stop sleepwalking and retrieve their voice. Mark can finally complete one of his portraits, and Luka's next book just flows out of her. The sun engulfs the island, and the island is one with God again. - Valentina Zanca


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Margarita Karapanou, Kassandra and the Wolf, Trans. by N. C.  Germanacos, Clockroot Books, 2009.
excerpt


"No retelling of Kassandra and the Wolf can explain its charm, or its riddles. ... [It] is one of those rare creations that come alive mysteriously, without any antecedents. The book is original, terrifying, complete. It invents its own history, eases in and out of nightmare as it mingles dream and fact. Kassandra and the Wolf is a short, muscular novel with an absolute sense of craft. ... The language throughout is merciless and crisp. ... [A] stunning achievement: a lovely, sinister book." - Jerome Charyn


Margarita Karapanou's Kassandra and the Wolf was first published in 1974, and went on to become a contemporary classic in Greece, receive international acclaim, and establish its 28-year-old author as an intensely original new talent, who garnered comparisons to Proust and Schulz.Six-year-old Kassandra is given a doll: "I put her to sleep in her box, but first I cut off her legs and arms so she'd fit," she tells us, "Later, I cut her head off too, so she wouldn't be so heavy. Now I love her very much." Kassandra is an unforgettable narrator, a perfect, brutal guide to childhood as we've never seen it--a journey that passes through the looking glass but finds the darkest corners of the real world.This edition brings Kassandra and the Wolf back into print at last--a tour de force and, as Karapanou liked to call it, a scary monster of a book.


"The novel disquiets, un-eases, disturbs, but intrigues. There is a coolness to its execution, Karapanou's testing of the limited perceptions of an emotionally damaged child who cannot speak for herself compels focus less on those harrowing events and more on their translation into lyric story." - Joseph Dewey


Kassandra and the Wolf is the story of a young girl who relates episodes from her life up until she begins school. The short chapters -- fifty-six in all, in a 115-page book -- reasonably convincingly present a child's undifferentiated view of the world, with little sense of cause and effect (and consequences), but the voice and impressions aren't always persuasive.
       That there are some unpleasant family-issues here, especially with mom, is clear from the first chapter, which reads in its entirety:
     I was born at dusk, hour of the wolf, July, under the sign of Cancer.
     When they brought me to her, she turned her face to the wall.

       That reaction is extreme, but throughout the book there is a lack of connexion to family members, certainly at any level that she can handle. At best, she's treated as a sort of sex-toy by some of those who look after her; it's hard to call what she's subjected to abuse (though that's clearly what it is) since she too sees it as a sort of playing. With children closer to her own age she also displays what comes across as a largely natural curiosity about the body -- but, of course, it generally isn't seen that way by adults.
       Still, sex is omnipresent, and even her grandmother offers the young girl some advice for when she's older:
     "Then, when the Gentleman takes you to be his Lady, when he puts on his pajamas and you put on your nightgown, and he stands upright and naked and then on top of you, don't ever show you like it. Just imagine that you're in the parlor, cross-stitching swans and peacocks. If you like it so much you can't stop yourself, pretend you've got stomach cramps. because if you were to moan, the Gentleman would divorce you and, with the name you have and the position you hold, that would be terrible
       Fortunately, she also gets other advice elsewhere ("learn the secrets under the sheets, open your legs and let the little stars and hurricanes into your belly"), but all of this seems way premature given her age.
       At its best, Kassandra and the Wolf captures childish (not-so-)innocence just right, as when Kassandra gets a lovely doll from her mother (also named Kassandra) and:
     I put her to sleep in her box, but first I cut off her legs and arms so she'd fit.
     Later, I cut off her head too, so she wouldn't be so heavy. Now I love her very much.

       At its more frequent worst Karapanou's attempts at conveying childishness sound ponderously silly:
     One morning, I couldn't hear. I quarreled with sounds. I turned into a table. I turned transparent.
     It rained from the sky, and the raindrops turned to tears on my cheeks. I chewed words, so heavy I couldn't lift them, turned to pebbles in my belly. I changed shapes constantly. (Dumb) words came out of my mouth, and the air around me tore them in pieces.
     Letters turned to reptiles.

