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"I don’t like Zorba"

2 November 2020
By Susan Wyndham, SSSHARC Journalist in Residence
A conversation with Vrasidas Karalis starts with Modern Greek, his official subject at the University of Sydney, and meanders into Classical Greece, the novels of Patrick White, the cinematography of Mad Max, the streets of Glebe, and many other pathways in the cultural labyrinth of this exuberant Greek-Australian ambassador.

Professor Karalis – or Vras, as he usually prefers – came to Australia “accidentally” in 1989 as a university lecturer. He now holds the Chair of Sir Nicholas Laurantus in Modern Greek and Byzantine Studies, established in 1968 with a donation from a Kythera-born businessman who valued the contributions of “the immortal Greek language” and Greek thought to present-day life.

“We have a fight with the Classics, where do they end?” Karalis said in an interview with the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC).

He dates the transition from Ancient to Modern Greek to the 4th century when the New Testament used the simplified language of non-native speakers. Others argue for the 6th century or the 10th century, “when someone living in Constantinople would understand immediately someone from modern Greece”.

Professor Vrasidas Karalis

Professor Vrasidas Karalis

Much of his work is focused on bringing Greek culture to the English-speaking world. He edits the Greek Studies journal in Australia, and has translated modern Greek poetry into English. One of his most successful books is A History of Greek Cinema (Continuum, 2012), which has sold 150,000 copies in English and, like most of his books, has been translated into Greek. “Greeks love translations,” he said, with about 12,000 translated books published every year in Greece.

Equally important is his interest in Australians of Greek heritage. He has translated, taught and written on writers including the poet Antigone Kefala, novelist Christos Tsiolkas, and is working on a book about filmmaker George Miller and his Mad Max movies.

“Miller has such an interesting cultural imaginary, he’s created this incredible character. My question to him is ‘Why isn’t your Greek background appearing anywhere?’ He was born here in Chinchilla in Queensland. But his name is Miliotis from Kythera, and I met his brother, who has a thicker accent than mine in English.”

Osmosis is a two-way process

Karalis dislikes contemporary identity politics, which “fragments collective movements of emancipation”. Multiculturalism transformed Australia in the 1970s and ’80s, he said, “but it presupposes that there are definite essential identities. I don’t like Zorba, I don’t like souvlaki and I don’t eat feta; I like French cheeses. There’s a more dynamic perception, but we intellectuals have failed to conceptualise it yet.”

Osmosis – “if I may use a Greek word” – is a two-way process, as Karalis defines it, of foreigners arriving in a new country and changing both the place and themselves. This certainly describes his own life and career.

Born to middle-class parents in Olympia, he grew up playing on the site of the ancient Olympic Games. After studying in Athens and at Cambridge and the Sorbonne, he joined a monastery in Russia to become a monk. “But I failed, I discovered God doesn’t really exist.” He took a job teaching in the Netherlands until the depressing weather pushed him to apply to universities in Chile and Australia. Chile was his first choice but when he reacted badly to vaccinations he accepted instead the offer from Sydney.

“I fell in love with Australia, the incredible weather, the incredible people, the landscape, the egalitarian spirit,” he said. He travelled widely and became a member of the Arrernte community in Central Australia. “As Patrick White says, your country is of the subtlest beauty.”

As a child Karalis heard about whole villages of Greek people moving to Australia, “so for us Australia was always a mythical land”. In 1975 he read White’s novel The Tree of Man in Greek translation and read it aloud to his grandmother, who complained that nothing happened in the book. One rainy night in Utrecht he found The Eye of the Storm in the American bookshop and he was “hooked”.

With six languages, Karalis’s first position at Sydney University was lecturer in modern languages. He has taught Greek history, European studies, Classics, ranging across the arts, politics and globalisation. Seated in his office among overflowing bookshelves and outcrops of books sent to him, it is clear that literature is a passion. 

Translation is cultural cohesion

For years he taught classes in Australian literature and in translation: “not simply linguistic translation but cultural translation as well, translation of ideas, behaviour, mentalities; the way cultures communicate and have these fusions and osmosis, the process of hybridisation in cultures, which I love.”

Among his many translations into Greek have been White’s novels Voss, The Vivisector and Riders in the Chariot and his play The Cheery Soul, which ran for months in Athens during the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Voss is one of the greatest and most underestimated novels of the 20th century in Karalis’s opinion.

“Patrick White dislocated the English language from the point of view of a new community of speakers, the Australians,” he said. “He’s the first one who understood the poetry of the language of the lower classes, and the incredible metaphors and the dry sense of humour and semantics of displacement. Australians never say directly what they mean, you have to infer it, so the tension between what they try to say and don’t want to say is an amazing element in Australian literature.”

Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989

Patrick White. Credit: Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989

In 2018 Karalis organised a SSSHARC Retreat and Huddle on “Social and Political Impact of Translation”, which ran in conjunction with another led by Dr Avril Alba, Senior Lecturer in Holocaust Studies and Jewish Civilisation, on “Multilingual Australia: Past and Present”.

