η εφ. The Guardian για τον Αντώνη Σαμαράκη

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Antonis Samarakis

Greek writer whose masterpiece anticipated his country’s military dictatorship and explored the helplessness of ordinary people

David Holton

The masterpiece of the Greek writer Antonis Samarakis, who has died aged 83, To Lathos (The Flaw, 1965), was eerily prophetic of the military dictatorship that was shortly to be established in his native land. The novel, translated into English by Peter Mansfield and Richard Burns, in 1969, dealt with the fate of a suspect detained in an unspecified police state; a plan is devised to make him attempt to escape, thereby proving his guilt, or confess to his anti-state crimes under interrogation.
The flaw is the plan’s failure to allow for the human factor, the fellow-feeling that the interrogator develops for the suspect during their time together. The novel was awarded the coveted prize of the Twelve in Greece in 1966 and the Grand Prix de la Littèrature Policière in France in 1970. It was also turned into a successful film by Peter Fleischmann in 1974.
Unusually for a Greek writer, Samarakis did not generally focus on issues arising from his country’s troubled 20th-century history, or on the consequences of modernity for the fabric of Greek society. His themes, which found a receptive readership particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, were the helplessness of the ordinary person in the face of growing state power, the nuclear threat, the loss of ideals, public corruption and the alienation of the individual in an uncaring, consumer society. Translations of his works into more than 30 languages, as well as the stage and screen adaptations, attest to his ability to address issues of common humanity.
Samarakis was born in Athens and studied law at Athens University. A civil servant in the labour ministry, he resigned in 1936, when General Metaxas imposed a fascist-style dictatorship on Greece, but resumed his post in 1945. During the German occupation, he joined National Solidarity, a precursor of the main leftwing resistance organisation, the National Liberation Front. In 1944, he was sentenced to death for his resistance activities, but managed to escape and go into hiding.
From an early age, he wrote poetry for literary magazines and anthologies. But in the 1950s, he made the decisive turn to prose fiction, publishing his first collection of short stories, Ziteitai Elpis (Hope Wanted) in 1954.
The protagonists of these stories are ordinary people facing crises in their lives and beliefs – a widow bringing up a consumptive child in slum conditions, a priest tending a dying man, a soldier unable to kill the enemy with whom he feels a common bond, a man who seeks to regain his childhood innocence by buying the house in which he spent his early years. Their situations lead to a shattering of hopes and ideals or to a new affirmation of human values.
Samarakis’s first novel, Sima Kindunou (Alarm Signal, 1959), and second collection of short stories, Arnoumai (I Refuse, 1961), which won the state literary prize for short stories, developed the same themes and further established his reputation, enabling him to resign from the civil service in 1963 and devote himself to fulltime writing.
His longest short story, The Passport, reflects his experiences under the military dictatorship of the 1960s, when he was denied a passport unless he wrote something favourable to the regime. The story is not merely autobiographical but generalises, in a manner reminiscent of Kafka, the plight of the innocent victim of a totalitarian regime. It first appeared in a series of volumes published as a direct challenge to the regime’s censorship policies (New Texts 2, 1971) and, in 1973, as the title story of a collection (translated by Gavin Betts as The Passport And Other Stories, Melbourne, 1980).
As in much of Samarakis’s work, the characters are anonymous, the style fragmented and plain, sparing in description, but racy, with unexpected twists and an often caustic humour. His protagonists’ agonised states of mind are depicted with frequent repetitions of words and phrases, often tending to stream of consciousness.

The Greek editions of his books sport fullsome appreciations by Arthur Koestler, Arthur Miller, Graham Greene, George Simenon, Agatha Christie, Luis Bunuel and others. Formal recognition of his work as a whole came in 1982 with the award of the Europalia Prize. But after 1973, his inspiration dried up: he had said what he had to say. A novel and a further collection of stories appeared in the 1990s, but added little to his reputation. His auto-biography appeared in 1996.

Samarakis has had more critical attention and commercial success in continental Europe, especially Germany, Scandinavia and France, than in Britain. Though his work is small in compass – his longest novel runs to only 230 pages – it depicts the anxieties of the postwar world with a notable compassion and humanity, and offers a timeless warning not just of the threat of totalitarian regimes, but of all societies where the disadvantaged are left out of the account.

Samarakis represented Greece at conferences of Unesco and the International Labour Organisation, whose missions he also took part in. He was a goodwill ambassador for Unicef, organised an annual youth parliament in Greece, and, in 1991, was designated as his country’s cultural ambassador for Mèdecins sans Frontières. He is survived by his wife Eleni.

Antonis Samarakis, writer, born August 16 1919; died August 8 2003