       Kassandra stutters, but the realistic descriptions of this are far more affecting than this sort of approach.
       The very casual sexual abuse throughout the book is disturbing. But, while not quite benign, it is also presented in a way that it's obvious that that is not the worst thing that is happening to Kassandra. And the most horrific chapter in the book comes when she desperately wishes for a kitten: her grandmother finally gives in and Kassandra is overjoyed -- "It was the first time I felt happy, as the grown-ups called it in the parlor" -- but her grandmother tells her that she's only borrowed the kitten, and that it must be returned at the end of the week. Kassandra's reaction is plausible but of singular cruelty, and when the child acts out this way it is more disturbing than any of the violations she is subjected to.
       There is some cohesion to the scenes and some progression to the story, but Karapanou generally only touches on events before moving on to something else, barely exploring what the effects might be. In some cases that's sufficient, but in most it's not. The book ultimately feels much too thin -- and much too much like it's trying to get by solely on the sensational.
       The uneven writing, far too often devolving into the 'artsy', doesn't help either: there are some powerful undercurrents here, but Karapanou doesn't let them flow naturally through her narrative. The voice isn't convincing as that of a six-year-old child's -- and only some of the observations are -- and overall there's far too little here that works.  - www.complete-review.com/reviews/greece/karapanm.htm


This sophisticated little monstrum horrendum (not at all like The Godsend, to follow) is described as ""the first novel to reveal infant female sexuality"" although Kassandra is six. Beyond her primal concerns, whether in dreams or for real, she's a real Katzenjammer Kid--cutting off the head and legs and arms of her new doll (""Now I love her very much""), or making pipis or poops on the floor, or singing ""Three Blind Mice"" with two forks in her hair, or biting her way through ten governesses. Author Karapanou is Greek and some of her Kassandra's experiences have appeared in avant garde periodicals over here. Her precocity may serve to provoke more purposeful interpretation--the comparisons to which you're directed are Beckett, Kafka, and Kosinski. Goodness knows, this is much S-M-aller stuff. But then curiosity kills the cat--oh no, that was Kassandra sticking needles in her kitten's eyes. - Kirkus Reviews


Born in 1946 and writing through the Greek and international upheavals that marked the following decades, Margarita Karapanou today remains a unique writer, though during her lifetime she was not alone in plumbing and picking at the definitions of novel and chapterfiction and dream and character. In part this is due to her strong female voice, which will be heard loud and clear in these two new translations of her work.
Kassandra and the Wolf, for example, is a book about girlhood, reading like Angela Carter-meets-Judy Blume. A series of one-line- to a-few-pages-long “chapters,” Kassandra offers the narrator's observations, wishes, dreams, nightmares, daymares, thoughts, obsessions, pathologies—the reader never learns which (if any), or to what extent. Indicating both the mentality of a child and the nature of the subconscious, the topics jump without understandable transition from child abuse to Sunday church and dinner rituals to the repeated (and varied) suicide of Kassandra's uncle. At times the book could be a fairy tale—our young protagonist is very casually presented with both wolves and baskets of sweets—and at other times a parable, with many of its characters named simply by their profession or relationship to Kassandra.
Readers will be disturbed by the matter-of-factness with which young Kassandra talks about the multiple times men in her own household rape her, as well as the narrator's related obsession with “pipi” and “poopoo” and creepy attitude toward her often-absent mother. It's also difficult to read that Kassandra seems to like her premature sexuality, encouraging men sometimes through playful flirtation and physical advancement. Child Kassandra writes, “On Sundays, I become a child, filled with joys and beautiful thoughts; I brush my hair 100 times; I become good.” Certainly one would not think that, despite the narrator's words and actions, this sex is consensual and allowable, but by discussing this taboo and complex subject in a taboo and complex way, Karapanou gives a new strength to her female character.
While even adventurous readers may be uncomfortable with this book’s nonlinear telling and relentless lack of answers, readers will also be delighted by what grounds Kassandra and the Wolf: Karapanou's language. The word-pictures kaleidoscope—at times literally, as dinner becomes after-dinner games becomes Kassandra running down the stairs to demand of the housekeeper stories from the Greek Civil War—and at other times metaphorically (“A word like a snake stares at me: there's a pot like Grandmother's chamber pot, a mouth in the middle, and next to a nail scissors. . . . At the tail there's a ladder. I count the scribbles, examine them closely. I like this word.”) In still more places, Karapanou pulls off being both literal and metaphorical at once: “I'm alone again. I stick my tongue out vaguely at Miss Benbridge because she's driven away my friends and lovely pictures. I act the ape at her, the Chinaman, and then the frog. In a picture, I cover her in dung, turn her into a horsefly and a cockroach, and, finally, I turn her into a water glass, which I throw out of the window.”
And when the dark gets to be too much, sometimes—sometimes—Karapanou sheds some lightness, impossible to resist despite the ever-present crust and the reader's attempts to remain sober. The following is the odd, but also oddly cute, eleventh chapter: “One afternoon Zakoúlis came to play with me and Konstantínos. It was cold and he was wearing a coat with a hood. We said we'd play hide-and-seek. I lifted Zakoúlis up and locked him in the big cupboard, near the ceiling. Then we forgot about him and went to eat lemon creams. 3 days later, they finally found Zakoúlis. He was still wearing his hood, but he'd gotten to be very small, like an olive.”
Rien ne va plus is, at first glance, a more traditional telling, of a marriage and of a woman in her marriage. Louisa is the narrator in all but the book's final “chapters”—as in Kassandra and the Wolf, they are really vignettes, though here there are more solid transitions between them—and she has an aunt and an uncle and a beloved dog named Lyn. She marries Alkiviadis, Alkis, who has purple eyes and works in the very definable profession of veterinarian. But Alkis's eyes turn out to be more shifting than originally assumed: “cold, the eyes of a fish” in the first version of his and Louisa's relationship, and “warm, friendly” in the next. Louisa begs for her fickle, cruel husband, and then she is the cold aggressor, leaving Alkis for a man who lives around the world and whom she knows only through letters, then for a giant, gregarious woman.
There are versions of this story because there are multiple versions of real marriages and people, too, and because, manifested as literature, the multiplicity of these relationships is downright fascinating to read. What is confusing, however, isRien's second part, a skinny prayer sandwiched between the book's other two much heartier sections. Who is praying—likely, but not assuredly, Louisa or Alkis—and if the prayer's recipient is God alone, or someone else as well, are not clarified. That may be frustrating but acceptable, an unfinished puzzle to languish over, but what is truly sad is that Karapanou's language becomes obtrusively coy here, with phrases like “The game starts again from the beginning. The end is always another beginning” and “Eros is diabolical.” Readers would understand the similarities and distinctions between the book's other parts without this hint in between. Perhaps the line that will really make readers wonder if Karapanou trusted us to read along is this: “My God, so distant and close: —If I come to hate you, it will mean I have finally begun to believe in You.”
In both Kassandra and Rien, Karapanou is at her best when her female characters are unrelentingly in charge—and also, one could argue, most out of control. It would certainly be worth reading more of Karapanou's books, as well as those of her Greek female contemporaries. Hers are horror stories wearing sparkling, precious jewels. - Kristin Thiel


