Meni Kanatsouli, Professor of Children’s Literature, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece
Eleni Dikaiou has been writing children’s literature for the past twenty five years. During this time her work has attained maturity and artistic perfection while retaining its freshness and youthful vigour to the full. In her long career Dikaiou has attempted innovative and versatile thematic approaches with considerable success, often returning to the same or similar literary subjects with consistency, assiduousness, and an obvious love of her craft. Her commitment to experimentation in both form and narrative strategies matches her investment in language: Dikaiou’s attention to crafting narratives of linguistic and realistic power result in a style which could fairly be described as ‘poetic realism.’
Dikaiou’s stories are written for a wide age-range. Her stories for very young children are comforting fairy tales populated with ladybirds, horses - real or wooden –, bears, and other forest creatures. These anthropomorphic characters develop emotions of tenderness, friendship and solidarity in their own microcosm (The Wooden Horse and the Lucky Ladybird). In The Ladybird Who Brought Easter the young reader learns how ladybirds are connected to Easter in local Greek traditions via their bright red colour. In The Story of the Little White Tomcat, in which the eponymous hero leaves his favourite little girl, the narrative voice is shared between the two of them: humour, tenderness, the warmth of home, and the love between child and animal go beyond simple storytelling to become values that inspire young children. In total, these stories familiarize little readers with the animal kingdom as well as create primary models of literary characters, miniatures of the human world with which early readers can identify. The artistic success of these minimalist miniatures lies in the combination of narrative simplicity and aesthetic accomplishment.
Dikaiou, as a writer living and working in Greece, is naturally influenced by the country’s long history. Antiquity is a major source of inspiration, and much of Dikaiou’s work comprises mythological stories of the gods of Olympus and her favourite heroes, Heracles, Theseus, Jason, as well as Odysseus and his long voyage. Her mythology-themed books, first published in 1999, are constantly in print and have won many prizes, among which the National Prize for Children’s Book of Knowledge (2004). Dikaiou takes myths seriously and treats them with the respect they deserve: myths contain many sacred truths wrapped up in the cloak of symbolism and demonstrate the human awe in the face of the divine and the mystery of life. As Dikaiou puts it succinctly: ‘What value could there be in a story which is untrue from beginning to end?’
Greek mythology is a favourite subject with many Greek writers; the innovation Dikaiou brings to it is the emphasis on the human dimensions of her characters. In her retelling of the heroes’ stories, the heroic epic gives way to characterization, to the heroes’ questioning and emotional fluctuations: her Heracles, for instance, is a tragic man, a parent who killed his own children in the throes of holy rage, facing the future with ambivalence, and reaching a truly humbling end. Similarly, Jason will be driven to commit suicide after his children are murdered by their own mother. The tragic human condition is fully presented with unfaltering realism in a literary work for children; however, child psychology is explored as well. The childish fears of little Theseus and the mischievous tricks of the child-god Hermes invest the narrative with playfulness and authenticity in the depiction of childhood, helping the young reader to identify with these characters and even see them as potential role-models.
Dikaiou does not embellish either reality or mythology; the flaws of gods and heroes are rendered with realism, and this is the best paradigm for contemporary children, who can find there a combination of the timeless ideals represented by the hero with aspects of modern reality. In the same spirit, in these stories of deeds performed by great men, Dikaiou will introduce the typically neglected and invisible history of women, delegated to secondary roles for centuries, often being assigned duties and adopting behaviours not of their own choice. There is no better example than Medea, who steals the leading role from Jason since her ‘epic’ is stronger than his: that of the cheated woman who emerges out of labyrinthine female emotions with a wounded soul and becomes the murderess of her own children.
Ancient Greek history is also a major inspiration in Dikaiou’s work, particularly historical figures who have acquired legendary status through the ages.Gods Do Not Die in Pella is the fictional biography of Alexander the Great, King of Macedon. In Dikaiou’s version of Alexander’s history, war and battles are only the basis, or the trigger, for a deeper exploration of the characters’ psyche. The narrative attempts to paint a more rounded portrait of Alexander by exploring the emotions and feelings of all the people around him; this helps to re-create Alexander’s character more fully, as well as to offer insights into the way of life and thinking of men and women in that era. Contemporary young readers are thus offered a representation of historical reality through full portraits of historical characters with real emotions, feelings and anxieties. A deeper understanding of Alexander is achieved through depictions of the women he loved - his mother, his wives, the mother of King Darius - as well as through his companions and even his enemies and those who betrayed him. Dikaiou’s originality in this novel lies in two specific points: first, her narrative follows a linear temporality, leaping over many years or offering a summary only of important military events, to stop and focus on the important ‘human’ moments, such as that most tragic event in Alexander’s life, the death of his beloved friend, Hephaistion. Second, Dikaiou does not flinch from speaking about the special relationship between Alexander and his companions, particularly Hephaistion. Without any hints of effeminacy in the deep emotional bond between the two young men, she paints a vivid portrait of their friendship which almost attains the character of worship. Thus she depicts the historicity of homosocial love between men - without any association with our own times - in order to elevate male friendship in the eyes of the contemporary reader.