With a grant from SSSHARC and a large donation from the Greek community, the groups spent four days in discussions at the Hydro Majestic hotel in the Blue Mountains. They brought in Roderick Beaton, Professor of Modern Greek at King’s College London, and Professor Michael Tsianikas from Flinders University. The 25 participants included Aboriginal students from the Koori Centre and other scholars from several languages, Gender Studies, Fine Arts and Political Economy. State Library of NSW archivists spoke about using documents in other languages.

Karalis hosted a concluding Sydney Ideas public event at the university with Adrian Vickers, Yixu Lu, Joshua Stenberg from the University of Sydney, and Chris Andrews from the University of Western Sydney talking about the art, value and difficulties of translation.

“It was a very important thing,” Karalis said. “I believe translation is cultural cohesion, unifying the cultural language in a multicultural society. What SSSHARC has done is very good because suddenly you internationalise the place and make it a place of confluence. You need support, which is not only financial.”

After the SSSHARC gatherings Karalis, Alba and others planned a two-year cultural program, which was interrupted in 2020 by the coronavirus. During the successful first year there were conferences, workshops, reading groups and lectures. The National Film Archive showed films made by migrants in the 1950s and ‘60s on how to behave like Australians. They studied the history of objects with cultural significance in different communities, including a presentation by Karalis on Patrick White’s Greek recipes.

Conversations with Mr Lascaris

Karalis was interested in White long before he knew about his connection with Greece through his partner Manoly Lascaris. After White’s death in 1990, he began visiting the house at Centennial Park and later interviewing Lascaris. Their conversations were published as a book, Recollections of Mr Manoly Lascaris (Brandl & Schlesinger, 2008).

Manoly Lascaris, 'Kitchen, Martin Road, 1990'. Credit: William Yang

Manoly Lascaris, 'Kitchen, Martin Road, 1990'. Credit: William Yang

“Mr Lascaris”, as he insisted on being called, was an enigmatic character and only “a shadow” in David Marr’s biography of the Nobel Prize winner. Born in Constantinople into Greek aristocracy, he met White in Alexandria and moved to Australia with him in 1948. Karalis believes he was an intellectual influence on White, and was the first reader of his novels.

“People used to call him the butler of Patrick White but this was the most educated, the most sensitive, the most meditative individual I’ve ever met.” He was also a snob who spoke in old-fashioned formal Greek and told his interviewer he sounded “primitive”, Karalis recalled with a laugh.

Doing their interviews in Greek gave Lascaris an opportunity to express himself fully. “He used to say ‘English is only half of my face’,” said Karalis, who agrees there are some things he can only say in English and others he can only say in Greek. Although he had not written in Greek for 30 years, Karalis was asked to write about quarantine in Sydney for a Greek journal and found that “suddenly this incredible explosion of Greek master prose came out”.

A fascination with hidden stories led to Karalis’s latest book, The Glebe Point Road Blues (Brandl & Schlesinger, 2020). As a resident of Glebe for 30 years until recently, he collected narrative fragments about local “outcasts, radicals and outsiders” in semi-fictionalised prose and poetry. There are shopkeepers, academics, artists, beggars, thieves, bohemians and prophets, Indigenous and migrants, mostly pushed out when the suburb was gentrified in the 1990s before the Olympics.

“Mainstream Australia doesn’t want to pay attention to these micro-stories, and on the other hand fetishises migrant stories as secluded ghetto communities,” Karalis said. He believes oral history should be valued by academia and would like to see an oral history of Sydney University, where staff hold a trove of knowledge about the buildings and their occupants.

Karalis worries about the future of Humanities in today’s universities, but less for the future of Modern Greek Studies, which has about 150 enrolments a year. Languages are exempt from the latest fee rises and most students are Greek-Australian rather than international; in recent years they include children of mixed marriages with backgrounds from Aboriginal to Asian.

Karalis sees his role as a conduit to those who will continue his work and create something of their own. One of his students, for example, did a new Greek translation of White’s The Tree of Man, which he edited. The earlier translation was done from the French – “not very good, that’s why my grandmother didn’t like it”. Many graduates have taken up academic positions overseas. But when students visit Greece, they feel very Australian, as Karalis does.

“You understand how the civil culture of a place becomes internalised,” he said. “They go for a month and they love the beautiful landscapes, but I tell them Jervis Bay is much better than Mykonos.”

The SSSHARC Retreat and Huddles on translation were held in February 2018. The Sydney Ideas event “Translating culture and talking with translators” was on February 5, 2018.

This article is part of the 2020 SSSHARC series on how the humanities and social sciences can help us see the world in new ways.

Susan Wyndham

Susan Wyndham. Credit: Nicola Bailey.
Inaugural SSSHARC Journalist in Residence

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