Kassandra is an eight-year-old girl living in Greece some time after the Civil War of 1944-1949. Her family appear to be upper class: she says she lives next door to the palace with her grandparents and servants, including an often replaced governess. Her mother lives in Paris and her father – in a very memorable chapter – is placed in an asylum.
Many people visit the house. Numerous family members and some friends of the family – ambassadors, poets, playwrights. Death in various forms befalls many of these visitors either during or shortly after their visit to the house. Either their behaviour is violent or overtly sexual (often both) or Kassandra’s behaviour is violent or overtly sexual in their presence.
Early in the book, Kassandra’s mother buys her a doll:
She was big, and she had yellow strings instead of hair.
I put her to sleep in her box, but first I cut off her legs and arms so she’d fit.
Later, I cut her head off too, so she wouldn’t be so heavy. Now I love her very much.
Then a couple of chapters later, she discovers masturbation:
Singing to myself, I put my hand into my panties for a bit of company. But I went numb and furry, a sweetness wrapped right around me, and I couldn’t stop.
Faster and faster, I was going to burst. Candies like weights, like sugared almonds, rose from my soles to my belly, and I was filled with syrup. Thick honey trickled from everywhere, and I was drowning in sweetness.
All of a sudden, when the sweetness had blocked my throat, the house started to shake and rain began to fall from the sky. The earth opened up and swallowed the houses all around, one by one. I pulled my hand out of my panties quickly.
 Re-reading these sections, I wonder whether Karapanou intended us to question the guilt and confusion that often accompanies girls who behave violently or sexually. Kassandra rarely feels guilty and on the occasions she does – like the masturbation scene – she quickly moves past it. If the protagonist were an eight-year-old boy I suspect our reaction to him removing the limbs of an action man or suchlike and discovering masturbation would be quite different.
One chapter has her grandmother advice about becoming a Lady and meeting a Gentleman. Her advice on sex is:
…don’t ever show that you like it. Just imagine that you’re in the parlor, cross-stitching swans and peacocks. If you like it so much you can’t stop yourself, pretend you’ve got stomach cramps. Because if you were to moan, the Gentleman would divorce you…
 Faní, the servant contradicts grandmother’s advice, telling her to:
…Learn your body: learn to squeeze it, embroider it, water it, and kiss it.
 Kassandra concludes:
Nights now, I stay awake until morning. I never liked cross-stitching anyway, and I’ve got plenty of time before I become a nice Lady.
The novel’s mostly written in short vignettes with the occasional slightly longer chapter. It becomes clear as the book progresses that these scenes are in no particular order – characters often die and then reappear later, which also leads us to question whether they have actually died or if this is an eight-year-old’s interpretation of something they’ve been told or a misunderstanding. Karapanou shows childhood as a bewildering time, one where it’s difficult to understand the behaviour of adults and society’s expectations of you. There is punishment for comparing genitalia with a friend but not for adults who sexually abuse. Possibly the deaths of many of the people in the book are what Kassandra imagines for them in retaliation for behaviour which she does not know how to deal with.
The content, tone and style of Kassandra and the Wolf reminded me of both The Notebook by Agota Kristof and Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies. So much so, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover they were both influenced by Karapanou.
Kassandra and the Wolf is a short, sharp, piercing and disturbing read. It’s a brutal and compelling look at childhood from a non-conforming girl’s point-of-view. An excellent start to #WITMonth. -