History is also the material for Dikaiou’s novella The Girls in Sailor Suits. But here history is stoked by life experience and by family memory: the narrative revolves around the heartbreaking story of a family that survived the terrible destruction of Smyrna [in the Greco-Turkish War] in 1922. This historical event, although less well-known than other genocides of the twentieth century, is still a festering trauma for many Greek people. Dikaiou undertakes to preserve historical memory, whose agents are the eponymous little girls of the title, as a sacred duty. The main emphasis of her narrative lies in the lived experience by simple people of historically significant moments; of misfortune dislodging happiness; of the trauma of being a refugee and how this affects children, destroys human dignity and breaks up family bonds. History becomes micro-history, the everyday stories of people.
Greek history of the twentieth century, and particularly its darkest hour, the Civil War of 1945-1949, provides the source for Seeking the Lost Heroes, Dikaiou’s most tragic-themed work so far. The heroes of a civil war can only be lost, wasted, and frustrated, whether victims of circumstance or agents of disaster. After World War II, when the rest of Europe began the effort of reconstruction, in Greece those same patriots who fought against the Nazis began to fight against one another. Very few writers of children’s or YA literature have tackled this theme: not only are the traumas of that war still raw in recent family memories, but there is a collective shame in the recollection of Greeks dividing into two opposing camps - ‘good’ or ‘evil’ according to where one stood in that conflict. The narrative point of view in the novel is that of a young girl, Nepheli, who tries to stay neutral, although her personal values as well as love make her throw her lot with the guerrilla side. Neither pride nor hatred, but bitterness is the prevalent tone in this narrative. There is no demand for justice or justification, but for memory, so that such things may never happen again. The not-so distant past resonates as a timeless exhortation for reconciliation and unity. Heroes must not have easons to be lost, ever again.
Contemporary life and its problems are the inspiration for two novels for older children and teenagers, in which Dikaiou’s unique sensibility raises some often-neglected issues. Could You Please Teach Me How To Smile? is a story about the Freudian, oppressive relationship of a mother with her daughter, as well as a treatise on the Greek educational system. Female relationships, and particularly the dysfunctional relationship between mother and daughter, are the coherent thread that keeps the narrative together; on the other hand, female solidarity will seal the story with a positive ending: the female psychologist friend will finally teach the heroine of the book how to smile.
I’ll See You Again, My Little Friend, is a tender study on the relationship between a young psychologist, Eva, and a little girl with learning disabilities. We are offered a very interesting step by step description of the phases in which Eva approaches the little girl, Melia, who is phobic, introverted, and totally isolated. The little girl is slowly ‘tamed’ and liberated thanks to Eva’s affectionate tenderness and loving care. The strongest point in this novel is Dikaiou’s narrative strategy: the largely third-person narration incorporates the first-person voices of Eva and Melia as well. Melia’s struggling, hardly articulate voice, in particular, is a great success; initially almost nonverbal, Melia learns not only to articulate words but to transform them into feelings in the miracle of communication.
The reason for describing each one of Dikaiou’s novels separately is that each is unique and they cannot really be thematically grouped. The uniqueness of each lies not only in theme but also in the subtle rendering of characters and relationships. I was initially skeptical about Dikaiou’s science fiction novel The Valley of The Butterflies: robots, technology, human cloning, everyday life itself lived as if in a test-tube, are usually subjects that create a future reality which is rather stress-inducing and very little comprehensible to contemporary people. But Dikaiou, with a subtle sense of humour, builds a future in which her three children protagonists grow up in a protected, sterilized world, and actually emerges as an apologist for nature and for a way of life nearer to our own. Thus a science fiction novel is transformed into an ecological novel, at the heart of which lies not only the love of nature but the prevalence of human emotions as well. This novel was inspired by the draining of Lake Karla in Greece, the ensuing ecological destruction of the micro-ecosystem, and the efforts to protect and reclaim it. No matter how powerful we humans become, it is respect for nature that will actually define and rule our very existence: this is probably the most important principle, the wisdom that pervades the whole book.
Dikaiou also excels in the genre of adventure, as attested in her two novels The Ghosts of the Glass Courtyard and Adventures with a Princess. These are adventures filled with humorous twists and entertaining situations, in which the protagonists are children, together with two benevolent ghosts.
With her overall presence in Greek children’s literature, Eleni Dikaiou has created a significant corpus of work and a unique voice. Writing in many different genres and on various themes, her oeuvre combines the quality of the classics with the fresh look of modernity. She deals fearlessly with difficult, even traumatic topics, and does not flinch from depicting the dark side of history, or the stories of both victims or victimizers. Nonetheless, whether she chooses more traditional or classical tropes, as she does in her mythological works, or modern genres, as in her science fiction or social issues stories, her characters are always rounded and the plots of her stories a great pleasure to read. She does not adopt a didactic style; the characters in her stories have an aura of dignity and finesse, and even when they are not vindicated, their validation comes from learning this simple fact about life: that to live means to seek one’s own truth.