David Prudhomme’s Rebetiko

September 28th, 2012 § 0 comments

Another comic Paul Gravett covers in his Previews is Self Made Hero’s edition of David Prudhomme’s prizewinning graphic novel Rebetiko, in a wonderful translation by Nora Mahony, who also did David B.’s Black Paths and Frédérik Peeters and Pierre-Oscar Lévy’s Sandcastle for them.

Prudhomme takes us through a day and night of carousing, womanizing, hashish-smoking, and music-making for a group of four musicians during which life decisions are made and reaffirmed.  The characters are all based on real people: Piraeus’s famous rebetiko band comprising Markos Vamvakaris, Giorgos Batis, Anestos Delias and Stratos Payioumtzis. Prudhomme replaced Payioumtzis with a character called Stavros, who in many ways resembles Yiannis Papaioannou (though he never played with any of the members in that group). The story takes place in Athens, October 1936, a few months into the military regime of Ioannis Metaxas. As Matthias Wivel writes in The Comics Journal,

“Their hashish-driven, devil-may-care lifestyle is fully congruent with later rock ’n’ roll-archetypes, and is given an acute edge by their dislocation from the new political order. Targets of suspicion and subject to censorship by the authorities for their subversive lyrics and Ottoman-derived music, they become romantic anti-establishment figures for Prudhomme. The story thus shows them in conflict with the police, with the gangsters sharing their immediate environment and with capitalism in the form of an American A&R man hoping to record and preserve their unique music for a mass audience.”

The right wing persecuted rebetiko, considering it an expression of the proletariat, while the left also lambasted it for “contributing to the decline of the working classes, the left had a duty to exalt.” Perhaps most famously in America we owe rebetiko the song “Misirlou,” re-popularized in the ‘90s by Pulp Fiction.

I enjoyed working on an excerpt of this book for Words Without Borders in 2010. With lyrics writ large and floating ghostly over scenes of darkened café interiors, it provides a new formal take on that old challenge of representing music, or at least musicality, in comics. Kim Deitch does it well; Prudhomme provides the suggestion of sung words that escape or transcend the balloons containing speech (and less popularly these days, thought). As if the spoken word (or thought) had parameters, a bounded discourse, while lyrics, approximately diegetic and superimposed on successive panels, belong to everyone in the room.

In 2009, Rebetiko received the Grand Prix at the Saint-Malo Comics Festival in Brittany, and in 2010, the Regards Sur Le Monde Award at the Angoulême International Comics Festival. The Greek edition of Rebetiko came out on December 11, one year after its publication in France. In May of last year, at Ekathimerini, Spyros Yannaras interviewed Thanasis Petrou, a designer at Eleftherotypia daily and French literature graduate who translated Rebetiko into Greek. Petrou also did artwork for early 20th-century writer Dimosthenis Voutyras’s short-story collection Pararlama, an attempt at marrying the graphic novel with conventional literature. Petrou had many interesting things to say about rebetiko, comics culture in Greece, Prudhomme, history, translation, and international influences. His own graphic work may interest translators who like comics and work from Greek into English.

Yannaras opened with the assertion that “Greek readers are beginning to get over the bias that graphic novels are a product of a subculture or… reading material for kids.” He observed that rebetiko and comics, both currently enjoying some popularity, are also both subsets within their genres of cultural production, music and literature. Petrou asserted that a Greek author would never have been “allowed to do” a work like Rebetiko, and would have faced “too much fire from too many directions… experts, researchers and fans of the genre.” At least, it would “certainly… never be a success if a Greek were to do it.” Petrou goes on to attribute the book’s success in France partly to rebetiko’s exoticism and unfamiliarity, and its success in other European countries (Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy) to its initial popularity in France. Petrou offers this praise:

“It is a very balanced album, as much in terms of narrative as its colors and design. It also presents a side of Greece that has nothing to do with its ancient past, as is usually the case… I don’t believe that his [Prudhomme’s] few historical inaccuracies have any negative impact on the quality or the beauty of the novel.”

According to Petrou, Prudhomme speaks no Greek, but read Gail Holst’s 1979 book Road to Rembetika, in a reprint accompanied by a CD. For Prudhomme, it was a revelation. He discovered a whole new world whose authenticity, bravado, music and social context were very attractive to him. Prudhomme then went to the Greek bookstore Desmos in Paris and found more material, such as Elias Petropoulos’s Songs of the Greek Underworld, and began working on the graphic novel, which took over two years to complete. He began in 2007 with a few rough drawings, which he then scrapped. He rewrote the story and then pitched the project to the publishers at Futuropolis, who were completely enthusiastic about it and encouraged him to keep going. Petrou adds that as a translator

“It was a very attractive project because I listened to rebetiko as a kid and now I play it, and I’m also into comics: I draw and I work in a field that is related to comics. Translating it was a great pleasure, as was its final publication. Prudhomme did not draw much from French slang in order to render the rebetiko world’s idiom, but rather used regular French with just a few idiomatic elements. Basically, I had to rewrite the dialogue so that it seemed that people like Vamvakaris and Batis were actually speaking, people who lived in Greece in the 1930s. I had to add the idiomatic elements of the language myself.”

This idea was something I toyed with while translating an excerpt from the book: peppering the dialogue with a ‘30s argot forged from Hammett, Chandler, and Hollywood noir.

Petrou speaks of his second comics work, Pararlama, with short stories by Dimosthenis Voutyras (1872-1958), as an effort not to marry comics with literature, but to test the “how possible the adaptation of literature to comics is.

The result was very satisfactory so we went ahead an adapted nine of Voutyras’s short stories. I think that Voutyras’s work is especially well suited to the language of comics because he is, I would say, a very important writer who was treated as inferior by critical circles. He is underestimated. He was even cast out of the Academy of Athens at one point.

The worlds of Voutyras and rebetiko converge very much, because Voutyras’s stories are mostly about the lives of social outcasts who spend their days at tavernas and coffee shops. They are drunks and alienated from society. Voutyras’s heroes are therefore akin to rebetiko in terms of style and ethos.”

Petrou concludes:

“I would like it better if contemporary comics were more novels of manners in the classical sense, in that they describe, present and comment on the contemporary Greek way of life. Some efforts have been made here and there but because this is not a homegrown genre and most comics artists were initiated by reading American comics—few read French graphic novels because of the language—they are heavily influenced by themes relating to American culture. ‘Dressing’ your superheroes in the mantle of Greek reality makes no sense unless it is done so in jest.”

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