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Birth Of A Nation: The Makriyannis Memoirs

MAKRIYANNIS learned to read and write expressly in order to produce this extraordinary document of the period during and after the Greek War of Independence. He was born in 1797, the son of Demetris and Vasiliki, peasants of the small hamlet of Avoriti in the mountains of Central Greece. Surnames were rare in those parts; all we know is that Demetris christened his son – Yannis. Nicknames, however, could be acquired, and when Yannis grew up to be a fine tall lad he was called – Makriyannis, or “Long John.” In 1825 he married Katherine, the second daughter of Georgandas Skouzes, and they had twelve children. He died on the  27th of April 1864.

On the basis of his Memoirs, his only opus, he has come to be recognized as one of the most important Greek literary figures of the last two centuries. Makriyannis’s language is the vigorous common speech of the peasantry of central Greece, enriched with a host of expressive words and phrases borrowed over the course of centuries from Turkish and Italian, and enlivened by the great treasury of Greek folksong, which was part of Makriyannis’s inheritance, and on which he was always willing to draw for the entertainment of his friends.

To many, especially to George Seferis, Makriyannis was a poet, and his language that of the Homeric heroes, spoken centuries before Homer. In 1963, a few months after receiving the Nobel Prize, Seferis characteristically said:

“Since 1926, when I first held in my hands The Memoirs of General Makriyannis, down to this very day, no month has passed without my reading some of its pages, no week without my thinking of some of the exquisitely vital passages which I have found there. These pages have been my companions through voyages and peregrinations; in joys and sorrows they have been sources of illumination and of consolation. In this country of ours, where we are sometimes so cruelly self-taught, Makriyannis has been the humblest and also the steadiest of my teachers.”

There is a natural rhythm to demotic Greek, which forms, in the hands of a master, the raw material of poetry. All the agony and horror and glory and beauty of the War of Independence comes brilliantly alive through Makriyannis’s natural poetry and primitive grace.

RELATED LINKS

SUGGESTED READINGS

MEMOIRS, by Ioannis Makriyiannis; edited and translated by Vassilis P. Koukis. Narok Editions, Athens

ESSAYS, by George Seferis, edited by G.P. Savidis.