One of literature’s youngest child narrators, six-year-old Kassandra is also one of its most unsettling. In fact, with her detached, vicious and sometimes bizarre accounts of life at her grandmother’s home in Athens, she often seems every bit as embattled as Birahima, the former child soldier in Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah is not Obliged. 
Too young to feel obliged to present a socially acceptable persona to the world, Kassandra is unfailingly frank. Whether she is describing her torture and killing of the kitten ‘Borrowedy’, who is lent to her for a week, or her sexual abuse at the hands of grandmother’s chauffeur Peter — ‘He panted and sweated. I didn’t mind it too much’ — she overturns society’s tacitly agreed modes of talking about things again and again.
Even the favourite authorial trick of getting the reader onside by making the protagonist a book lover is disregarded here, with Kassandra declaring: ‘I don’t want to learn reading and writing’.
Sometimes, this unchecked verbalisation has great comic effect, as in the case of the PhD or ‘doctor’s desertation’, as explained by Kassandra’s acquaintance France:
‘Well, you see, you take a book and go to the middle of a desert or something and then you bury it in the sand for a long time and then you dig it up again and you find that all the words have got mixed up like the sand and then you put them all back in place only this time you put them back any way you like.’
Yet for all her frankness, Kassandra finds herself repeatedly sidelined, silenced and misunderstood. Where she releases outbursts of oddities or obscenities that reflect the troubling associations of her mother’s distance and her inner world, her refined relatives see only naughtiness and disrespect. Repeatedly chastened and instructed on ladylike behaviour, she develops a stammer before retreating into silence — ‘But I do talk to them, only I don’t use words’, she tells the specialist hired to assess her.
The danger of failed communication is made clear in the sad fate of Uncle Harilaos, who, having declared his desire to kill himself on several occasions, takes his own life.
Society, it seems, is not set up to accommodate so naked an expression of needs and longings. If Kassandra is to survive, she must learn to disguise and smother her impulses and join in with fashioning the conversational cat’s cradles the adults spin over her head. She will gain her place in the world this way. But she will also lose something too.
Compelling, strange and savage, this is a rare example of how a book’s cover can reflect the contents within. -   ayearofreadingtheworld.com/tag/margarita-karapanou/


Image result for Margarita Karapanou, Rien ne va Plus
Margarita Karapanou, Rien ne va Plus, Trans. by Karen Emmerich, Clockroot Books, 2013.


The story is simple: a love affair ends badly. A woman and a man marry, then cruelty, infidelity, and divorce. But this novel tells their story twice, from opposing perspectives. Our sympathies are inverted; we don’t know whom to trust; the distinction between truth and deception blurs, and then seems simply to dissolve. The novel shifts deftly between endless oppositions: lover and beloved, angel and demon, master and slave, reader and writer. But inevitably both stories must arrive at the point of rien ne va plus: the moment in roulette when all bets are off and you either win or lose—the moment when the game becomes fate.



