A memoir caught in the throes of linguistic biculturalism.
“My greatest fear has always been that I might leave myself open to ridicule,” writes Kallifatides, the Greek writer and translator who has spent most of his life in Sweden. “Write something so dire that even the gulls flying over Stömmen would snigger. I was more afraid of writing badly than not writing at all.” He begins at a moment that most writers experience, at times devastatingly so: the inability to write. Frantic about his writer’s block, Kallifatides meditates on the act of writing and its many different shapes. Unlike most memoirs, which follow the writer’s life more or less from start to finish (or present day), this brief book throws readers directly into the author’s exploration of his biculturalism. Born in Greece in 1938, Kallifatides immigrated in 1963 to Sweden, where he spent the majority of his life and wrote his books (in Swedish). When the memoir opens, the author is looking for ways in which he can use his experiences in Sweden to fuel his writing practice—to no avail. So he and his wife set off for Greece to revisit his childhood home and walk through the streets of his lost city. Acting as both citizen and visitor, Kallifatides is stuck between two cultures. This comes at a price, as he has forgotten much of the Greek language. “My forgetfulness was not a coincidence but evidence that I was distancing myself from myself,” he writes. Readers witness the author’s efforts to overcome his writer’s block through countless meditations on a writer’s motivation, the culture interwoven in language, and language as a tool through which identity is created. Kallifatides has written an unusual and refreshing memoir that uses critical theory to explain an individual behavior.
A fascinating look into a prolific author’s mind, especially welcome since there have not been enough English translations of his books.