Interview

'Your home country makes you more of a foreigner than you feel yourself'

The Greek-Swedish author has been in Malaga to promote Timandra, the novel, newly translated into Spanish, which he considers to be his best

SHAY CONAGHAN MALAGA.

At the age of 84, Theodor Kallifatides (Molaoi, Greece, 1938) visited Malaga for the first time in his life this week and described the city as "wonderful". He didn't visit the capital of the Costa del Sol as a tourist, but to promote his newly translated book Timandra. Despite this new historic novel being published in Spanish for the first time, the Greek-Swedish author has had some of his work translated into English as well, namely Peasants and Masters; With the Coolness of Her Lips; or, most recently, The Siege of Troy. And many of his English-speaking followers will be hoping that Kallifatides also translates Timandra - the novel he considers to be his best.

–Timandra was first published in 1994. Why translate it now? And why do you say it's your best work?

–The only reason is that Joan Tarrida, the publisher, found my work three or four years ago. He's an excellent publisher and he found Timandra. He said: "What do you think? It's a wonderful book." I said, "Okay, publish it." [The book] was the end of my quest for freedom. I left my country because I was tired of the political situation, it was the first step to a new freedom. Then I decided to write in Swedish after a few years, that was the second step. And then I decided to get rid of my sex, in the sense that I must try to understand women deeper than I used to.

–What did that understanding entail?

–Until I was 35 years old, I knew nothing of women; I flirted or went to bed with them. It was a time when everyone said that women and men cannot understand each other. I asked why. My most intimate friends when I was young were women, and they were wonderful friends. So I understood that figure of Timandra needed to tell the story; to try to see if I, as a man, could write about a woman.

–So writing that book can't have been an easy task.

–No, and there was a technical part of the book. Timandra lived in a period where Latin wasn't part of the world, she could not use words of Latin origin. I decided to write the book in Swedish, word by word. The critics were happy with the language of the book, but they didn't know why. I do know that it's a book that I've put more work into than any other. So I call it my best.

–What was it like to write from the female point of view?

–It was difficult, of course. I needed to use all my imagination, all my sensibility to construct the character of Timandra. It was a different experience because you have to put the world upside down.

–What do you mean by that?

–Usually, when a male writer writes about a woman, he describes his reactions, his psychology, his feelings. I wanted to do it the other way around. I tried to feel deeper in myself, to understand Timandra. The result was a liberation of all sex stigmas and misogyny that I was brought up with. That's why I wanted to write a book where I somehow tried to restore the position of a woman in daily life.

–Timandra is set during the Peloponnesian War and you lived through the Greek civil war and the Second World War. How much inspiration did you take from your personal experience?

–If something is the same in our life it's war. Wars never solve any problems, they just create new ones. Look what's happening in Ukraine now. It started with someone in Russian thinking it would take a few days to take over. Will there be a winner? No. Ukraine will be totally destroyed; Russia will suffer a lot of loss of human life.

All wars are absurd

–So both wars are comparable?

–In the Illiad, Homer says that war is the fountain of all tears. He was right then and he is right now. The Peloponnesian War was as absurd as any war today. So I don't think it matters if I write about Timandra or a modern woman. The only thing is that Timandra was easier for me to cope with.

–To cope with?

–Yes, because it was the Golden Age of Athens. Philosophers, poets, painters... It was a golden moment of humanity. So then I thought that it was a happy coincidence that she was there at the same time.

–You found a voice to talk about your past. Do you think we'll see Ukrainian children write about what they've witnessed?

–I'm sure of it, not theoretically, but practically, because I know what happens with immigrant children.

–What exactly happens to them?

–Many young writers now in Sweden are of foreign origin. What do they do? Many of them go into the artistic world to try to describe that huge experience of their parents, but it's also huge for them too. It's inevitable that we'll see a lot of novels from these children growing up now.

–Children remember a lot.

–If you are three years old and see your father killed, or your mother raped, it's not something you forget. And if you're a writer, you write about it.

–Speaking of writing, are there any Spanish authors that you enjoy?

–Spain has some huge writers. Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, Cervantes... Now there are so many good writers. I have not had time to read them all.

Reading local writers

–So who have you read?

–I have read wonderful books by Aramburu, Atxaga, Llamazares and Juan Cruz. I hope to start reading one of the novels of Antonio Soler. Spain does not lack good writers. On the contrary.

–What do you think of the rest of Spanish culture?

–Spanish artists own the world. Spanish culture is great and I'm sorry that I did not start learning Spanish earlier. the last two years I've been learning it and I'll continue. It takes some time, but it's worth it.

–You've also directed a film. Is there a reason why you stopped, or did just you prefer writing?

–Doing that film I found out all the difficulties of making one. You think you make all the decisions, but no. I discovered that I cannot work with other people, I must work with myself. Me and the book. It was a dream to make a film. I studied theatre in Greece, but that was not my stage.

–How does it feel to follow Greece from another country?

–Sometimes it's very painful because you would like to say something but you know it doesn't have any importance. It's a strange feeling, an impotent feeling. When you go to some place else, you become somebody new. Then, your home treats you as somebody who has done something somewhere else. They make you more of a foreigner than you feel yourself.

–It seems like immigration is becoming the norm.

–The situation of immigrants will not stop here. I think people in the coming generations will end up living their lives some place else outside their country. We all follow the movements of society. I hope that we will find a way to accept the multi-ethnicity of societies and be well with it.

–Would you say you're more in touch with your Swedish life or with your Greek roots?

–My life is Swedish. In Sweden I am an immigrant, but by now I would be an immigrant even to Greece. I have lost everything that counted in my life. I have no family left there, I'm the last one. I did not want to be a tourist in my own country. I don't have any intention of going back to Greece.