Theodor Kallifatides: "One night I went to sleep and the next day I woke up and I was famous"

9 min
Theodor Kallifatide

Theodor Kallifatides (Mololai, 1938) emigrated to Sweden at the age of 25. He had no idea of Swedish, but in a short time he became a successful writer in that language. Now he is a small literary phenomenon in Catalonia and Spain thanks to the translation of books -these written in Greek- in which he recovers the memory of his Greek family and his youth: Mothers and Children, The Past is Not a Dream and Another Life. He has published more than 40 titles. In this interview he talks about Greece and Sweden, his family, and politics.

A few days ago you went to the ruins of Empúries. Did you like them?

— Yes, very much. I was impressed. As far as I know, it's the only place in the world where you can see a whole city, its structure, the streets, the houses, the sewers... The museum has some really beautiful pieces. And then there's the landscape, the place, which is fantastic. But, at the same time, there I thought that those Greeks, when they arrived in the Iberian Peninsula more than 2,000 years ago, were like me when I left Greece at the age of 25 to go to Sweden. Immigrants out of necessity.

Catalonia has always been a land of passage, of immigrants. Since the Greeks.

— Yes, I know. It's a very rich and diverse region: in products, in nature, in culture. The three cultures! [Christians, Muslims and Jews].

Has your literary life been like a round trip, from Greece to Sweden and from Sweden to Greece?

— Yes, that's true. Emigration is like cutting your life in two parts. Before and after emigrating. But if you are a writer, it all goes together, you can't separate it. So, both my writing and my feelings come and go. I have felt the jewel of recovering the Greek language and all that it represents. But at the same time, when I go back to Sweden, I also feel that I am going home, and how I love it. That's the thing about emigration: there is always a before and an after.

So you feel that you live two lives at the same time.

— I try to be with my time and my society. I think that being alive means, above all, working for others. My father was a teacher all his life. He always worked for young people. For me, then, it's like an instinct: to do things the best you can.

Your Catalan readers, those who have read your autobiographical trilogy, know a lot about your life. Will you tell them more?

— I have written two more books about my Greek experience, and as far as I know Galaxia Gutenberg intends to publish them. One is a novel trilogy about the German occupation of Greece and the subsequent Civil War, until the 1960s. And recently I wrote a book about Greek emigration, from the 1950s, when it started on a massive scale, until the end of the 1960s. It's basically the story of one woman, her whole journey. I tried to put myself in her and her family's shoes. At the moment I'm not planning to write more about Greece.

Your publisher, Joan Tarrida, explained to me that you are especially proud of the trilogy of the war years, the world war and the civil war.

— It was my second novel in Swedish. One night I went to sleep and the next day I woke up and I was famous: it was a great success. In that sense, yes, it gives me special feelings, but I'm not proud. I'm not really proud of anything. It's no joke. All the good things that happen to us in life, they just happen to us. It's not always to our credit.

Theodor Kallifatides looking out over Barcelona's Eixample, from the terrace of a hotel

But it's not easy what you have achieved: to become a literary reference in a language that is not your mother tongue.

— Yes, of course. It took me some work [laughs]. But how many people in the world do good work and nobody recognises it. So I'm not proud, but I'm happy.

What are you writing now?

— I'm working on a very interesting Swedish poet, now dead. Some of her poems are very popular in Sweden, to the point that there are verses that have become proverbs, set phrases. It's as if you wrote something in the newspaper and fifty years later it's a popular saying. Well, it has happened to Karin Boye, as she is called. I'm trying to make an anthology and have it translated.

What do your Greek friends and family think about becoming literary characters?

— I don't know, they're all already dead! Well, if I have to tell the truth, when the first book came out quite a few years ago, the first reaction in Greece was rather political: they criticised me as the son of the communist teacher. But my father was not a communist, he was a progressive. In any case, that's how they reacted. Over the years, things changed. Now my hometown is proud of both my father and me. A small forest that my father planted is named after him and the public school is named after me. For me, this is very important. My mother used to scold me because I put too much sex in books. And then she would look me in the eye and ask me, "Does all this stuff you write really exist in your little head?" [laughs]. I feel bad that my father died without being able to see that I had become a writer. And my brother, who was a football coach, was more proud of my left foot, because I was quite good on the pitch when I was young, than he was of my books.

And your Swedish family, aren't they jealous of not appearing in your books?

— Well, they appear in other books that have not yet been translated here. Anyway, my wife does appear often, also in the Greek books.

Yes, that's true.

— But she doesn't feel jealousy, in fact she's incapable of it. If things are going well for me, she is happy. I have a son and a daughter. If you have children, you know that raising them is hard work. They are grown up now and have their own life.

Writer Theodor Kallifadites smiles during the interview
The writer Theodor Kallifadites in Barcelona

Where is your homeland? Is it in Greece or Sweden? Or maybe you would say your homeland is your family?

— This homeland thing was easier to understand when I was a kid. Then, at school, they gave us all the symbols, the history, the king.... But as you get older, you understand that everything is a construction. Because in Greece, according to the period, we were only three million citizens, while at other times we had conquered the world, then we were nothing, then we were occupied by the Turks... All very abstract. That's why I decided to stick to concrete things. There is one thing that is basic in everyone's life: your mother (maybe you can't be as close to someone as you are to your mother) and your first language. Even though I don't live in Greece, even though I have been away from the country for so many years and even though I mostly write in Swedish, my heart beats in Greek. My mother and my language are my homeland.

