Landscape With Dog: And Other Stories Ersi Sotiropoulos (trans. Karen Emmerich). Clockroot. $15.00, 168pp.
Reading Ersi Sotiropoulos’s collection of short stories, Landscape With Dog, brings to mind the Surrealist masterpiece by Giorgio de Chirico, “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street.” Much like Chirico’s painting, most of Sotiropoulos’s stories are textual cul-de-sacs, seemingly expansive but surprisingly claustrophobic, tinged with dark corners, a series of streets that lead nowhere, leaving readers to puzzle over wonderfully unrealized moments and conclusions. There are no easily recognizable beginnings, middles, or ends in these stories. Take, for instance, the conclusion to the “The Pinball King,” the title story of one of her collections in Greek:
My brother and I looked at each other. In the stony white light his eyes were almost transparent, smashed irises under papery lids. The heat became more and more suffocating as we drove. Outside Delphi the goatherd’s package of feta began to stink and we threw it away in a parking lot on the side of the road.
“The Pinball King” is only one of many stories that follow a discursive route to a conclusion that is never really that, a conclusion. The story itself is about a brother and sister accompanying a pair of Italian tourists, Ugo and Erica, to the ancient and famed archeological site of Delphi. Our protagonists lose themselves while searching for the tourist hot-spot, and we, the readers, become lost in attempting to unravel the rather complicated relationship between brother and sister; but answers are few and far between, and even a violent confrontation between the siblings is never really explained, making this last moment even more compelling.
Sotiropoulos’s prose is driven by imagery; it is surgically concise—something I attribute to her being an accomplished poet as well—and deceptively simple; it contains an aesthetic “depth” that stands in wonderful contrast to its naked surfaces, an extension, perhaps, of an aesthetics-of-distrust towards metaphorical and ornate language as practiced by many writers during the time of the Greek dictatorship of 1967-1974.
The title story “Landscape With a Dog,” for example, reads more like a prose poem than anything else but it also eschews anything like an overtly poetic language. The story slowly builds its feeling of disquiet through a constant layering of image after image, even though the ending we are given is also rather anticlimactic; its very first paragraph contains the following stark image: “In the terrible brightness that swept through the dark room, lead-colored crusts gleamed in his wide eyes as if he were blind,” and Sotiropoulos continues on this path, slowly but surely painting a lyrical textual vista.
“Landscape” is, appropriately enough, about a poet who is not quite certain what to do when a certain “someone,” a fan our narrator met “a long time ago, when [she] used to go to that bar where people read poems,” calls in the middle of the night and proclaims his love for her and her work. At some point in the story, Sotiropoulos presents us with the following:
Lying beside the dog, I stared at the bright patterns on the ceiling. There was one shape that looked like a helix and next to it a little white spot. The spot turned into an arrow and shot forward, the helix stayed behind while the arrow started to run from one edge of the room to the other, back and forth over the naked surface like a poem looking for the right word. Then it disappeared and the helix remained, hovering.
This is an exhilaratingly uncanny scene, and one that I still don’t really know what to make of. It might be a metaphor for the creative mind at work late at night, when the darkest shadows in a room present the roving imagination with a blank canvas on which to write. But I really don’t know. This moment is so evocative and strange precisely because the image it leaves us with invites and resists active interpretation, and note that it all beings with a “naked surface.”
There is in Sotiropoulos’s fiction a tendency to draw attention to its own naked surfaces, its almost flat prose, a Modernist ethos one can trace back to Cubism, or even further back to Oscar Wilde’s claim that only shallow people do not judge by appearances. In a Nietzschean sense of value reversal, surface is argued to be just as important as any supposed depth.
But these revelatory glimpses, it should be noted, are not of the sublime, metaphysical kind—there is a stark materialist streak in Sotiropoulos. Consider “The Exterminator,” a story about an unnamed writer on a Greek island looking for a semblance of serenity in which to write her book (the island itself is quite a change of pace for Sotiropoulos’s narratives; they are usually much more concerned with the urban side of contemporary life in Greece). Our writer, however, cannot get any work done, distressed by the rodents and roaches that have infested her house:
Her nights had become nightmarish. She could hear the mice running through the kitchen and into her room, hiding under her bed, could feel them tugging at the sheets. It was impossible for her to concentrate. She had stopped writing. She tried all kinds of poisons, even the strongest; she cleaned out the cupboards and sprayed the whole house. Bizarrely, the mice devoured whatever she left out for them but only got fatter and stronger.
