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From oneiromancy to book collecting

by George Tsopanellis

Having grown up in a household bereft of books, bar a tome on oneiromancy (a staple manual for Greek rural families in the mid-20th century), my hunger for them was heightened by their relative rarity. Then, in my first year at high-school, a teacher of mine instituted a small lending library, consisting of a few shelves of literature.

The first book I asked to borrow was Hamlet. Old Ms Bouzoukli thought it way too advanced for my age, but I insisted... and she relented. What surprised me the most about it was its unfamiliar form: a dialogue-driven plot, only broken up by occasional stage directions. It was my first encounter with a play as such.

What followed was The Complete Works of Alexandros Papadiamantis. I was totally struck by the proto-feminist figure of The Murderess. Ever since then, I have regarded it as the greatest prose work in modern Greek. Its wondrous amalgam of demotic dialogue, mixed with descriptive passages in katharevousa, makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up – for me, the surest sign of great literature!

Every drachma I saved up went towards the purchase of books: Notre-Dame de Paris, Les Misérables, Gone with the Wind. I devoured them all like heavenly manna. My comeuppance came when my father, enraged by the seeming neglect of my studies, threw my growing library into a bonfire. I had not heard of the Nazi book burnings then, but the effect on my psyche was just as profound.

After the fall of the junta, my communist-leaning parents were finally able to secure an exit visa from Greece. By then I was in my mid-teens. We opted for Adelaide, where my mother's relatives had settled in the late 50's.

Australia was a consumer's paradise. Other than the 1975 dismissal of Gough Whitlam's Labor government, and the occasional anti-nuclear or anti-logging protest, politics played little part in the country's social make up. Thankfully though, there was no state hounding of my parents for their left-wing views.

I now had an enormous library at my disposal at school. At home, my book shelves were heaving with all the works of Nikos Kazantzakis, purchased from one of the Greek shops dotting Adelaide's creative hub in the western end of Hindley street. Later on, I worked for several bookshops. That was in Sydney, and again in Manchester, when I eventually moved to England. It was there that my passion for book-collecting was born. But that's another story.

published on November 2, 2022
photograph taken by Wolfgang Suschitzky during his 1960 visit to Greece