In her first English translation, Greek novelist Karapanou (1946–2008) details a complicated marriage between a successful veterinarian and an incipient writer, with several intriguing outcomes. On their wedding night, naïve bride Louise witnesses her icily handsome, urbane husband, Alkiviadis, proposition a boy in a bar. Humiliated but attracted by her husband's homosexuality, Louise is nonetheless repelled by his need to control her; what follows is a crushing divorce and, then, a suicide. But that's just the first draft; Karapanou resets her story with recombined leads and an even darker slant; in this version of events, Alkis is an adoring husband who wants a baby, and Louise is a spoiled, manipulative, self-destructive character repulsed by Alkis's offer of stability and unconditional love. Ghastly details of pregnancy and abortion alternate with charming episodes of travel and discovery, such as Louise's visit to America in mismatched company. Beginning simply, this remarkable tale escalates in conflict and complexity, and proves even more engaging the second time through. - Publishers Weekly





Karen Emmerich speaks about the difficult pleasure of translating Margarita Karapanou from the Greek.


“I run with the future ahead of me and the cops behind me”: A roundtable on Margarita Karapanou




In an interview I once conducted with the Greek writer Amanda Michalopoulou, author of the short story collection I’d Like (Dalkey, 2008), the question of literary precursors came about, and in particular of Margarita Karapanou. Michalopoulou said of the elder author:
She’s a major influence although I know I can’t write like her. And this is the best influence because I knew I could never imitate her. Her work was so original. And it was such an original voice and reading her diaries, which just came out, and reading her entries from thirteen years old, you could already see her voice. . . What I admire in her is her originality. But of course, it was a very sad life story, and when I say to myself that you are not as original as some other writers you admire it all goes along with a whole other private history. But I feel that nobody has talked about childhood the way she did, really, in Kassandra. If she wasn’t Greek, but was American or German, I feel everybody would know her. Everybody could recognize themselves in her writings about childhood. And she was not at all your typical Greek author; she read widely in American and French literature and was always an outsider in a sense.
 Karapanou’s “sad life story” has, at times, overshadowed the importance and power of her writing; therefore, it is not within the scope of this essay to examine the novels as projections of a mind at war with itself — approaching them in this manner would be a distraction from the work, and a rather reductive approach. Instead, I would like in this essay to provide a broad consideration of Karapanou’s novels, particularly for an audience that, as Michalopoulou said, is not familiar with her work.
It is not unfair to argue that if Karapanou had written in a language less “minor” than Greek, her name would be a far more familiar one in the canon of world literature. Karapanou was one of Greece’s foremost Postmodernist writers. As Karen Van Dyck wrote in her essay, “Reading Between Worlds: Contemporary Greek Women’s Writing and Censorship,” “Since the period of the dictatorship (1967–1974), women writers have set literary trends in Greece.” She goes on to list Karapanou side-by-side with writers such as Katernia Anghelaki-Rooke, Maro Douka, and Rhea Galanaki as some of the most important writers of her generation, that generation of post-war authors who straddle the boundary between the Modernism of the early twentieth century and the Postmodernism of the late century.
Karapanou was born in 1946, after the Second World War but before the official onset of the Greek Civil War. She spent most of her childhood living between Greece and Paris, a cosmopolitan upbringing that makes its presence felt in a variety of ways throughout her work. Karapanou was a “worldly writer” by all accounts, but also one remarkably withdrawn, perhaps in part because of such a cosmopolitan existence — maybe it is true that one cannot have a home if one is nowhere at home. Her brilliant first novel, Kassandra and the Wolf, was written during the Greek dictatorship, between 1967 and 1974. (The most recent Clockroot Books edition of the novel is actually a reprint of N.C. Germanacos’s 1974 translation, and a necessary one at that.) She passed away only recently, on December 2, 2008, in Athens.
In his anthropological study, Modern Greek Lessons, James Faubion writes that he sensed a certain “psychic delicacy” in his meetings with Karapanou, which had manifested itself in a stutter and which had left her “somewhat withdrawn.” It is an interesting note since withdrawl is one of several key themes that appear in her work. Withdrawl, retreat, escape, evasion: they are not simply reflections of Karapanou’s autobiography (although that is indeed the case), they're also aesthetic techniques, a manner of representing the world, the human being, ethical situations, and facts. It implies avoiding the plainly-spoken and simply-put, the common word or description; retreating into the imagination; evading orthodox moral implications by dissecting one’s own language. Karapanou’s works echo the sentiments of philosopher Gilles Deleuze in his essay “On the Superiority of Anglo-American Literature”: “to flee is not to renounce action: nothing is more active than a flight.”
