The Great Untranslated: O Megas Anatolikos by Andreas Embirikos

MegasAnatolikosThis is to inaugurate a new category of this blog. It will be an idiosyncratic overview of works not translated into any language that I can read or not translated at all, but which, judging by the secondary sources,  seem to me not only tantalisingly interesting reading matter but also an important contribution to world literature.

I would like to begin with Andreas Embirikos, the famous Greek surrealist poet, and his epic novel O Megas Anatolikos (The Great Eastern). Embirikos worked on this meganovel for more than two decades, and it was published only after his death in 8 volumes. The novel has 100 chapters and clocks in at more than 2000 pages. The main characters of the work are the passengers of the ocean liner the Great Eastern travelling from Liverpool to New York in May, 1867. The action takes place within 10 days, but despite this, it is not so much Boccaccio’s Decameron this notorious book has been compared with, but rather Donatien Alphonse François’s The 120 Days of Sodom. The novel is said to contain lots of extremely explicit scenes, and this  translation of the more innocuous passages might give you the idea. Follow this link with caution: definitely not-safe-for-work type of content! One can imagine something like a voyage of the ship Anubis from Gravity’s Rainbow described in minute detail over a couple thousand pages. In the open ocean, far from the shore and unaffected by any social constraints and taboos, the passengers of the ship indulge in all possible hedonistic pursuits many of which might be mildly called perversions. Besides the Marquis de Sade, the volume is also an obvious homage to Jules Verne’s nowadays obscure A Floating City. It is  a sea adventure novel  set on board of the Great Eastern in which a woman  travelling with her husband realizes that the man she is in love with is among the passengers. Jules Verne got his inspiration by actually taking a transatlantic trip to the United States on this ship with his brother in 1867.

Great Eastern at Heart's Content, 1866

Great Eastern at Heart’s Content, 1866

The publication of the novel made quite a splash in Greece, dividing the reading public into belligerent opponents and ardent supporters of Embirikos’ magnum opus. It is worth noting that among the champions of the novel  was the Nobel Prize laureate Odysseas Elytis who admired its visionary quality. According to him, in contrast to the Marquis de Sade who used sexual subject matter to depict hell on earth, Embirikos employed the same material to create paradise. Thus the liner comes to represent some kind of sexual utopia and universal celebration of eros flying in the face of the strait-laced Victorian society.

You can find some additional information on Embirikos’ works on the website of the poet’s Greek publisher Agra. As far as I know, there isn’t a separate volume of Embirikos’ poems available in English translation yet, and in order to at least have some idea of what it is about you might have to check this anthology of Greek surrealist poetry or the mammoth A Century of Greek Poetry 1900-2000. There is no any information even about some plans to translate The Great Eastern into any language. All we have to content ourselves with for the time being is his poetry.

Whale Light

The initial form woman took was the braided throats of two dinosaurs.
Later, time changed and woman changed too.
She became smaller, more lithe, more in keeping with the two-masted (in some countries three-masted)
ships that float on the misfortune of making a living.
She herself floats on the scales of a cylinder-bearing dove of immense weight.
Epochs change and the woman of our epoch resembles the gap in a filament.
© Translation: 2004, Karen van Dyck
From: A Century of Greek Poetry: 1900-2000
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4 Comments

Filed under The Great Untranslated

4 responses to “The Great Untranslated: O Megas Anatolikos by Andreas Embirikos

  1. themodernnovel

    I once started to make a list of novels that were not available in any language I could readily read. By the time I got to around twenty – all Russian – I gave up in despair. Accordingly, I shall very much look forward to your list. Embiricos/Embirikos is very much an author I should like to read but of his prose fiction, only his short novel Argo has been translated (into English, French and Italian) and Amour, Amour which contains prose poems/stories. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone took on the translation of Ο Μέγας Ανατολικός but it’s not going to happen, as you say.

  2. Yes, it is painful to realise that some works will remain inaccessible. But, on the brighter side, any person who can read at least one foreign language should consider himself lucky, for his opportunities are much wider than those of his monolingual peers. Those great works we read about, but cannot read ourselves… They do have certain mystique about them as long as they remain untranslated. I’ve been always fascinated by those, and I do have some to share. Just will need some time to gather additional information.

  3. Great article and very helpful, especially for book editors. Thank you. Please check one of the greatest Serbian novelist, Borislav Pekić and his masterpiece “Zlatno runo” (Golden Fleece, 1978-1986). It has 7 volumes, close to 4000 pages. In Wikipedia they say: “The Golden Fleece prompted comparison by international critics to James Joyce’s Ulysses and its narrative patterns of classical myths, to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and its long family history and evolution of pre-war society, and to Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point and its inner tensions created through a maze of conflicting perspectives; yet The Golden Fleece was also hailed as unique. One of the novel’s obvious distinctions is its enormous scope and thematic complexity. The Golden Fleece describes the wanderings of generations of the Njegovans, and through them explores the history of the Balkans. The first, second and third volumes were published in French in 2002, 2003 and 2004. The fourth volume was published in 2008.”

    • Thanks for sharing! “The Golden Fleece” looks like the Holy Grail of untranslated literature. As far as I know, some of Pekic’s shorter works have appeared in English translation.

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