Panait Istrati 1928

Interview in Athens

Source: Le Ha´douc, Fall 2017-Winter 2018. French translation by Martha Popovici.;
Translated: by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2018.

Translator’s note: This interview by the Romanian journalist I. Semo appeared in the literary review Viata Literara on March 3, 1928. It was conducted on Israti’s way to the USSR in the company of Nikos Kazantzakis.

Athens. It’s 9:00 p.m. On the walls of the great stadium a number of multi-colored posters announce the day’s spectacle. More or less out of curiosity, I attempt to decipher a poster in Greek characters and , after a few minutes of gymnastics I can make out a name: Panait Istrati.

I pick out the name of the hall [...] There he is at the podium. [...] I have a strong impression of having before me a hashish smoker with the gifts of a storyteller, describing for the crowd the delights of that intoxication.

Suddenly, in the hall, the sound of whispers can be heard.

“What did he say,” I asked a kind soul, for Istrati speaks Greek.

“Even if my father was Greek and my mother Romanian, I am and remain Romanian.”

“The French writer,” as the Greek newspapers call him, a writer with an international reputation, “the great humanist,” back from Russia, contrary to all expectations and well along on his ascent to glory, was brave enough to assert before a crowd that would have wanted him to be Greek: “I am and remain Romanian.”

The talk is over. On the streets of Athens Istrati is borne in triumph beneath enthusiastic shouts that don’t grow weaker to the home of Nikos Kazantzakis, where he temporarily resides.

The next day, feeling impatient, I knock on the door. [...]

We begin.

IS: You're here from the homeland?

He shakes my hand [...]

PI: And him, he’s Nikos Kazantzakis, who I went to Russia with. Right Nikos?

He then begins to ask questions abut Bucharest, about friends he hasn’t forgotten – about everything that could interest anyone who feels indissolubly tied to our country. I little by little manage to squeeze in a few questions. [...]

IS: When did you leave Paris?

PI: In September. To be honest, the atmosphere in Paris had become suffocating. The majority of French writers are animated by one goal: money! At whatever the cost they want to reach a material situation where everything is permitted them.

French writers are too prudent to support an ideal of peace through militant struggle in support of the enslaved victims of bourgeois reaction.

I've been living in the West for eleven years, but now I've had enough. I'm going to settle in the east. I'm too attached to my porters, my manual laborers, my workers to abandon the combat to which I must sacrifice all.

The unfortunates of my world, of the working class quarters where I spent my childhood demand of me, in the name of poverty and hunger, that I place my pen at their service. And I don’t hesitate a moment.

IS: So you went to Russia?

PI: Yes. I was one of 2000 intellectuals from around the world invited to visit Russia. The invitation was from the VOKS cultural society.

I'm not involved in politics, so I was only interested in the life of Russian workers, both manual and intellectual.

Writers in Russia have their existence assured. It’s the state that publishes the works of the most important workers. In order to get an idea of the increase in the number of literary publications in Russia it’s enough to mention that in Kiev alone twenty-eight reviews appear in a format and a technical level that rival those of the west.

IS: Have your works been translated into Russian?

PI: Yes, all my writings were published by Gosizdat of Moscow with print runs of several tens of thousands.

In Russia there’s a passion for reading that’s almost extreme. The office worker, like the petty bourgeois has developed a taste for reading to an extent that excludes any other interest. People read on the streets, in public offices, at home. Anywhere it’s possible.

Obviously, Russian writers are making an enormous error: they've dedicated all their writings to “the Bolshevik god.” Perhaps this is natural. Any other work treating any subject other than the social questions on the agenda in Russia risks not being read or encouraged by the large publishing houses.

IS: What are you currently working on?

PI: I'm in the process of finishing a novel, Les Chardons du Baragan. What can I say? If I'm in Nice or at the foot of the Urals my preferred subjects are memories of my past. And that’s how it will be, I think, until the end...

I'm also working with my friend Nikos Kazantzakis on another novel. In order for you to better know Kazantzakis, let me tell you that he is the most erudite writer in Greece. He comes from a noble Cretan family, a historical family. He was undersecretary of State for the Interior and went to Russia as such to settle litigation concerning Greek refugees.

There he got to better know Russian intellectuals and, on his return, he even refused a ministerial seat in order to be able to write as he wishes.

IS: what are your projects?

PI: When I'll have been expelled from here – you must know that that’s only a question of days – I'll settle somewhere in the East. Instead of working on my novels in Nice I can just as well do it in Siberia... or wherever. First I want to take a trip across Russia. I'll visit Crimea, the Caucasus, northern Siberia, I'll descend the Volga and finally I'll learn Russian in two or three years.

I'm not leaving for Russia out of political conviction, for that is foreign to me. I just want to know up close a world that’s new to me, a world to which I feel attached.

IS: You don’t feel homesick?

After a pause...

PI: More than could be imagined... In fact, when I saw you arrive an hour ago I had the thought of accompanying you home – and this thought hasn’t left me since.

IS: Why don’t you do it?

My compatriot hands me a letter.

PI: Read. You'll see. My publisher in Paris is foaming at the mouth because I haven’t finished the novel I promised. If I went home now, well, adieu the novel. Who knows when it'll be done? And, to be honest, there’s something else that’s holding me back. In Bucharest I'd provoke – without wanting to – a new scandal, and I want to avoid this.

But let’s talk about something else... It’s my friends back home who I miss, the Baladan quarter, the comrades of my poverty-stricken childhood, the evenings when we rea” by the light of a flickering lamp. I'd love to see the copse of bulrushes in the ponds along the Danube and that world of the hardworking to which I feel so strongly connected.