In her work, Karapanou flees from bourgeois values, the limits of the novel as a genre, and conventional binaries such as man / woman, gay / straight, citizen / foreigner, and reader / author. Hardly a controversial series of stances to take in the context of other avant garde authors of her era — Samuel Beckett, Maurice Blanchot, and the French tradition of the Nouvea Roman come to mind, as do other European Modernists such as Kafka and Artaud. But where Karapanou stands apart from other like-minded authors is in the ferocity with which her work attacks such pieties. In this sense, her work closely resembles that of French author Georges Bataille, particularly his novel The Story of the Eye.
There is a tireless peripatetic thrust in Karapanou’s novels. They only refrain from becoming essayistic by her use of fragmentary, non-linear narratives. Protagonists and readers alike are never still in her books, never at ease. When reading Karapanou, one is reminded of Pascal's famous aphorism that evil and suffering arise from the simple reason that man cannot remain peacefully at rest within a room. Indeed, one of the characters in her novel Rien ne va Plus says of an ex-spouse, "You were always leaving. I always picture you with a suitcase in your hand. I can't picture you sitting at a desk. I always see you in motion." Her novels themselves perform this restless anxiety: Kassandra and the Wolf, for example, in its extreme fragmentation — almost none of the vignettes that compose the novel are more than a page or two long, some are only a few sentences—never allows the reader to rest for too long on any particular image, motif, or theme, before being rushed off to the next, often disturbing, moment.
Karapanou’s work then gives the impression of being constantly in motion, an active critique, perhaps, of Nietzsche’s claim that we need to read slower. When reading Karapanou one cannot read quickly enough. There is a velocity to her texts, both in the obvious sense of their structure and pacing as well as a visceral sense akin to vertigo. They seem always to be spinning wildly and recklessly towards unknown destinations (often that destination is death) or, rather, they seem to emphatically evade any firm lodging or easy comfort. Rien ne va Plus is a prime example, a novel that asks us, after a certain point, to return to its beginning and to question everything we have just read. Karapanou knew, as Deleuze did, that flight was by no means a passive activity, but rather the complete antithesis of passivity; that, in the wake of escaping, art could follow.
There is, as was alluded to above, a striking cosmopolitan aspect to Karapanou's writings as well, which contributes to this feeling of vertigo. Her works are littered with foreign landscapes and languages — locations such as Italy and France and America, as well as snippets of dialogue in French, English, and Italian. As Faubion wrote, Karapanou is a writer who, through her very "cosmopolitanism" or her "assimilationism," picks and chooses the literary and historic traditions to which she can and does belong. But this does not mean that Greece’s particular social and historical realities are not of great importance to her work.
In reading the novel Kassandra and the Wolf, for instance, it is impossible to ignore the historical realities to which it alludes: the Greek dictatorship of 1967–1974 and the Greek Civil War. The social unease of that era, the political and social reality, is one important point of access into the difficulties of that novel. Yet, Karapanou does not think of herself as a Greek writer, per se. Rather, she imagines herself to be a writer free of nationalistic fetters. At a time when many Greek authors attempted to represent their nation — the works of Thanassis Valtinos come to mind — in the aftermath of a period that saw a brutal civil war and repressive dictatorship, Karapanou looked beyond the physical borders of Greece, and beyond its provincial political realities. Her oeuvre can be read as example of what Goethe called Weltliteratur, or World Literature, a literature that seeks its own identity in a complicated exchange between different languages and traditions. It is culturally unsettled, shifting traditions within and between works.
This cultural evasion, this restless shifting, also helps to make Karapanou's imagistic, nightmarish language even more powerful. By settling in no cultural context, but crossing through many, a reader feels the sensation of familiarity punctuated by confusion and horror. In her novels one catches glimpses of a country that might be home, a foreign land or country, and the third interior landscape of Karapanou’s vivid, disturbing imagination. The jarring effect of these shifts mirrors the effects of her brutal, often disturbingly violent images.
Reading Karapanou’s novels, as one might assume by now, is never an “easy” experience; in fact, it is often exhausting, even discomforting. This is, somehow, the correct reaction to the novels, although it makes them no more palatable for the fact of it. I remember once trying to teach Kassandra and the Wolf to a group of undergraduates, to no avail; the students simply could not move past their discomfort with its representation of sexuality and violence. If there is one major flaw in all of Karapanou’s novels, it is in the determination with which they drive towards chaos, violence, and oblivion. The same visceral intensity that dazzles when perfectly controlled can alternately undermine and exhaust a reader’s will to continue.
