At the Wall with Titos

While we are waiting for our check after lunch, Titos suggests we visit the place where he was to be executed. I’ve been translating the poetry of Titos Patrikios for almost ten years and we’ve become good friends, but I have only a vague sense of this period in his life—he really doesn’t like to talk about it—and am surprised by the sudden melting of his reticence. After an unusually dark and rainy spring, it’s the first warm day of the year in Athens, and an excursion seems to be in order. Our destination is Monastiraki, only a short train ride away. We walk a few sunny blocks to the station, taking slow, careful steps—Titos is eighty-three years old and, though in excellent health, he’s earned the right to take his time. Along the way we pass Syntagma Square, where protestors have gathered by the thousands these past three weeks of June 2011, sometimes braving tear gas, to express their indignation at the collapse of the Greek economy. Everyone in the metro looks anxious.

We have a lot to talk about on our ride to Monastiraki. Two nights ago, Titos and another poet, Kiki Dimoula, held a public discussion on poetry. We spend some time comparing our impressions of the evening—mine from the perspective of a foreign bystander, his from the perspective of an elderly poet speaking to fellow Greeks in troubled times.

The event, which was held in the lush gardens behind the opera house, wouldn’t have attracted much of an audience in the U.S., especially given its bland title:  “Kiki Dimoula and Titos Patrikios: Two Poets Discuss the Situation of Poetry Today.” But this being Greece, a whole corps of television journalists and photographers had arrived to cover it, and no fewer than nine hundred people showed up to watch it, including a number of twentysomethings who, to judge from the slogans on their t-shirts, planned to join the Syntagma protests right afterward. Considering all the other things Greeks have to think about at the moment, I was astonished at the turnout. But poetry matters in Greece—it always has. When lines of Cavafy, Seferis, Ritsos, and Palamas were quoted, nine hundred chins bobbed up and down simultaneously and murmurs of assent passed through the audience, as though they were receiving prophecy.

Granted, Patrikios and Dimoula are two of the country’s most important living poets, the best representatives of a generation of writers whose lives and careers were shaped by the German occupation and Greek Civil War, not to mention several right-wing dictatorships. For Patrikios, this meant periods of imprisonment, censorship, and finally exile. Dimoula’s struggle, meanwhile, was to establish a place for herself in a patriarchal literary culture nearly devoid of women writers. Famously reclusive, she’s notorious for agreeing to attend programs like this one and then failing to appear, thereby heightening her mystique. It was her eightieth birthday, and she smoked sixteen cigarettes (I counted) in the course of the hour-long discussion, during which she and Patrikios addressed such questions as: What is the place of poetry in a world like ours, and especially in Greece at this moment of crisis?  How do poems come into being?  What are they for?

While riding the metro, Titos and I review his responses to these questions, as well as Dimoula’s, and we laugh again at an encounter I had after the event: While waiting for Titos to finish signing books, I chatted with a smartly dressed woman who turned out to be the first lady of Greece, Mrs. Papandreou.

Emerging from underground at Monastiraki, we cross the square at Tito’s leisurely pace, passing fruit vendors’ bright pyramids of cherries and apricots, groups of skateboarding kids, and a nervous trio of Congolese immigrants hawking knock-off designer bags. The square could almost be mistaken for Greenwich Village, except for the great old rocks of the Parthenon gleaming just above us.

After skirting the ruins of Hadrian’s Library, we continue uphill into the heart of Plaka. Finally Titos pauses, looks around, and steps into the shaded courtyard of a small church. “We’re here,” he says, “and what a pity.” Two junkies are kneeling in a corner of the courtyard, one holding his kit with shaky fingers while the other works a syringe. A girl slumps in a doorway nearby, unconscious but still clinging to her bottle of wine. Graffiti defaces every surface, and one large red scrawl reads “FUCK US” [sic]. It’s hard to tell whether the message is directed inwardly or at the Americans—at “us” or “U.S.”— but the ambiguity is eerily appropriate: Titos’s would-be executioners were right-wing soldiers raised in Greece but backed by America (along with Britain). They found him in September 1944, shortly after he joined the Communist-backed resistance fighters who were trying to keep the right wing from seizing power. When I’d heard bits and pieces of Tito’s story before, I’d somehow always pictured him as being in his mid twenties at the time. But now, doing the math, I realize that he was just sixteen.

Titos sighs and continues down an alley alongside the church, stopping beside a small staircase at its rear entrance. “There used to be a kind of dirt ramp here,” he explains, “and I was sitting with a friend that afternoon, drawing pictures in the sand with a small stick, out of boredom. We were waiting for a girl. We had information about the resistance to give her. Suddenly my friend grabbed my arm and said, ‘Here they come.’   I didn’t know what he was talking about, and he took off so fast I couldn’t ask him to explain. Then I saw a band of soldiers coming from right over there, around the edge of the Forum.” He points at a fringe of palm trees across the street, behind which rise the Doric columns of the Gate of Athena Archegetis, a monument financed by Julius Caesar himself. At our back is the whitewashed wall of an Athenian mansion. Oddly, someone has scrawled a crude star into the plaster, right at head-level. I can smell garbage and am beginning to sweat in the afternoon glare. A nearby sign tells me the street is called Odos Epamonindas, and I write the name down as a matter of historical record.

“When I finally understood they were coming for me,” Titos continues, “I ran into the church, where a priest was performing the liturgy for a small congregation of old women. I begged him for refuge, but he refused. Even though I wrapped my arms around the marble baptismal font, he allowed the soldiers to enter the church and drag me away by force. It was such a dark time that no Greek trusted any other Greek, and even the Church had been corrupted.”

Titos paced the few yards back toward the church door, then returned slowly to the street corner where I stood.

“All of them were dressed in ordinary Greek army uniforms, except their boss—a lieutenant—who was wearing a German officer’s browns. The top collaborators got to wear those. They threw me up against the wall right here. I insisted, of course, that I was just waiting to meet a girl. We had a date. I could tell some of them weren’t sure if they’d found the right guy, but the officer didn’t care. He said he should have tossed a grenade right into the church behind me. But he also said he’d give me the chance to prove my honesty: If my girlfriend  showed up in the next five minutes, they’d let me go. If not, they’d draw lots to decide who’d be the lucky one to shoot me.”

“They were standing just there, across the street, messing with their guns, and sweating, and smoking cigarettes. I could tell the youngest soldiers were nervous that they might have to pull the trigger. To hold myself together, I recited, under my breath, a passage of Dostoevsky I’d memorized earlier that week. Then, at the last moment, the girl rode up on her bike. We’d only met once before, but she understood what was happening right away, so she ran up to me and embraced me passionately, with tears in her eyes. An excellent actress, that girl…so convincing that the officer let me go.”

I knew the postscript to this story well enough. Not long after, forces on the right triumphed, and an Anglo-American puppet government took control. Like many artists and intellectuals on the left, Titos was arrested and sent to a series of prison camps, in his case on the islands of Makronissos and Agios Stratis (where he had the good luck to meet his mentor, Yannis Ritsos). He then spent twenty-five years in exile in Paris and Rome, not returning permanently to Greece until the 1980s.

Though it seems a bit callous, I ask Titos if I can take his photograph by the wall, and he agrees. I cross the street and stand with the Forum at my back, facing Titos exactly where the soldiers would have stood with their rifles. When I raise my camera, I notice that he straightens up a little, as if at attention. Then, just as I press the shutter, he crosses one arm across his body, in a gesture I can’t help but surmise is an unconscious defense—as though some part of him still expects a bullet.

at the wall with titos



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