As a Greek immigrant in Sweden in the post-war years, you were welcomed and successful. Do you see yourself as an embodiment of the European dream?

— I was once declared European of the Year in Sweden. Maybe it's true in one sense: we need to be closer to each other, as Europeans. Because the most serious problems we have cannot be solved by one nation alone, not even the biggest: climate change, immigration, poverty, pandemics. Without cooperation we will not succeed. I hope we will find new ways to cooperate more.

Are you optimistic about this?

— I am optimistic since I don't see any use in being pessimistic. I believe we will survive. To be human is to live always in crisis. You are born and the first thing you do is cry, you fall in love and it's not easy, you have children and things get complicated. All moments in life are trances and challenges.

Today the great trance for many is to try to enter Europe. They are not welcome as you were in Sweden.

— It is a big mistake. For many reasons. The most obvious has to do with a core notion in the history of humanity, which is that of asylum, of welcome. And this notion should be respected. There is a very beautiful story about asylum: in ancient Greece, in a small town, there were 70 girls whom the old men wanted to marry to their cousins; they did not want to and decided to escape and go to Argos. There they asked to be received by the king and asked him for protection. He said that he wanted to help them, but that he had to ask his people, gathered in the agora. And he told them that those who agreed, should raise their hands. And they all raised their hands. This is the spirit that we have to rediscover, the protection of the weak and the persecuted, the idea of asylum. It is one of the great things about humanity. Not to welcome people with folded arms, but with open arms.

There is a popular wisdom and kindness, linked to religiosity, which in your books surely represents your mother, with phrases like "Do good and don't look at whom". How can we return to this simplicity of solidarity?

— All is not lost. Society is changing. But the last twenty years have been quite disappointing. We have turned all ideas into business. In banks, you do all the work and they have your money. That's the way it goes. There is, for example, this concept of "relative poverty" that gets on my nerves. Relative? What on earth do you mean? Now the poor are only relatively poor? For God's sake!

You don't seem very worried about the pandemic?

— Well, I'm vaccinated. I try to be careful. But there's a limit to everything. If the pandemic means I can't talk and relate like a human being, then what's the point of living? I'm worried, but more for the young people than for me. I wish the younger generation would be more vigilant about partying. But you can't ban life, can you? It's impossible. I liked it when you shook my hand, when we greeted each other. And if we die, we die.

Aren't you afraid of death?

— Well, yes, in a way, yes, of course. But I don't really see any point in being frightened of death either. When it comes, it comes. And you can't do anything about it.

The books translated so far in Catalan by Kallifatides, and his pipe
Writer Theodor Kallifatides in conversation with ARA journalists

We have learned a lot about Greece through your eyes and your words. After all, Greece for us is a familiar, Mediterranean country. But we would also like to know your vision of Sweden.

— I have written a lot about Sweden, and I hope it will be translated, but you can't translate everything at once!

How do you see Swedish society and how would you say it has changed?

— That's what we were talking about a moment ago. Neo-liberalism is here to stay and I don't like it. Everything that used to be run by the state or local councils has now half passed into private hands. What's the problem, you might ask. Well, in theory, none. But in practice, all of them. If you privatise the elementary school, whether you want to or not, you make the student a client. You calculate costs and, day by day, things get worse. The same thing happens with health care. In Greece I know what happened: when you go to the doctor, you always have to take a small envelope with you with your tip, the fakelaki.

When you arrived in Sweden, it was the paradise of social democracy.

— Yes, it was. And it was for me. It was an example, at least for the progressive Greek newspapers. For the conservatives, it was communist hell. The truth must have been somewhere in between these extremes: it was neither paradise nor hell. If you go to the facts, you will find that most countries in Europe today are more social than Sweden, where the old rich aristocracy still has the same power, they have a lot of land, buildings, they have the big industry.... The Walenberg family is very powerful. The most intelligent thing the social democrats did was to understand that they could not defeat this, but that they had to collaborate to improve the living conditions of the people as a whole. That's fine with me. You can't destroy the structures of society so easily.

Are you not a revolutionary?

— No, not in this sense. Revolutions mean cutting off heads. I prefer to improve and change things little by little. This was the idea of social democracy. They created excellent schools, universities, hospitals. Now there is a new political movement in Sweden, the Reformists, who want to return to the values of social democracy. Now I will give you a small and special piece of information: the president of this organisation is my son. He is a university professor of economics.

So your son, in a way, is following in your footsteps.

— Yes, it was a very nice moment when, after a rally, he came up to me and whispered in my ear: "Father, I am doing this for my grandfather and for you". My daughter is a judge. I think, in the end, that things will change little by little. You made me talk a lot, but, well, this is you job, isn't it? Anyway, I am a political person. As Aristotle said, the human being is a political being.

Theodor Kallifatides

He speaks slowly, as if he were writing. In fact, he speaks as he writes. Or vice versa. He makes himself heard. And he often laughs and smiles: his books also flow placidly, make you hold your attention and laugh and smile. They make you feel like you're listening to someone very close, almost like family. So his experience as an immigrant - a successful or lucky immigrant, as he prefers to say - becomes universal, something so necessary in times of closing borders, when the immemorial idea of welcome and hospitality already practised by the ancient Greeks has been pushed into the background.