This nihilistic inevitability is something of which Karapanou’s protagonists — many of whom are artists of some kind — are often acutely aware, and it becomes a point of reflection. The narrator "Louisa" says in Rien ne va Plus, "Every time I want to write, I want to write a love story. But as soon as I pick up the pen I'm overcome by horror." The attempt at a generation of meaning generates only horror in the recognition of a deeper meaninglessness. For Karapanou, as for “Louisa,” art doesn’t present easy redemptions. The “point” of art is neither salvation nor pleasure, and the act of writing is often presented in her novels as a source of suffering more than of jouissance. In The Sleepwalker, for example, a novel that takes place primarily on an unnamed Greek island, but which is most likely Hydra, Karapanou writes:
Luka climbed upstairs again and sat down at her desk. “I have to write.”  She’d been on the island since summer, and now it was February and she hadn’t written a word. Every morning she woke up at five, sometimes four, and jumped out of bed longing to write — the book was ready inside of her, each chapter, each sentence, each comma, everything was in its place, utterly fixed, and she knew she could do it, since she’d written her first book on this same island five years before. But as soon as she sat down at her desk the blank paper became a mirror in which she saw only her own face. “I have to write,” she’d say a hundred times, and then another hundred, and sometimes on the hundredth time she would mess up and have to start all over again from the beginning, and the days passed, the months passed, and the white paper got whiter and whiter — “I have to write,” Luka said as autumn turned into winter — “I have to write!” she shouted into the empty house — and now it was February and the sea was closing in on her like a ring. As soon as she sat at her desk the book became a reflection, the color green, a round egg, a face peering at her — but when she grabbed her pen to try and write everything down, the sentences rose up before her like waves hitting the pier and the paper drew back, her hand struggling to reach it like a shipwrecked sailor grasping at the rocks of some shore.
Nearly all of the artists in The Sleepwalker suffer for the sake of their art, and suffer most in the attempt at creation. The painter Mark, another central character in the novel, works for more than two years on a portrait he can never quite finish.
The failure of art as humanistic practice is a central theme in Rien ne va Plus, where, rather than finding solace and personal redemption in art, the victim becomes victimizer through the process of writing. Rien ne va Plus — the title a reference to the moment in roulette when “all bets are off” — is a metafiction in which its readers are lulled into what appears to be the conventional story of a marriage gone sour. The narrator, a woman who may or may not be named “Louisa,” and who shares many biographical details with Karapanou (as so many of her protagonists do), falls in love with a veterinarian by the name of Alkiviadis. The novel's first section recalls the marriage with Louisa playing the role of victim to Alkiviadis's adultery and cruelty:
I never understood Alkiviadis; he was a mystery to the very end. I didn’t understand the end, either. But I worshipped Alkis. I was like a dog being taken to the vet, a dog that both worships and fears its doctor. Now, looking back, I see that in the beginning my love for Alkis was very much like the love of a frightened animal in a veterinarian’s waiting room.
Typical domestic fare: the reader empathizes immediately with “Louisa.”  However, in the final pages of the novel, the perspective shifts again, and the story is retold with Alkiviadis cast as the victim. The narrative, which has been so sympathetic to “Louisa” up to that point, has been nothing but a “fiction.” The dynamic tension of the novel hinges on this distinction between victim and victimizer, and then in its final pages, implicates the reader in the unfolding of anything as provisional and facile as the “truth.” We read the novel thinking that Louisa is the victim, easily assuming truths and sympathies, only to have the story turn on us — as, in a sense, Louisa herself does. We are betrayed by our own humanistic expectation of an ethically-stable experience of art, one that allows us to make concrete and clear connections. Karapanou’s rejection of Realist standards can be read as a critique of tired ethical judgments, the faulty notion that art is a direct reflection of nature and a universal essence.
Karapanou’s muddying of the distinction between victim and victimizer is a remarkable practice in light of Greece's recent political history. As Karen Van Dyck has argued in her magisterial study of women writers under the Greek dictatorship, Kassandra and the Censors:
It is striking that Karapanou was willing to challenge the strict distinction between victor and victim, censor and censored, at a time when the difference was clear in the political sphere. For generations Greek writers responded mainly in two ways to oppressive regimes: either by taking the 'disinterested' position . . . or by writing explicitly 'engaged' prose or poetry . . . But Karapanou, like many young writers of her generation, takes an alternative route. Undecidability and multiple subject positions in [Kassandra and the Wolf] are not . . . postmodern strategies of evasion but culturally specific modes of challenging the relegation of private and public, personal and political, female and male, to separate spheres.
