by Yvette Varvaressos, The Athenian, 01/1983
Eleni Saranditi-Panayotou’s two children raced out of the hotel along the waterfront that has made her name in the world of Greek children’s literature. The wild stark beauty of the bay of Neapoli, on the farthest reaches of the Peloponnese was the setting of O Kipos me ta Agalmata (The Garden of Statues) — known by Greek (and Danish) readers and by thousands of TV viewers. Neapoli also features in her latest book currently being shown on YENED, Ah, Afti I Fili Mou (Ah, Those Friends of Mine!)
Looking out at the bay where she spent her first eighteen years, Eleni reminisced over her writing career which began in a Neapoli quite different from the fast developing summer resort her children know.
Representative of the generation growing up in the difficult post-war years, the fact that she lived in the country gave her a freedom that her city contemporaries never dreamed of. She and her friends had the mountains and the shoreline to play on and act out their childhood fantasies; and they had a “garden of statues”. Uncovered in a nearby ancient town, the statues had been left in a walled garden.
“They were our playmates — after school we used to go and sit with them, talk to them and decorate them. We had no other toys, and we were proud of the statues — we knew they came from a glorious time long ago.
In hard times, one thrives on fairy tales and dreams”.
Her early family memories are happy ones. “My mother was a soft- spoken woman; she’d never laugh at you or tell a lie. She was as shy as a girl and perhaps more honest than necessary. My father would tell a tall tale on occasions — but what tales! He earned his living with a caique and often took us with him. Until the age of eleven or twelve I accompanied him on all-night trips to Aegina or Piraeus. Can you imagine what it was for a child to be out at sea with the stars overhead and dolphins chasing the boat!
When she wasn’t able to get into the University of Athens in the depart¬ment she wanted, Eleni left for a year in England. “I was very happy there. Not having much company, I read, wrote a lot and traveled all round Britain. I loved it — all Wuthering Heights. Especially Scotland; the Scots have a remarkable resemblance to us in temperament. And Edinburgh — what a place!”
The world of children’s books came to her by chance. Her mother fell ill, and subsequently became paralysed. “At times she became like a child. I entertained her by telling her stories and realized that the story-telling relaxed me as well. Later I realized that we didn’t have much variety in stories for the young.”
Her first children’s book was Morfes (Faces) in 1968, followed by a “silent” period when she married and had her children. “When your life is filled in that way — well, you know …” she shrugged, smiling. The Garden of Statues was written following that period, but not immediately published. Olaf van Olsen, who has translated some of the great works of modem Greek literature into Danish, saw it, liked it and translated it from the manuscript.
Ah, Those Friends of Mine is also a true story, this time her children’s. Near their home in Nea Smyrni, they met four brothers and sisters whose mother had died and whose father made a living selling in the laiki. These children, who would often get up in the middle of the night to help their father, developed a friendship with Eleni’s two. “They often came to our house and we found joy in each other’s company. They were bright, beautiful and proud. One summer, four years ago, we brought them here to Neapoli with us. “However” she said, “no matter how much we try to play at equality, there remains a bitterness with life . . . They had no mother to make them do their homework and one day I told them not to come during noon time when my children usually studied. They had begun to forget about their lessons and just wanted to play all day. From that day our friends never returned. It was close to Easter; we had gifts ready for them. We looked for them but in vain. The friendship was lost and the book closes with my son saying, ‘So if you read this, and if you see my friends, tell them we are waiting for them still’. It’s not a sad story, but it is the essence of life.”
Just then her two boys returned from the store, each with a new copy of a Tarzan comic. Perhaps surprising, but Eleni feels that children should not be restricted in their choice of reading matter. Anything goes as long as it stirs their imagination. As they grow, she thinks, they’ll learn to distinguish good from bad. “When I was a child, there was no choice — we were lucky to get a copy of Tarzan. Once, my brother came home off the ship bringing me a translation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. ”
Today’s children may seem more attuned to tales of violence, Kung-Fu and space heroes, but Eleni’s books are still successful. Perhaps the very real lives of children growing up in a remote village with no TV, comics or a local toy shop, awaken the sense of adventure in all young people, however dormant it may have become after years of brainwashing by the “box” in an apartment. “A child can’t really have the kind of life described in The Garden of Statues any more. Children don’t live with so many dreams nowadays because their parents are able to offer them a lot more material things. Dreams only thrive on want and need. Children in the cities generally lack imagination. Here in the villages they’re a bit freer, although these days there isn’t really much difference. Look at Neapoli itself. It’s become commercial; the openness, the hospitality is going. It’s not like the old days. Then you were one with your neighbor, doors were always open.”
Eleni’s latest book centers on the children of migrants to Germany. 19 November 1979 Was the title of a short story she entered in a contest in the daily Kathimerini two years ago and was among forty chosen from some 850; entrants. Now expanded into novel form, it is the story of a family’s struggle in Germany in the face of difficult and often humiliating conditions. Starting life afresh back in Greece, they lost everything in the great flood which struck Pella in 1979.
“Children feel with each other but there’s no sentimentality in their com-passion. All my books end on a note of hope — there’s always hope. At the end of The Garden… the children are desolate because their statues are taken away. The heroine feels like crying but remembers that she has promised to meet a gypsy friend to learn some of their songs, and off she goes.”
Eleni’s view is that if a writer has something important to say it can be said simply, without condescension. “I’m moved by simple stories of daily life,” she says. “My books are a friendly conversation. As Seferis writes, ‘I ask God to give me the gift of speaking simply.’