This boundless, magnificent garden formed by the deep furrows of the waves, bordered by the caves and rocks of the sea, its surface mirroring the dome of heaven, is no ordinary garden. Just as Yannios’s garden-plot, softly caressed by the sea-breezes which crease it into seductive, innumerable lines, as on the forehead of some king’s lovely bride displaying a capricious temper, so the liquid garden of the sea, the unpredictable sea, displays a childish temper and obstinacy, at times furious and at other times seductive. The sea is the garden, and Yannios’s donkey, plunging ‘its feet among the coll petals which waved and rustled around its hooves’, is no ordinary donkey but a little boat: when he tethers it to a post, he is actually securing it in some spot of the harbour, and when he untethers it he is taking it into the sea in order to harvest his ‘vegetables’, ‘cauliflowers and melons’, ‘the fruits of his labour’, fruits de mer, as the gastronomically-informed French would have it.
Homer is invoked from the beginning of the story with his comparison of the waves of the sea with the waves of undulating wheat in an unharvested field. Elsewhere Homer has compared the foamy waves of the sea with a flock of little white sheep. Although not of the same etymology, the affinity between skáros, the sleeping quarters for a flock of sheep, and skarí, the name usually given to a large boat, evokes in modern Greek a common homophonic derivation between terms referring to the worlds of both land and sea. A similar analogy can be seen between skáfos (skiff) and skáfi (wash-tub), confirming the ancient association where the lines between the two elements are blurred. This correspondence can also be seen in Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea’ (oinops pontos), and in the representations on Attic vases of Dionysos sailing on a boat whose mast is a grape-covered vine seemingly growing out of the ship’s hull. The land enters into the sea and the sea into the land. Papadiamadis takes this correspondence one step further by turning the sea into the land. In a horizontal sense, the expanse of the sea is the garden and in a vertical sense the dome of heaven is mirrored in the sea; the sun at the end of its laborious course plunges through this dome to rest at the bottom of the sea, and the moon grows ever more radiant over it and the distant light of the Pleiades sparkle in its unexplored depths.
This is an ancient, primeval garden that dates ‘from the beginning, from the creation of the world’, and contrary to the assertion of Bacon according to whom nature is an open book in which everyone can read the history of creation, this primeval Homeric garden is ‘an open book written in hieroglyphic characters’ that ‘you cannot read . . . unless you are a seer’. The antiquity of the garden is further emphasized by the hieroglyphic characters in which it is described as well as the cryptic sayings of Homer, who is then conjured again become those ‘hieroglyphs’, literally ‘sacred engravings’, are compared with the ‘”emblems of sorrow”, the cracked lines engraved on the naked skulls of the dead, of which it is said that although they indicate the fate of the dead person, you cannot read them unless you are a seer . . . and anyhow it is too late then, since the dead man’s life is over.’ Unless this passage is read in an eschatological way it is totally devoid of meaning. How can anyone read the engravings on the skull while the person is alive? The engravings, like the hieroglyphic characters, have no useful purpose since the reveal the fate of the dead person post mortem, when nothing can be done about their life. It is the same with the scriptural garden. Death cannot be read in the garden of Eden which is full of life. But in the fallen garden, which is marked by death, the remnants of this once living garden can be read eschatologically, for the emblems of sorrow are there for all to see and interpret.
Yannios’s hardships have revealed to him the meaning of exile from the living garden; the garden that he finds in the sea is but a vestige of the original garden of life; it is a garden that is harvested with toil, with the sweat of one’s brow, that yields its once living fruits as dead ‘vegetables’—all the sea-urchis, oysters, octopuses—as a reminder that in the fallen garden it is necessary to consume dead matter in order to live. And it is this garden which is rife with the ’emblems of sorrow’ for the seer who knows how to decipher their meaning, one which is inhabited and epitomized by the solitary, sorrowful figure of a woman, her head covered with the black scarf of mourning, whose body is coated with weeds and scales as with a coat of skin (see Genesis 3:21), the ‘oyster-covered bride with shells for eyes’, who becomes unmarried Yannios’s ‘unbedded’ companion, the once living garden that will threaten to engulf the life of a drowning child and spew it out as dead matter. It is for all these reasons that the book, albeit open, retains its eschatological meaning hidden within its sacred engravings, and must be read as signs of the Kingdom of God, of our exile from this Kingdom which will be given back to us. For the unfortunate Yannios, who has suffered so much in this exile from the lost garden, the meaning of the earthly garden has already been revealed as in ‘a book written in shining capital letters, clear, intelligible . . . .’
An explanatory endnote from editor Lambros Kamperidis on Alexandros Papadiamandis’ short story “Black Scarf Rock,” in The Boundless Garden: Collected Short Stories, volume 1 (Limnia, Evia, Greece: Denise Harvey, 2007), available here.
The stories of Alexandros Papadiamandis are brimming with what has been called “bright sadness.” What else is there to say, but, “read them”? Though we will not enjoy in this volume (except vicariously through such notes as above) the elaborate intermillennial wordplay of Papdiamandis’ Greek which defies labeling much less translation, we can still appreciate his mastery of the short story format. These stories are certainly gems. Whether we call them pearls from the deep or peas from Yannios’ boundless garden, they are beautiful. This collection is a labour of love for those involved, and their loving selection of the best of Papadiamandis’ myriad stories is appreciated, leading more of us to love this author.
The volume is beautifully printed on smooth, creamy paper, a delight to the touch as well as the eyes, and the softcover is a gently textured thick paper, something like watercolor paper, actually. Publisher Denise Harvey has done a wonderful job in not only producing a beautiful selection of stories in translation, but a beautiful book. This first volume of English translations of Papadiamandis’ stories is also volume seventeen of Harvey’s Romiosyni Series, a series of apparently English works (whether translations or originals) involving the history, culture and ethos of post-Byzantine Greece. I’ll certainly be looking for more of the volumes of the series, myself, if this volume is any indication of the quality of the others. My thanks to all involved.