Living with a work of literature as its translator is an odd experience, almost a contradictory one. The first experience of a great work tends to be a disconcerting one, a wild one, and often beyond the ready-made language that criticisms and platitudes often provide. Great works upset us before they lead us to anything as provisional and illusory as an “understanding,” and a measured patience is often lacking in such a line of thinking. To translate, therefore, is an odd bit of work in that the process itself posits a certain degree of understanding, or, at the very least, a certain amount of detachment between translator and text. To translate, in a sense, means to domesticate. This is why Walter Benjamin, in his seminal essay “The Task of the Translator,” rightfully argues for the need to maintain the spirit of the original language into the new language; to do as such maintains the power and singular intensity of a great work (ironically, of course, by being necessarily unfaithful to it). Benjamin quotes Rudolph Pannwitz who writes: “Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English. Our translators have a far greater reverence for the usage of their own language than for the spirit of the foreign works.”
I say all this because living with Nikos Kachtitsis’s novella, Ο Εξωστης, for as long as I did, and seeing it eventually turn into The Mezzanine, made me somewhat numb for a time to its odd intensity and power. It was while re-reading the work in preparation of writing this introduction that I once again remembered the novella’s feverish quality that had made such an impression on me during that first encounter. The Mezzanine is a work that makes apparent many of Kachtitsis’s precursors: Kafka, Conrad, Dostoevsky, Joyce, even Proust, are all influences; Greek writers that also appear to have been of great influence, and little-known, unfortunately, outside of Greece, are Alexandros Papadiamantis, E.H. Gonatas, and Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis; the last two authors, in particular, sharing an affinity with Kachtitsis’s explorations of interiority, dream-like landscapes, the inner workings of the mind, and shifting states of consciousness. For Kachtitsis, as for Gonatas and Pentzikis, the dividing line between the self and the world is a thin one, and, at times, nothing more than an illusion created in order to be traversed, crossed and challenged. As an extension of certain Romantic ideology and thinking, their works argue for the power of the imagination to be just as powerful as any “real” or “rational” force might be.
The Mezzanine is the story of an unnamed protagonist, a man only known as “the following undersigned S.P.” an “an ex-antique seller, hotel owner and, in the past, never a prominent inhabitant of Ghent” who is busily at work writing his “denunciation,” a manuscript meant to clarify how he has reached his horrible state of degradation:
I am falling apart; and . . . my health has deteriorated irreversibly. I attribute the last one not so much to my old age, but to insomnias; to the stress caused by memories and remorse; and to my rheumatism. I merely need to refer to the fact that at this moment of writing I am wearing gloves that come up to my shoulders and it is with great difficulty that I am holding the pen.
His writings, however, raise more questions than anything else, and we are left asking what it is we are exactly reading, and who the teller of the tale really is—even the actual year is effaced in the manuscript we are reading. In an introductory note from a person simply called, “The Publisher,” we become aware of the fact that we are reading a manuscript that was saved from the fires:
The pages that follow were found by me in a sorry state of disorder, amidst a number of other worthless papers, spotted with tropical mildew, ready for the fire, in the basement of a bookstore where I worked for a number of years as a classifier. What follows is the personal history, and last-minute confessions, of a man and his ways. . . . Here and there, whenever I deemed it appropriate, I made a few slight corrections, additions or deletions. Finally, I would like to reiterate my futile attempts, for years now, to discover the real name of the writer of this manuscript by contacting certain colonial officials and others in northern Europe. Barring a miracle, his name will never be discovered.
What we do know is that S.P. is a displaced European, in the middle of an Africa that he is neither willing to, nor able to, connect with. The novella is as much about the inability of our anguished and displaced protagonist to escape his own tortured past—a past we are given very little information about—as much as it is about Europe’s disastrous colonial escapades into Africa. The solipsism of our narrator is indicative of a much broader European solipsism that turns its back on the very reality of African life even as that life literally unfolds before the disinterested gaze of its colonizers. Instead of an active engagement with everything around him, an escape, perhaps, into an “actual reality,” our narrator descends into paranoia, fear, self-loathing, and he travels down the road of assured destruction. The interior world of his mind is not an escape but an ever-shifting landscape as troubled and as in flux as the one just outside his window, a mind at war with itself, a literary example, perhaps, of what the philosopher Hegel called the dark night of the soul. A retreat into writing becomes a failed enterprise as well, for Kachtitsis refuses the easy humanistic route of writing (and art in general) as representative of the means to a redemptive escape. If anything, the process of writing drives our protagonist that much closer to the edge of madness, a madness that is represented in the selection below by the imaginary buzz of sounds and “voices” from the beyond. In fact, the “writerly” aspect of the novella, the fact that it is meant to be a private manuscript or journal, is a thematic and textual element that Kachtitsis uses to illustrate the awkwardness of his own protagonist: there are frequent digressions that go nowhere; certain sentences that read like extended non sequiters; odd interjections (most often in parentheses) that make little sense.
In the aforementioned “voices,” of the chapter that follows, Kachtitsis comes close to replicating the dark eddies and spirals of the soul that Beckett finds Proust’s work. It is in this push-and-pull between interior and exterior worlds that makes The Mezzanine such a disturbing pleasure to read.
This chapter, one that is representative of our narrator’s penchant for circumlocution, paranoia, and evasiveness, we find S.P. describing a journey he undertook in order to (possibly?) escape his ongoing guilt, only to find that escape is clearly an impossibility. The chapter also alludes to an incident at the mezzanine of the Atlantic Hotel, the scene for the pivotal (non) event that acts as the missing center for the entirety of the novella. This (non) event is the empty circle around which the actions of the novella revolve, an empty space that, to me, illustrates S.P.’s impossibility in dealing with the world around him. There is no central, original trauma that is being reflected on and cannot be named, but, rather, the empty void that consciousness itself can be. It was Dostoevsky who said consciousness is a sickness, and this is, perhaps, the most important lesson Kachtitsis learned from the Russian master, a lesson well-learned and applied to great use in The Mezzanine.
George Fragopoulos lives in New York. He is currently writing his dissertation on modern American poetics.
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