A MEMORY OF KOSTAS VARNALIS
(on the occasion of his death)
When people, who have brought light to this world are gone forever, everything around us seems to darken. It depends on the power of their light whether this would happen sooner or later. A man of this kind is Kostas Varnalis.
I am not going to tell you his autobiography in great detail, neither I am going to take you through his oeuvre. Qualified professionals have already done it in Greece. I will only recall that Varnalis was born in Burgas, in 1884. He studied at the Greek gymnasium in Plovdiv and then left to Athens where he graduated philosophy. He became a teacher and went to Paris as a scholar in 1919. There Varnalis learned about the new tendencies in creative arts living in a society of post-war generation. This period left a special mark on his life and work which after that he devoted to the ideal of social justice.
In 1937, as I’ve already mentioned before, the idea to organise a short proto-Bulgarian language class was suggested to me by prof. Veiss. The name of one of my students was Eli Prokou. Once she told me that she has met a friend, the poet Kostas Varnalis, and she told him about me. Because he was born in Bulgaria, he was curious to meet me. It was a real honour to me because I was already familiar with him and his work from a friend of mine – the critic and poet Kleon Parashos. Also, I had already bought two of his books „The Light That Burns” и „Besieged Slaves” – a revised title of a poem „Besieged Freemen” by Solomos, as Kleon had told me. I rushed to read them. Despite, it was challenging to understand everything because of the mesh of unknown words, I could feel the great, original and social poet behind them. He was as much sharply sarcastic, as deeply gentle lyricist.
Back then Athens still had its authentic face. There were not so many high buildings and the tiny cafes and taverns were everywhere. The places where you could meet very interesting and ‘picturesque’ types of people. I will not dishonor the memory of Barba Коstas, аs we used to call him if I say that he was also one of them – a person with two faces. Among the creatives, he was the big poet, a very cultured person, a brilliant satirist and feuilletonist, a journalist, a translator and one of the greatest experts of the Greek language. During a conversation with prof. Veiss, a famous Byzantologist himself, he said that Varnalis is one of the very few people who have studied Greek language throughout its whole millennial history, including all old and new dialects. But in the Kolonaki neighbourhood Varnalis was known as the people’s man who would play backgammon with a worker or craftsman after a conversation about the future of the common folks.
He was a passionate player, clacking his chips and there were always a crowd of people sitting around the table observing the game silently. They were all simple, open and hearted men. He was teaching them different things but he was also learning from them. Pure folk expressions and words, sometimes made up by the simple man, but some were so original and unexpected that they made the ‘teacher’ laugh.
Once Varnalis came at home while he was still laughing at a situation like this. And he told me the story. While he was sitting in a cafe in Kolonaki and observing life, a boy around 13 years-old approached him and proposed to polish his shoes. Varnalis declined and waved his hand goodbye, but the perky boy kept insisting. Varnalis got angry and insulted the little wax man to leave. The boy stood back and told him: “Come on, kologomimene”. This non-existing word, made up by this urchin, excited Varnalis so much that he continued to laugh and make jokes about it long after that.
However, I’ve rushed through my story, and I missed to tell you how we met for the first time
On the appointed day Eli came with Varnalis at my place. He was a middle tall man, around 50 years-old, he had high forehead, grey eyes and his face seemed rather mocking especially when he smiled with his big and thick lips. Quickly, he made himself comfortable and his appearance created a heartical atmosphere. Short after we met, we started talking informally and he was asking me questions about how different are now Burgas and Plovdiv – the cities where he used to live.
After that, the conversation came to the topic of wine, although, I treated him brandy. He asked me what kind of wine I drink. I replied that I prefer dry wine and he said that this is not wine. Retsina was the only wine that I should drink, he said. I responded that I don’t like its taste and smell but Varnalis insisted that he would teach me how to drink it. Indeed, the next time we met, I had a bottle of retsina for him and he showed me how: “Squeeze your nose with two fingers and now drink it to the bottom. Good, from now on you wоn’t drink any other wine.” He also told me that the ancient Greeks used to put resin in the wine to prevent it from spoiling.
Since then, Varnalis kept coming at my place, more often with Eli, but sometimes alone.
Owing to some friends of mine and especially to Kleon Parashos, I was already kind of familiar with the last century Greek poetry – about Solomos, Kalvos, Palamas, and the contemporary ones back then – Uranis, Kazantzakis. He had mentioned other poets as well. When we became closer with Varnalis, once I asked him which poets should I read first. He answered: “First of all, you will read one old poet, he died not very long ago. His name is Cavafy. His book came out recently, you can buy it. And one young poet, called Seferis.” On the next day I bought their books. I remember once after I’ve read a lot by Cavafy, I told Varnalis that I find him very pessimistic. In response, he told me that a great poet could be anything.
