Beloved Greek novelist and children’s book author Alki Zei passed away on February 27, at the age of 97. Born in 1923, Zei spent her early years on Samos before the family moved to the Athens suburb of Maroussi and then to Athens.
She studied at the Athens University School of Philosophy and the Athens Conservatory Drama School. Zei then went on to study film in Moscow. She became involved in the leftist movement in Greece during the German occupation in World War II and then went into exile in Russia with her husband between 1952 and 1964, returning to Greece only to leave again at the start of the military junta in Greece in 1967. She lived in Paris until the mid-70s, returning to Greece after the dictatorship fell. Her last public appearance was in December 2019 at the Athens Concert Hall for the launch of her latest book, A Child from Nowhere.
Her first children’s novel, The Tiger in the Shop Window (also known as Wildcat Under Glass) is considered a classic work of world children’s literature with continual reprints since it was first published in 1963. She became an ambassador for modern Greek literature abroad and almost all her work has been translated and published in countries around the world. In the U.S., the Mildred L. Batchelder Award was bestowed on Zei’s books in English translation, Wildcat Under Glass (1970), Petros’ War (1974), and The Sound of the Dragon’s Feet (1980). She also translated many books from French, Italian, and Russian into Greek.
In honor of her contributions to world literature, add the following books to your reading list.
Wildcat Under Glass is set on an island in Greece during the 1930’s as the nation is forced into a fascist dictatorship. Told through the eyes of a young girl named Melia, who relates the experiences of her family as they are forced to accept life under a repressive government, the book provides an interesting look at a crucial period of Greek history from a child’s perspective.
With a Faber Number Two Pencil is a semi-autobiographical novel recounting Zei’s life from 1925-1945. Famous Greek personalities from the world of arts and literature also appear in the book. Zei writes, “I needed a good memory and much love in order to write the story of my life. In a novel, you can say whatever you imagine, you can move your heroes as you like, you can make them say whatever you think. But when the persons are real, you are not allowed to make the smallest mistake, especially when there is no longer anybody there to agree with or contradict you. Fortunately enough, there is my sister, whose memory is infallible and her life is entangled with mine. As soon as she read my book she said: ‘That’s how we lived, that’s how those we met and loved were.’ And I asked her: ‘Now that you recalled our story, would you have preferred to have lived another life?’ ‘Absolutely not!’ she replied spontaneously. ‘Absolutely not!’ I also added.”
Achilles’ Fiancee, Zei’s first novel for adults, is set in Paris after the 1967 military coup in Greece. Eleni, together with a group of friends and fellow political exiles, finds herself working as an extra in a French film titled The Horror Train. During the filming, Eleni’s mind wanders to a past train ride: “Athens-Piraeus. My first long journey by train.” “You’re Eleni? I’m Achilles. They don’t ask which Achilles. One name is enough…”
For the rest of her life, Eleni will be “Achilles’ fiancee,” fiancee of the guerrilla leader, the brave, handsome kapetanios whose code name is Achilles. In the demonstrations against the German occupiers of Greece during World War II, in prison where she risks a death sentence during the Greek Civil War, in Tashkent where Greek communists fled as political refugees and eventually, in Paris. As she begins to question the slogans she used to fight for when she blindly followed the leaders of the Party like her fiancee, Eleni evolves, finding her own self-awareness as she struggles to survive this turbulent period in history. The book was first published in 1987 and the English translation by Gail Holst-Warhaft appeared in 1991.