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Tobacco Wars
by Fred A. Reed

Books in Canada is to be congratulated for its decision to publish David Solway’s presentation of the enigmatic and elusive modern Greek poet, Andreas Karavis, in its October 1999 issue. For all too long, Greek poetry in particular and Greek letters in general have fallen into something of an eclipse on these shores. In Karavis, a poet of near-mythical dimensions—as Solway’s elegant, ringing translations demonstrate—we encounter a voice that seems to evoke the very genius loci of the Cycladic Aegean. I fear, however, that I must take issue with some of the biographical data Solway presents. No lesser an authority than C.D. Candias, Professor of Cultural Studies at the Arcadian Academy, on the island of Paxos, has written in a recent critical essay (see Ionika Grammata, Kerkyra, July 1996) of the poet’s taste for dissimulation, personality shifts, and blurred identity markers. Curiously, this text seems to have eluded Solway’s otherwise meticulous attention. Through rigorous archival research, Professor Candias demonstrates that Karavis’ claims to Sfakiot ancestry may be charitably described as apocryphal. Though he may indeed have been born in the city of Chania (which appears as “Xania” in BIC, an apparent mis-transliteration of the Greek letter “X”), Candias marshals irrefutable evidence that the Karavis clan originated on Gavdos, off the southern coast of Crete. Candias also elucidates Karavis’ choice of the caique skipper’s profession as a livelihood. Greece, in the years between the mid-1950s and 1967, the year of the colonels’ coup, was remote from the overcrowded, overpriced, polluted, and tourist-clogged inferno that it has become today. It was also a hungrier, more desperate place. Close scrutiny of court records in the Aegean prefectural archives on the island of Syros revealed what scores of islanders had been whispering for years: that Karavis had supported himself by smuggling cigarettes (then a state monopoly), and in the process, had set up the very distribution network he would later use to diffuse his poetic creation. In fact, Candias produces photographic reproductions of short poems inscribed on the backs of empty packages of contraband Santé cigarettes, Karavis’ preferred brand. That he may have been involved in smuggling other substances can neither be proved nor disproved. Candias points out, though, that the illustrious bouzouki master Markos Vamvakaris had apparently established a friendship with Karavis. Vamvakaris, like many of the rebetiko masters of the day, did not disdain the occasional whiff of “mavri”, the Athenian underworld term for opium. Karavis’ near-compulsion for the elusive and the evasive extends to his relationships with a series of striking women, of whom Lili Zographou was hardly more than a passing infatuation. The poet’s most notorious liaison involved the Vlacho-Macedonian passionara, Plaka Maskaneis. The revelation quickly earned him the opprobrium of Greece’s strident hyper-nationalist press, for whom affirmation of a “Slavo-Macedonian” identity is tantamount to treason. His Macedonian interlude can also be plausibly linked to what the critic Constantine Makris terms his “magisterial and patristic voice”, for it was there that he paid an extended visit to the monastic republic of Athos. But perhaps the most perplexing revelation in Candias’ study deals with Karavis’ long-term relationship with the Hydra Mafia, a group of Canadian expatriates who took up residence on that rocky, Albanian-speaking island in the Saronic Gulf before moving on to greater things. Leonard Cohen and Irving Layton immediately spring to mind. In fact, claims Candias, Karavis’ earliest work consists of pirate translations of the work of these poets, then unknown in Greece. The poems, which he claimed as his own, he would offer for sale in island tavernas, fish markets, and coffee-houses in primitive mimeographed copies, sometimes inserted into smuggled cigarette packages. Unconfirmed rumor, concludes Candias, suggests that Karavis may actually have appropriated some of the earlier poetry of David Solway, disguising it sufficiently to conceal its origins. Were this to be the case, the affinity between the established poet and his translator would appear in a starkly different light.

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