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Andreas Embirikos: Ἄργώ ἤ Πλούς Αεροστάτου (Argo or Aerostat Flight)

Andreas Embirikos wrote one huge novel which, sadly, has not been translated. He was primarily a poet but also wrote some other prose works. Those that have been translated into English are a collection of prose works, part stories, part prose poem, and this story. It is not even vaguely a novel but till his mega-novel is translated into English (not likely to happen), this will have to do.

The first oddity is that, though written by a Greek, it is set in early twentieth century Colombia. Apart from the Colombians, the main characters are an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Russian man. There is no Greek character. The main character is Don Pedro Ramirez, a Colombian, born in Spain, who is rich, a professor of history and a widower, with a teenage daughter, Carlotta. At the start of the novel, Don Pedro is looking forward to seeing the Argo balloon take off. Carlotta comes in with a bunch of flowers and claims that she has picked them herself in the garden. However, under pressure from her father, she soon confesses that they were a gift from the neighbour, Pablo Gonzalez. Don Pedro particularly dislikes Pablo and, as a punishment for accepting the flowers, he punishes Carlotta by forbidding her from coming to see the balloon take off.

Don Pedro, in accordance with the customs of the times, considers it quite acceptable for a man to have numerous affairs but completely unacceptable for a woman to do so or, at least, for a respectable woman. He was married to Isabella and, to her chagrin, had numerous affairs during their marriage. Had she had an affair, he would have killed the man. Clearly, he cannot countenance his daughter having any affair. His philosophy is summed up by Embirikos: He placed his hand on his penis. To this he owed, he thought, and not his brain, everything he had done, his happiness, his joys, all his successes.

The next day, he goes off to see the balloon take off. He is with his (married) mistress and her fifteen-year old daughter. The balloon is manned by three men. The first is an English lord, who is also a noted scientist. The second is a Frenchman, a noted explorer. The third is a Russian count, a noted geographer. As the three men are taken to the balloon, the daughter of Don Pedro’s mistress has hysterics, as she thinks the men are to be taken off and shot. She has to be taken away. Just prior to departure, the thronging crowds remind the three men of a different setting. The Englishman thinks of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria. The Frenchman thinks of the guillotining of Robespierre. The Russian thinks of a multi-ethnic celebration in South Russia he once attended.

Meanwhile, the Russian count has had his eyes on a young woman and, just before departure, he leaps out of the balloon, cuts the rope and rushes up to her and embraces her. The crowd go wild at this romantic gesture, not least because the young woman in question is a poor orphan. The balloon sails off. Don Pedro is feeling somewhat guilty at not letting Carlotta see the balloon and, as it is headed over his property, he rushes back to tell Carlotta, so she can enjoy seeing it. However, the balloonists can see what Don Pedro cannot. Carlotta and Pablo are making passionate love (Embirikos gives us the full anatomical details) in a haystack. Meanwhile, Don Pedro is arriving home and he can hear the noise of their passion but they, in their passion, do not hear him.

It is something of an odd tale and not one we would expect from a Greek writer. It is not the only time Embirikos mentioned Colombia in his work but I do not know whether he ever visited the country though I can find no evidence that he did. However, a story of passion and hypocrisy, with its side tale of the balloon and its unusual passengers, makes for an enjoyable read. Though it has been translated into English, it is not easy to obtain.

Publishing history

First published 1964 by Tmimatika
First English translation in 1967 by London Magazine Editions
Translated by Nikos Stangos and David Plante