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Volume 11, No. 2March 2001
AT A MONTREAL RESTAURANT last October, an unusual launch party greeted a book called Saracen Island: The Poetry of Andreas Karavis. Hosted in part by the press attaché of the Greek embassy in Ottawa, the party feted a poet who was not entirely expected to attend. Odder still was the post-party disagreement over whether he had in fact shown up. True, a man claiming to be Karavis, and who certainly looked and sounded the parthe muttered in Greek and wore a fisher-man's caphad briefly dropped by. But was he the elusive Cycladic bard or a mere impostor? For that matter, did Karavis even exist? This latter question had been asked, with mounting interest and perplexity, by many Canadian literati over the previous year. As Matthew Hays, a columnist for The Globe and Mail, posed it in a headline, KARAVIS:GREEK GOD OF POETRY OR LITERARY HOAX?
The key to this enigma belongs to Karavis's supposed translator and exegete, David Solway. Many observers of the Karavis phenomenon have speculated that Solway, a poet and essayist known for his mischievous nature, invented the Greek poet. It's a charge the Canadian has vehemently denieduntil now. Reached in November at his home outside Montreal, Solway admitted to Lingua Franca that Karavis is a figment of his imagination. And the man affecting to be Karavis? None other than the Solway family dentist.
It all began in October 1999, when the review Books in Canada ran a lavish spread on Karavis, touting him as "Greece's Modern Homer." Along with a clutch of poems by Karavis, the review featured a "rare interview" with the poet; a snapshot, in which he appeared bearded, capped, and smirking; and a biographical essay by Solway. Karavis was born in 1932 on Crete, Solway wrote, and later moved to Sérifos, then Lipsi. Plying his caïque among the Cyclades, he sold his poems alongside his fish, sometimes even giving them away "as a bonus with the evening catch." Eventually his island reputation broadened into a national one, so that today his poems are anthology chestnuts and a staple of school primers. But despite his burden of laurels, Karavis is a retiring and secretive creature. Indeed, it was only after an extensive manhunt that Solway ran the poet to ground in 1991; the two have been fast friends ever since.
Solway confesses that he hoodwinked the editor of Books in Canada, who apparently assumed Karavis to be real. But some of the review's readers were less easily duped. In the following issue, a letter to the editor appeared by Fred Reed, a Hellenist and translator. Predictably, Reed took issue with Solway, but his line of attack was quite unexpected.
Reed disputed neither Karavis's existence nor his excellence; on the contrary, he inflated him to "a poet of near-mythical dimensions." Where Reed caviled was over biographical data. Adducing the sleuth work of one Professor C.D. Candias, Reed made Karavis out to be a decidedly shifty character, one who falsified his ancestry and smuggled cigarettes for a living. And then Reed dropped his bombshell: Karavis's first verses, Candias had discovered, were but "pirate translations" of poems by "the Hydra Mafia," a group of Canadian expatriate writers. Juiciest of all, "rumor suggests that Karavis may actually have appropriated some of the earlier poetry of David Solway."
Like it or not, Solway had gained a conspirator. Nor was Reed the only one: Yiorgos Chouliaris, the aforementioned press attaché, wrote a letter commending Solway for his "extremely imaginative efforts" on Karavis's behalf. Why did Chouliaris choose to play along? "I thought it appropriate," he says, "to honor a Canadian writer who went to such roundabout lengths to validate his lifelong involvement with Greece." When Solway saw the letter, he contacted Chouliaris, who agreed to help nurture Karavis's burgeoning career.
The con quickly acquired a life of its own. Reports circulated that conferences on Karavis were planned at the University of Thessalon"ki in Greece and the University of Coimbra in Portugal. At a party, Solway met a writer who claimed, in all seriousness, to have admired Karavis's work for many years, and another who solemnly opined that Karavis was "Nobelizable." Solway even received, from Greece and in Greek, two postcards from Karavis, the first berating Solway for having disseminated his picture, the second pardoning the lapse. To this day, Solway has no idea who sent the cards.
Meanwhile, Solway upped the ante by publishing Saracen Island, of which the following poem is fairly representative:
I remember the wine was
In the village
Besides producing eighty pages of poetry, Solway had spun out more than twenty of commentary. In his notes, he expertly informs the reader that Karavis abominates Rilke and that "the tamarisk may be regarded as [his] heraldic tree."
As if that were not enough, Solway also published An Andreas Karavis Companion, a madcap critical apparatus and mishmash of Karavisiana. Here one finds an excerpt from a Lipsi tourist brochure that reads, "Adding more to the charms of fabuled Lipsi there is existing here the great poet Andreas Karavis," and an account of a conversation with Karavis about North American and European gender politics, which winds up with Solway producing "a magazine photo of Andrea Dworkin I keep as a talisman in my wallet" and with Karavis "collapsed in a paroxysm of laughter."
But if Solway permits himself a bit of sport, he also takes Karavis seriously. "I arrived," Solway explained in a letter to Lingua Franca, "at a juncture that may be described as both impasse and crossroads.... The tone, stance, and poetic attitudes that had marked my work for a decade were, I felt, exhausted and in need of replacement. Such a 'new' language cannot be summoned by fiat; it must flow from a new set of postulates and a new quality of experience.... So I invented Karavis to serve as alter ego and heteronym, provided him with a life history, and situated him as a sort of renegade and loner in the polemical context of contemporary Greek poetry." The term "heteronym" ineluctably brings to mind Fernando Pessoa, with whom Solway is pleased to be compared.
What he discourages, however, is close analogy between his fabrications and those of mere pranksters. "Karavis is not a hoax in the usual sense of the term. My intent is not deflationary in the tradition of Harold Stewart and James McCauley's Ern Malley or Kent Johnson's 'Hiroshima poet,' Araki Yasusada," he said, alluding to an Australian poetry hoax of the mid-1940s and an American one of the 1990s, both of which pointed up the gullibility and aesthetic bankruptcy of the avant-garde. Nor does Solway see himself as the heir of earlier hoaxers such as James Macpherson and Thomas Chatterton. "I am not interested in perpetuating a deception but in creating a style," he explained. As Peter Davison, poetry editor at The Atlantic Monthlyin which Solway, with Davison's informed consent, published a Karavis poemput it, "Why is it so important that another name was used? What should matter, it seems to me, is whether the poems contain vitality, identity as poems."
Still, Solway clearly relishes the practical-joke side of l'affaire Karavis, in no small part because it allows him covertly to tweak his countrymen. "Canadians are not a very exciting people," he says. "Like rubes at a carnival, they need to be poked, challenged, gulled, bedazzled, so that the collective jaw drops in something other than an insufficiently stifled yawn." Solway also derives bittersweet irony from the fact that having published a raft of books in both poetry and prose, he has won Canadian fame only in the guise of a grizzled Greek sea dog.
When all is said and done, how persuasive is Karavis? Rachel Hadas, an American poet known for her connections with Greece, finds that "some of the poems are quite good, but many do not seem to me to be extremely plausible as poems translated from Greek." Certainly, some Greeks are not amused: In December 1999, To Vima, a major Athenian newspaper, sternly upbraided Solway and Reed for having bamboozled Canadian readers (although, bizarrely, the article included a boyhood photo of Karavis).
What's surprising is the degree to which the Canadian press has coyly abetted the hoax, or at least refrained from rumbling it. To an American audience, all this may look like a big canard in a small pond. Such a national flap is almost inconceivable in the United Statesand that, perhaps, is our loss.
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