Questioning simple, seemingly obvious binaries at a time when doing as such might have been considered politically suspect can be its own form of rebellion, an evasion of state control. It allows the author to exist within a multiplicity of positions, modes, and modalities; and it allows the author to undermine static categorizations. Karapanou uses her narratives not only to horrify the bourgeois sensibilities of the populace, but also to undermine the state control that is enabled by those sensibilities.
In one of his letters to Axel Kaun, Samuel Beckett writes, "language is best used when most efficiently abused. Since we cannot dismiss it all at once, at least we do not want to leave anything undone that may contribute to its disrepute. To drill one hole after another into it until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping though." In her journal entry for February 12, 1977, Karapanou echoes this sentiment, writing, “Words no longer interest me. Only images do . . . I would like to write a book using only images." Like Beckett, Karapanou sought an escape from signification, escape from the exhaustion of definition and concrete meanings that lead, in part, to simple, clear, concrete ethical judgments. Her novels attempt to escape from a language that means, a language that stifles as much as it could possibly liberate.
Kassandra and the Wolf may well be Karapanou’s masterpiece. It is a work of singular intensity; a bildungsroman and, in a sense, a kunstlerroman as well. Kassandra is written in a series of "loosely connected vignettes," as Karen Van Dyck writes, where "math and spelling lessons intertwine with episodes of playing doctor, masturbation, and molestation." The narrator and protagonist is a little girl by the name of Kassandra, a member of an upper-class family in the years following the Greek Civil War. Kassandra does the things that normal girls her age and class do: she plays games, sings songs, goes to school, learns to spell and count — but all these ordinary activities are funneled through her perverse and phantasmagoric imagination, a reflection of the perversely oppressive society under which she exists.
Karapanou's protagonist is presented alternately as both victim and victimizer in turn: while she is, for example, a member of the privileged upper-middle class, she is also a victim of its strict patriarchal values; while her tone is innocent, her actions and use of logic are maniacal. Karapanou represents this conflict, in part, through the image of the wolf, which takes on a variety of guises. In the chapter entitled “The Wolf,” the image is initially connected to sexual transgressions:
"Come on, let's look at the book with the pictures."
    I'd run to his room with the book under my arm, and give it to him tenderly.
    The first picture was of a wolf opening his mouth to swallow 7 juicy piglets.
    It was the wolf I usually felt sorry for. How could he gulp down so many piglets at one go? I always told him that, asked him that. Then he'd put his hairy hand in my white panties and touch me. I didn't feel anything except a kind of warmth. His finger came and went, and I watched the wolf. He panted and sweated. I didn't mind it too much. Now, when they caress me, I always think of the wolf, and feel sorry for him.
This identification of the sexual predator with the wolf is one of the more disquieting scenes in the novel. Karapanou, however, does not allow the reader to relax into a moral empathy for Kassandra. Matters are complicated by soon transforming the little girl into a victimizer as well:
One afternoon Zakoulis came to play with me and Konstantinos. It was cold and he was wearing a coat with a hood. We'd said we'd play hind-and-seek.
    I lifted Zakoulis up and locked him in the big cupboard, near the ceiling. Then we forgot about him and went to eat lemon creams. Three days later they finally found Zakoulis. He was still wearing his hood, but he'd gotten to be very small, like an olive.
The novel continually juxtaposes vignettes such as these with far more mundane domestic scenes, but they are always recalled through the lens of Kassandra's transgressive imagination. As some critics have pointed out, Kassandra’s language and view of the world never convincingly mimic that of a little girl. Certainly, it is a heightened childishness, full of the essence of dreams; for some this is a failing, but it can also be seen as an element of Karapanou’s deconstruction of character and narrative.
It is this “indeterminacy,” as Van Dyck calls it, which helps Kassandra remain such a powerful work: it continues to challenge readers with an indeterminate presentation of violence and victimization, of the child’s wide-eyed ignorance with horrifying immorality. Many of the novel’s scenes are filled with a dream-like logic that defies literal interpretation, challenges sensibilities, and raises questions about sexuality and violence that have no clear answer.
Yet Karapanou's works are not a daydream’s escape from reality. Rather, they are a flight towards the real world, albeit via an alternate route, and towards reality’s unyielding propensity for horror. A character like Kassandra, in her imaginary “play,” brings us closer to the truth than the bourgeois euphemisms of straightforward explanation ever could. Through her narrative and ethical evasions, Karapanou evokes a vision of the world that is bleak, and, if not hopeless, then far from hopeful; but it is a vision that is all the more necessary for its dark honesty. Karapanou’s novels dim the lights that blind us. - George Fragopoulos http://www.criticalflame.org/fiction/0110_fragopoulos.htm

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