Book Review: The Archaeologist and Selected Sea Stories by Andreas Karkavitsas

In December, Penguin Classics will release a new translation by Johanna Hanink of Andreas Karkavitsas’ 1904 novella The Archaeologist, along with four of his short stories. The Archaeologist can be understood as fable, allegory, and parable for Greek speakers, especially those invested (in one way or another) in the Greek nation-state at the turn of the 20th century. It follows two brothers, Aristodemos and Dimitrakis Eumorphopolous, who are in conflict over how to position themselves in relation to their illustrious past, troubled present, and uncertain future.

I finished the advanced reader copy, kindly provided by Penguin Classics and NetGalley, a week ago and have felt uneasy about how to speak about it. From any literature that I read in translation, whether ancient or modern, I hope for insight into experiences that are not my own. As a Greek American, I hope that Greek literature in English translation will provide that window for others. To that end, I want to remind readers that Karkavitsas’ novella was written for Greek speakers at a particularly fraught, and soon to be devastatingly tragic, moment in their history. This moment is both unique and transcendent, hence the challenge and the reward respectively of reading the collection.

In her introduction, Hanink offers readers a frame for reading the stories, asking: “How should ideas of the distant past matter to individuals, families, people, and modern nations? What does it mean—and what toll does it take—to be constantly burdened with the task of living up to someone else’s expectations of who you are?”

These are, I believe, two very different questions. The first is open-ended, a call for inquiry, stock-taking. The second feels oppressive, as if it is willing into existence the very problem that Karkavitsas recognized was suffocating Greeks and sought to neutralize by calling for harmonization among pasts and present. Central to that project is, of course, the belief that we can harmonize, that the past need not be a burden but a valued part of the whole of who we are. We need neither idealize, nor be burdened by, nor see ourselves as inferior to, nor annihilate the past. We need only remember that our ancestors were human, much like ourselves today, with admirable and not admirable qualities, trying and failing to create the impossible: a perfect world.

For this reason, I would encourage Anglophone readers to draw, from their reading of The Archaeologist, on a slightly different set of questions than those Hanink poses. I would encourage readers first to remember and be humbled by the monumentalness and irreducibility of human experiences and approach this collection as an opportunity to explore one small corner of them. I hope that readers will approach this book as a window into an experience that is emphatically NOT like their own, but also one that can resonate with transcendent human struggles. I hope also that readers will become sensitive to how different our histories and experiences are and draw on both as opportunities to cultivate deeper empathy for human struggles, their own and others’.

Do you read literature in translation? If so, what do you hope for from the experience?

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