Saturday, September 11, 2010

Ο Λευτέρης ο Αθάνατος

A dear friend from the days we attended high school in Alexandroupolis together, more than 40 years ago, calls me the other day: "You're not gonna believe what I'm about to tell ya", he sez... "I just brought you from the fatherland the most improbable gift you could think of!". I am like, "Euh... what's that?". He continues, "Remember Lefteris? Lefteris Hapsiadis? Well, I brought you a book, his second indeed... with a personal dedication to you, written by his own hand, true story! He remembers you, no doubt about it!". I was speechless! I didn't know what to say!

I can't remember to have ever read so fast any book, anytime before. I almost swallowed every bit of every page like a spoonfull vanilla sweet Greek-style, submerged in cold water. All 365 pages from cover to cover. And then, I went on to read it from the start, all over again! I was like I wanted to memorize the darn thing... At the same time, I can't think of any other book I ever read that raised so many personal emotions in me. Such spanned from loud ROFLMFAO laughters (along with tears mind you), to sobbing... and back to laughs again. I swear these were some of the most moving personal emotions I experienced in many years (that'd also include opening boxes of my favorite Apple gadgets). And all that by just reading Lefteris' book. He's such a gifted and authentic writer and poet, yet never technically trained to become one! It happened to him like this. Almost by accident... The thing that drove him to literature was his genuine love for authentic Greek music. The Greek equivalent of the negro Blues in North America. The rebetika. The music of the tough, the street-fighters, the vagabonds. The Cool!

Lefteris was a rather simple but smart kid in our high school class with one rare virtue that not many among us, the rest of the class, could claim we had to any (traceable) degree: humility. We could never (at least I didn't) imagine the immense talents hidden in this little boy with family roots from the north of Asia Minor, Pontos. Having read the book first, I felt a strong urge to find out what he looked like these days. The little shot appearing on the inside cover of his book didn't offer what I was looking for. I just wanted to recognize his staring, like it was engraved in the deepest regions of my neurons, that faint smile and deep expressive eyes looking at mine, with the humility I knew of. I jumped to the net and, almighty God bless Google images, I found his picture just like I wanted it; it was saved unthankfully in the lowest possible pixel resolution and jpg quality, having been captured and posted from a Delta channel clip, sometime ago. I eventually managed to rework it somehow (with sketching filters from an iPad app) in what you can admire above. Click it for a larger and sharper hyperlinked version...

This picture captures the essence of his character, I can modestly claim. The same humility I have known 45 years ago! With a faint smile. Like he says, people from Pontos don't laugh... only faintly smile. It's true! He was the stereotype of an authentic smiling Pontios...He's got a rebetiko mustache of course that he probably had to add to his persona during his so many years of rebetika career as an authentic lyrics writer, one of the best born in the country. With scores of golden and platinum vinyls and CDs sung by the likes of Dalaras, Alexiou, Kazantzidis, Terzis, Dionysiou, Angelopoulos and many others. Who could have ever thought of that? And I didn't know shit about it! Honestly! Shame on me!

The rebetika is a form of Greek pop-music with roots in Asia minor (I think) from around the same period African-American blues started taking shape in the singing of Robert Johnson and his malted milk, almost 100 years ago. The core rebetika instrument was the bouzouki. A magic instrument that carries in its sound all things Aegean! Originally the music was monotonous (just a few notes all over again as Manos Hatzidakis once claimed on a radio program in the 60ies). Their lyrics were formed from everyday spoken dialects simple and deeply allegoric. Reflecting the pains and struggles in the daily life of the poorest, the hungry, the homeless, the drug addicts, the pick-pockets. Streets and bars were filled with 'da man' machos, cool street-fighters... the legendary mangas! Like I said, lyrics were simple, notes were simple and unsophisticated, but yet quite pure, and extremely powerful. The Mangas dialect sounded very much like present day Laconic. ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς (Spartan mother talk). In few simple words rebetes were able to sing book volumes long of emotions. Such was the power of the Greek language that has grown up for so long, over three thousand years... and counting!

Lefteris was born the same year as I, in 1953! By simply absorbing rebetika lyrics almost from his cradle, from the very moment he started reading at all, and without attending specialized college courses on Greek literature, other than our high school classes that the rest of us attended too, he managed, almost 80 years after rebetika came to be, to write lyrics with similar simplicity and power. What came out of his pen were authentic, strong and deeply meaningful rebetika lyrics that left listeners stunned. Many of his songs became modern day classics and the vast majority of contemporary Greeks promptly sing along as a national passtime. "Kapia kapou kapote", and "Mia einai i ousia", are two legendary examples of such rebetika marvels. Lefteris seems to have grasped profoundly the inner mechanisms and messaging powers of this popular song form. And turn his experience into a renewed rebetika expression with as powerful themes and messages as the original sounds almost a century ago. Simply marvelous! If you happen to be born and bred in Greece, you'll also be privileged to grasp the deeper meaning of Lefteris' talents. Only then could you possibly feel what I'm trying to say, and probably not being too successful in getting to it...

Needless to say, his book(s) are also written the same way. Like rebetika lyrics! True to the bone, full of human emotions and feelings, like pain, empathy, courage, love of acting honorably (filotimo), the sentiments of a first-love deep infatuation, love of parents for their siblings, love of children for their parents, deep and honest love among friends like same blood brothers and sisters... If you come to think of it, that's quite a peculiar form of da man macho, cool, and vagabond life forms... but such were the authentic "pure blood" Greek Manges in the early days... they might have pulled a stylet to cut an adversary's carotid in a heartbeat, but they usually carried a heart of gold softer than butter... ("gentleman" could even be an appropriate English translation of mangas in some peculiar sort of way)

It would take me far too long here to describe all the elements of original writing that Lefteris brought to the legacy of Greek literature by the way he structured and presented his storytelling in this book, called "the vagabond angel" (ο αλήτης άγγελος). I'd only mention that all characters and most events he describes are real life persons appearing in the book with their real life names in actual events that took place. However, he eventually turns them almost into fiction in the most bizarre and original plot: in a given moment, the hero, Lefteris himself, gets attacked by a gang of junkies and murdered; upon his arrival at the gates of Heaven, he manages to convince St-Peter to accept him in Paradise after all (one of the funniest passages in the book based upon a hit song of his, Mia einai i ousia). But being himself as we know him, he also manages to have the Paradise Gatekeeper let him return back to earth for a month, and visit friends and places he didn't see ever since he got sent to heaven.

The book ends while Lefteris rushes to return back to Paradise in-time before St-Pieter's allowed cut-off time of thirty days, by flapping his angel wings, when he subsequently falls all the way down Mount Penteli and breaks most his bones. I loved that passage, when he is being rushed with an Ambulance to KAT, the famous Athens hospital specializing in heavy accident orthopedics. In KAT he finds a compatriot of his from Alexandroupolis, being the head orthopedist surgeon, a doctor known to perform miracles, Lefteris writes. The name of this wonderful man: Kostas Bobotas...

Good ol' Kostas. My first line cousin he happens to be from my father's side. I'll meet him tomorrow in Paris where he'll be attending a medical congress with his wife Mahi, a celeb endocrinologist MD herself too. I promise you, we're going to have several good drink toasts on Lefteris! Well done bro. I feel so privileged to have known you!

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