Kyriakos Charalambides is one of Cyprus’ most famous and celebrated living Cypriot poets.
Charalambides was born in Achna, a village in the Famagusta district, just north of the United Nations Buffer Zone in Cyprus, in 1940. As “the poet of the family”, he started writing poems from when he was only nine years old, and later studied history and archaeology at the University of Athens.
Charalambides’ poetic work includes 13 poetry collections for which he received three State Prizes for Poetry in Cyprus, as well as the State Poetry Prize in Greece in 1996. In addition, he was awarded by the Academy of Athens for his work as a whole, while in 2007 he received the Award for Excellence in Letters, Arts and Sciences of the Republic of Cyprus. In 2013 he was awarded an honorary Doctor’s degree from the Faculty of Philology of the University of Athens and was elected corresponding member in Literature by the Academy of Athens. In 2019 he became a founding member of the Cyprus Academy of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Translations of his poems have been published in 18 separate editions in English, French, German, Swedish, Serbian, Bulgarian, Rumanian and Albanian.
In this interview full of wisdom and poetic beauty, Charalambides talks about his childhood and joining the struggle to end British colonial rule, Europe’s Hellenistic roots, and why he regards plurality as one of Europe’s most cherished cornerstones.
Kyriakos Charalambides was interviewed by Loukianos Lyritsas, a Cypriot journalist from the newspaper “Politis” and correspondent of Deutsche Welle in Cyprus.
Photos ©Rissos Harissis All Rights Reserved
On leaving Cyprus the first time for studying in Athens
I went to Athens in September of 1958 and I came back in 1964, with intervals. (…) During that period in Athens I experienced what the Germans say “Sturm und Drang”, the storm and stress period. While I was a reserved and polite child, I became a restless mind. All of a sudden the torrents of sensibility broke loose and I had a thirst for learning, a Faustian inclination towards knowledge, towards every direction, in full force. So, I enrolled in the Drama School of the National Theatre to audit theatre. I also attended lectures about philosophy, history, literary analyses and much more at the “Athenaion” club and I believe that solidified my knowledge.
About the concept of Europe
The European Union, as the word indicates, is the union of European states. What kind of identity can Greece have with Hungary which at the moment is ruled by a dictator? North Italy does not accept South Italy, and they say: “They are scumbags, poor, to hell with them, we are rich”. Νοw the rich people are the ones who are footing the bill because of the spread of coronavirus in North Italy, the centre of the pandemic in Italy. When there is such discontent within a country, then what about between two-speed countries? First of all, what do we mean by “Europe”? Do we mean a German Europe? Because sometimes this is the impression I get, that Europe is more German than pan-European. The agenda is set by the strongest economy and that is Germany, in cooperation with France. (…)
How do all these define the concept of Europe and the common chalice from which we will all shall drink from? Europe’s economy is strengthened by a European Germany thus creating a one-dimensional image of Europe where concern about the poor peoples who are the fixtures, the “limbs” of Europe.
On imaging Europe in 50 years
That is a very good question, because this is the yearning of all the people who reflect or want to reflect on Europe. In order to properly see Europe you need to reflect on it too, you need to see it as a vision and an ideal. I remember the first person who conceived the vision of Europe – a French nobleman, I think – said that it begins from the shores of the Atlantic, let’s say from Spain or France, and it reaches up to Vladivostok! What did he mean by that? That Europe needs to integrate, at some point, the contrasts and the seats of war, to smoothen them out. (…)
I was asked a question about my vision of Europe and I will reply. The ideal Europe to me, would be one who manages to include, at some point, Russia as a whole. If it succeeds then Europe will be truly powerful, it will be the mightiest state in the world, a European unified state that will include all the European continent, the Mediterranean and Russia. That is when the pieces of the puzzle will start to come together and form the ideal shape of a unified Europe, who will not be involved in conflicts, embargos and armaments. It will realise that we are all human beings and we need to live side by side without devouring each other. However, in order for such a process to happen it will take more than just 50 years, maybe centuries.
On art and culture
Europe is hesitantly starting to pay attention, meaning that the funds Europe is giving for culture, for example, are very small in comparison to those for sending a satellite in space or making an elaborate plane or gun. Let’s say that the meritocratic order of things would be for art to take primacy and for humans to start becoming poets, artists, beautiful people, to become “silky people” as the Greek poet, Carouzos has said. That silkiness, the lightsomeness is what defines human quality and value.
I felt free spiritually from the moment I wrote my first poem, I felt like I was escaping. I have always felt free as a human being, even during the period of colonialism when we were fighting for freedom.
On the greatest danger for the European project
There’s a hysteria in Europe, a hysteric individualism, the individualism of states and then the individualism of individuals, because one thing leads to another. In my opinion, the most predatory individualism lies in the most powerful state of Europe, in Germany. Where money dominates thought is defined. A Greek professor at the MIT University, Christos Papadimitriou, once said that there is a predatory capitalism all over the world. (…)
Europe is also in peril because of the disproportionate liberalism, the primacy given to economy and the absolute surveillance through technology. (…)
The plot of the novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” says that Big Brother is watching everything; the Big Brother is the computers, excessive communication, oversupply, overproduction, overexposure. These “over-s“, these excesses are destroying our sense of proportion and sense of humanity. When we lose our humanity we lose our substance, our human essence and this is the great danger. Consequently, Europe’s biggest obligation isn’t just to salvage its economy or put its technology or financials in order but also to rescue the people. And no matter what we say, I believe that hope will start from Europe because it is the only place on the planet where a sense of collegiality is emerging hesitantly, despite all the untoward incidents.
On national identity versus European identity
I often say that in order to have a European identity you need to have a national identity, and as strange as it seems it is not a contradiction, it is a combination. Let’s take for example a mosaic, what does the word “mosaic” means? You place a green tile, a blue, a yellow, a purple, a red, a light blue one and you create a face, for example. Let’s say that each tile corresponds to a European country and together, this colourful mosaic creates what we call the European Union; consequently, the European Union as an idea is not about having one prevailing voice but pluralism.