Yannis Ritsos, true heir to classical Greece » The nine muses

Going back to today’s Greek tragedy, giving it a new reading in our society, where the gods have ceased to play the role they had in the classical Greece of the 5th century BC. C., which laid the foundations of our culture, can only be the work of the most authentic heirs of these classics. Yannis Ritsos is. It’s one of the big ones.

Yannis Ritso (Monemvasia, Greece, 1909 – Athens, 1990) does not choose the figure of Helen of Troy by chance as the almost unique protagonist of this long poem, to which she gives her name as the title.

Helena is the paradigm of all women. The author’s intention is already evident in this choice. One of the versions that have contributed to the interpretation of the myth is his kidnapping by Paris, an attack which, mutatis mutandis, women have known and continue to suffer throughout history. Because their story, theirs, was and is a delight, in all the connotative variants of the word.

The author places Helena in the spotlight, and he does so (not by chance) by resurrecting the form of classical tragedy. It again offers us a kind of classic tragedy, from the thematic point of view as already seen, to make us understand that we are repeating history or, better still, that the issues to which it alludes have never ceased to be a constant. In this sense, to say that it offers us a classic is to speak dialectically, because a classic has a positive connotation, because its history is blatantly topical, but if we stick to its content, it is also negative. What the author reminds us of is a great contribution.

The poem begins with the introduction of an omniscient voice, which puts the reader in a situation: it presents us with a male character walking, in an enclosed space, approaching a house. He describes the atmosphere of the place, the decrepitude and the abandonment of the building and the garden that he walks through during his visit to Helena.

From there, the collection of poems will be a long retrospective reflection of a Helen prostrate in her bed, decrepit and abandoned, accompanied by servants who mock and take advantage of her. His voice speaks to a “you”, the visitor. The female poetic subject, Helena, is heard as a memory and interpretation of her life from her experienced wisdom as an old woman.

Thus, the heroine reviews the emotions, the experiences, the themes that concern the human being of all times: his insomnia, his fears, his memories, oblivion, suffocation, expiration, decrepitude (which makes her alien to herself), the ambiguity of words (which she describes as misleading and naive), life as theatrical representation, the dead (which Helena perceives around her through objects), the lack of meaning of everything, the feminine versus masculine nature, the freedom (which he describes as fleeting and fictional).

Visit to classic places: ArgusAthens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Sicyon, Taigeus, Eurotas, ithaca…and characters: Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Paris, Menelaus, Achilles, Proteus, Theoclymenus, Teucer, Castor and Pollux, Aphrodite, Ganymede, Clytemnestra, Orestes, Odyssey, Circe, Nausiaque, Penelope…

All the subjects on which he reflects are collected in classical Greek tragedy. To make clear his intention of updating, the author introduces here and there elements of our daily life: cigarette, ashtray, photograph, bicycle, newspapers, sewing machine, telegrams, electric light, telephone, radiotransistor, automobile, among other unmistakable signs.

The symptomatic absence of gods and fate, essential protagonists of classical Greek tragedy, also contributes to actualization. It is not surprising that this is the case, given the ideological trajectory of the author, affiliated with the Communist Party, imprisoned and persecuted by the various censorships and totalitarian governments that took place in his country at the time when He lived. For him too, as for the great Greek classics, tragedy makes it possible to get closer to the knowledge of society.

It therefore aims to encourage reflection and not only to remain in catharsis, but rather to stimulate changes in behavior. For him, it is not the gods or fate, as in classical Greek tragedy, that tip the scales one way or the other: only human beings are capable of solving problems and changing the story.

The tragedy has a tripartite structure: Helena’s long soliloquy is framed by the introduction and ends with an epilogue, in which the character from the introduction plays again, through the omniscient voice. At the end, exhausted, Helena dismisses her mute interlocutor; he just wants to sleep and forget.

The edition is bilingual, Greek-Spanish, which is a great help for the reader initiated into modern Greek, who will be able to compare Selma Ancira’s translation with the original.

Yannis Ritsowho in his long and repeated imprisonments never stopped writing, composed poems to be sung by Theodorakis, who had requested it through another inmate. Ritsos wrote then, inspired by his news and with a traditional meter to sing Eighteen songs from the bitter country.

Much of the work of Yannis Ritsos, under the name of Giannis Ritsos, has been translated into Spanish, especially from the year 2000, little into Catalan. It deserves a translation into other Spanish languages, due to the transcendence of its writing.

Yannis Ritso
Helen
Translation of Selma Ancira
Cliff, 2022, 85 p.

[Imagen de cabecera: Busto de Yannis Ritsos en Monemvasia – De Remi Jouan – Photo taken by Remi Jouan, CC BY-SA 3.0 (con modificaciones)]

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