I’ve already read all of his books. I started understanding them better, but still there were Greek words that I could not find on the dictionary. Honestly, I was more intrigued by the ancient Greek language rather than „катаревуса” and even less by „димотики”. Moreover, Varnalis used foreign words – Turkish, Italian, even Slavic, as well as forms closer to the common spoken language – more than any other poet that I was reading back then. When I asked him why he uses words in different languages he said that he wants to be understood by the common people. Someone had told me that Varnalis provoked excitement with his first poems not only among the bourgeoisie with his “barbaric” language. His texts were written in such way so that his social ideas can also be understood by the most ordinary reader.
The thirties were years of big changes not only for the poetic form but also for the poetic speech. Under the influence of the French surrealism and the modern American and English poetry, the artists abandoned the classical style and started using the white free verse. Representatives of the Greek surrealistic movement at the time were Embirikos и Engonopoulos. Of course, their poetry was incomprehensible and even became an object of the incredible humour of Psathas – a famous humorist during that period. Once talking with Varnalis about this modern movement, I felt that he did not accept it. He said something like “there are poets, but there is no poetry”. It is not surprising when we know that Varnalis’ poetry is written for the common man. He believed that people should be presented with ideas about social truths and political views in a way that everyone can feel their authenticity and greatness, rather than being served in the typical manner of the newspapers.
Actually, not only Varnalis did not accept the surrealist movement. Seferis also used to say more than once that it does not have an impact on him. However, I want to emphasise that Varnalis was a supporter of the classical style and the ultimate proponent of dimotiki. He is the author of so many social and political works /poetry and prose/, he was also the first one to tell me to read Seferis’ poetry. Seferis, on the other hand, was the first one to introduce the free verse, а poet who used a very moderate and sophisticated language, and who did not share Varnalis’ ideology at all. This fact is the clearest proof that above all Varnalis stood for the genuine high poetry.
In April 1941, the Nazi troops entered Athens despite the strong opposition of the Greek army and struck their flag with the crooked cross on the Acropolis. One morning, in the end of May, among the occupied and sank in heavy silence city there, a joyful whisper was spread – unknown daredevils have taken down the barbarian flag.As early as the war began, Varnalis ceased his visits. I did not know what was happening. Also, Eli Prokou was not showing up either.
Early in the morning after the flag was heroically taken down Eli came at my home. She was very anxious. “The Germans arrested Varnalis and a group of other people”, she explained. “They will be shot if they do not reveal those who removed the Nazi flag from the Acropolis. We must save Varnalis! Can you do something? You are – forgive me – allies with the Germans.”
Мyself, I couldn’t do anything. I did not have a diplomatic position, I was just a translator. I said to Eli that I will see what I can do.
When the Germans came to Athens they created a Greek puppet government but actually, they were in command of everything. One of them, who had the most influence was the German ambassador, in fact he was the actual prime minister. I did not know him in person but our diplomatic representative had regular contact with him. I decided to proceed this way.
At 09:00 I went to Vachev. I explained to him who Varnalis was – one of the greatest Greek poets and writers, born in Bulgaria, a friend of ours and so on. Vachev was a cultured man, he was interested in music and literature, and deep down he was no supporter of the Nazis, though he did not speak about that. He listened to me carefully and asked me if this friend of mine was a communist. I said no, I was ready to swear. And with pure consciousness, sinceindeed he was not a member of the party. Vachev arranged a meeting with the Hitler ambassador over the phone, and around 11 o’clock we both went to the embassy. Our ambassador went alone to meet the important German. They called me in a moment later. The tall, strict man in the Nazi uniform asked me almost threateningly if I could guarantee for Varnalis. I answered emphatically, as far as I could, “Yes.” He promised nothing. It was not until the next day that Eli came and told me happily that Varnalis had been released and had taken shelter with friends in an Athens suburb.
I can’t be sure that with our without this intervention Varnalis would not have been released. Perhaps there were many people who were not indifferent abput his fate. But at the risk of boasting, I’ll tell you what happened during my next – and last – meeting with him. Eli recently came to me and told me that she would take me to Varnalis who wanted to see me. He wanted us to celebrate his release. His apartment was almost a secret. He welcomed me warmly, as well as the friends who were with him. We did not say anything about his release. We were mainly talking about the war, the rising resistance, our friends. Of course, we drank retsina with appetisers. Very late, after midnight, when I was leaving and we were saying goodbye to each other, Varnalis told me: “Both of my lives – he said – are connected to Bulgaria”. Eli and I headed towards the city. This was the last time when I saw Varnalis.
In 1957, the publishing house “Bulgarian writer” commissioned me to prepare the first anthology of new Greek poetry. I had limited material as texts and sought help from our friends in Athens and Varnalis because I knew his address. I gave my letter to a representative of the GCP who was attached to me to watch out for the “proletarian purity” of the anthology. I don’t know what happened after that, but recently this comrade told me that he had received a letter from Varnalis – a response to mine in which he made recommendations for compiling the anthology. Despite insisting much, I did not see this letter.
Usually, when a person of such age – over 90 years old – as Varnalis passes away, people say, “Well, the man lived his life.” But this does not apply to people like Barba Kostas. People like him should live and work for a very long time. Fortunately, he has ensured his relative immortality himself with his magnificent creativity.