Shades of Kafka’s and Clarice Lispector’s vermin are clear, but where (according to Tayt Harlin writing in Bookforum) Lispector turned the cockroach in her novel The Passion According to G.H. into an “indelibly grotesque image of God,” or where Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis can be read as symbolic of modern man’s plight in a world bereft of meaning, Sotiropoulos’s pests are restricted to corporeality and the tangibility of existence. They are not transcendent, they stand in our writer’s way: she is struggling to compose “a fictionalized biography of two British artists who, from the start of their careers, had lived together and created as if they were a single person,” but is too often distracted by the most grotesque and visceral images of bodily and animal life:
She had almost finished the first draft of her book when she got stuck on a single line. “We eat, we spit, we urinate, we defecate,” one of the artists had said during an interview, and she wasn’t sure if she should take it literally or as a somewhat cynical metaphor for the cycle of life. The fact that their final series had involved photographs of urine and sperm samples, magnifies under a microscope, supported the second supposition but wasn’t enough to resolve her doubts. She had seen the photographs; some of them showed fascinating shapes, exquisitely simple and original, like Paleolithic cave drawings. It was astonishing how much beauty there could be in a strangers’ revolting urine and sperm; she shivered in her chair at the thought, and new, more complex interpretations raced through her mind. She rose and was pacing rapidly up and down the room, trying to assess these new ideas, made dizzy by the possibilities opening up before her, when she noticed an equally beautiful shape, abstract and minimalist, on the floor in the hall. It took her five minutes to figure out it was a pile of mouse droppings.
Here, it is the most base functions of existence, the production of excrement, that disturbs and confounds the writer, preventing her from creating art. There is a materiality to existence, in other words, that perplexes and disrupts understanding and, therefore, falls beyond our capacity for signification, an example of Lacan’s notion of the Real. The story concludes with that most corporeal of realities, death:
She found him face up on the bed, his blue eyes open, his white belly swollen like a balloon. His protective mask and duffle bag were by the door. The pump had been tossed on the floor, and was still dripping. The puddles of rat poison glowed wetly. When had he had time to spray? was the riddle she had to solve before she started to cry.
But death is just another surface, another site that resists understanding and interpretation. Death, and by extension life, is the “riddle” that will never be solved, bringing to mind, once again, the fact that Sotiropoulos is much more interested in asking pointed questions than providing answers; this approach can, at times, prove frustrating to readers if one is looking for conclusions and solutions. But such indeterminacy works well for a variety of reasons in these stories: firstly, as an extension of the spirit of late-’70s writing in Greece, as mentioned above; second, as an extension of a Modernist and Postmodernist aesthetics that Sotiropoulos is clearly a part of; and finally, her textual cul-de-sacs provide glimpses of the vibrant, and rather chaotic, world that is Modern Greece, a country that is currently undergoing a variety of crises as it attempts to determine where it belongs in the global landscape.
If there is one issue I have with this English-language edition of Sotiropoulos’s work it has more to do with the general politics behind “anthologies” than the actual quality of the work. (Sotiropoulos is a fine writer, one worthy of a larger audience in translation, and she is fortunate to have translators as accomplished as Karen Emmerich, who translated the stories under review here, and Peter Green, who worked on the novel Zigzag Through the Bitter-Orange Trees.)
Landscape’s stories have been selected from two previous collections, an act that tends to disrupt the unity achieved by well-composed collections, such as Sotiropoulos’s. It is difficult enough to get a feel for an author’s progression as an artist when reading their work in translation, but reading a best-of collection diminishes the aesthetic and particular social conditions that gave rise to their specific texts. This is clearly not the translator’s fault, nor the publisher’s—they should be applauded for attempting to publish the best of Sotiropoulos’s work. However, a collection of short stories, much a like a series of paintings or tracks on an album, exist in unison for a reason, and it is much easier to make sense of an author when she is presented as originally published (while being completely aware, of course, that this is not a complete panacea for reading an author in translation).
There is, for example, a rather sexually explicit story that appears in the Greek collection The Pinball King titled “The Cunt in the Heat” that does not appear in Landscape With Dog. Leaving aside the merits of whether or not this particular story in itself is as good as the ones that appear in Landscape, the inclusion of it, along with certain others, perhaps, would have given us a much more complete view of the author at hand. This is a particularly important point to bring up in light of reading Sotiropoulos, since her novel, Zigzag Through the Bitter-Orange Trees, was just recently under attack by right-wing zealots in Greece for its supposedly pornographic scenes and its anti-nationalist leanings. (Happily, Landscape does possess its own strident critiques of nationalist ideologies, most compellingly in the story “The Champion of Little Lies.”)
That Sotiropoulos is enraging Greece’s political right is perhaps one final, extra-textual confirmation of her value as a writer. It was Roberto Bolaño who said that one of the virtues of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s work was that it drove nationalists into a rage; Sotiropoulos, in other words, is in fine company.
George Fragopoulos lives in New York. He is currently writing his dissertation on modern American poetics.
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