They say that Aegeus – king of Athens who gives his name to the Aegean sea in front of us – threw himself into the void from here. His son Theseus had left for Crete in between the boys that the city offered to the Minotaur each year. There, thanks to Ariadne and her thread, Theseus learnt how to find his way out, kill the monster and leave the labyrinth. However, he made a huge mistake: due to the excitement caused by his triumph over the monster and to his hurry to return to Athens, he forgot to change the black sails of his ship for white ones. That was the signal agreed with his father King Aegeus: black sails would mean that Theseus had died in the hands of the Minotaur; white ones that he had survived.
Aegeus had come to Cape Sounion, the southernmost point of Athens, to watch the horizon, trying to see the ship that would return from Crete, perhaps with his son. He saw the black sails from far away and, desperate, jumped from the cliff of Sounion, falling down.
All this happened long before the mythical temple dedicated to Poseidon - crowning the hill of Sounion, with its views embracing the Aegean Sea - was built in here; and long before the pass of time and its seasons mutilated the temple itself, throwing many of its columns into the sea, where King Aegeus had thrown himself too.
I have come to Sounion with Jennifer Clement - President of PEN - and Peter McDonald – an Oxford professor researching on the history of PEN International, together with his team at Writers & Free Expression. For more than a year, we have been working on the project of an illustrated history on the one hundred years of PEN International, together with the Motovun Publishers Group.
This is one of the parts of Ginevra Avalle’s work – our archivist – who has already received materials from more than eighty PEN centers; a variety of documents, photographs, archive images, press clippings, etc. All the necessary material to create a narrative and visual history of the hundred years of history of our association – this, in addition to the book, will constitute a great online archive.
The Motovun publishers’ network is having its annual meeting here these days, and we have come to present our book project and to decide on the editing calendar. The story of PEN is a labyrinth of stories. The one of each congress’ debate; of the continue modifications of our founding charter; of the creation of the Committee of Writers in Prison and of the other working committees; of each imprisoned writer who has received support from his colleagues, from all over the world; of the missions to countries like Mexico, Turkey, Russia, Venezuela, Peru, Kazakhstan, etc.; of each solidarity network of a PEN center that has protected a writer at risk, has welcomed them into exile and managed to get them out of jail.
A thread of stories for a hundred years. As we walk to the temple’s ruins, during a break from the publishers’ meeting, I tell one of those stories to Jennifer and Peter. It is the story of Carles Riba and Sounion. Riba visited Sounion on August 20th 1927. A great Hellenist and translator of the Iliad and the Odyssey into Catalan; the trip to Greece with his wife Clementina Arderiu marked their lives.
Both Carles and Clementina were poets and founders of Catalan PEN on the spring of 1922. They took part on many of the first PEN congresses: in 1928 in Oslo, in 1935 in Barcelona - it was Riba who wrote the tribute note to García Lorca after his assassination, which later opened the Paris congress of 1937. In October 1938, Riba traveled with Clementina to London as a member of the Executive Council of PEN International. He actively participated in the meeting where, as stated in the minutes, the main concern was to host the German and Czech writers - fugitives from Nazism - in different European countries. Riba could not know that only three months later, after the fascists won the Civil War in Spain, he himself would cross the French border with Antonio Machado and end up being one of those refugees’ writers, and let himself be helped, along with his family, by the colleagues of French PEN.
At the Executive Council Meeting in London, October 1939, following the agenda, there was a very controversial issue: the condemnation of the Nazi invasion of the Sudetenland, the north of Czechoslovakia; and the pact signed in Munich, by which the first British Minister Chamberlain and French President Daladier accepted the occupation of that land by the Germans. There was almost unanimity, because only one of the French delegates opposed to condemning the Munich pact - the novelist Jules Romains, president of French PEN – whilst the other members of the Executive Council voted, like Riba and Benjamin Crémieux, for condemning the Munich pact.
Crémieux was the other French delegate; he had been the secretary of the French PEN and gained a reputation as a fair man, capable of mediating in difficult situations. Crémieux had been essential - that same year 1938 - for the Prague PEN Congress to open with a public condemnation of the bombings in Barcelona. The entire congress voted as one person, standing and applauding the proposed motion – after great lobby in the corridors made by Trabal and Rodoreda, the Catalan delegates, and Crémieux.
The French PEN’ secretary was a wise and affable man, who maintained good relations with all, except for the president of his own organization. So is so, that during the London meeting, the two French representatives had a shouting match, resulting in Jules Romains refusing to vote and publicly stating that their president had been a traitor to the agreement signed in Munich six weeks earlier.
I told all this to Jennifer and Peter as we head to the ruins of the Temple of Sounion. We went together with publishers from all over the world; feeling happy because during the working meetings we had agreed to launch PEN’s book in five different languages, as well as the calendar for its edition and publication. We finally arrived in front of the temple of Poseidon, with its silhouetted against the radiant blue sky, and I finished telling my story:
Thrown to the roads of exile, Carles Riba suffered terrible years with his family, whilst World War II invaded France and they survived just as they could. However, he wrote the most beautiful poems of exile, the Elegies of Bierville, and the poem that moves me the most - maybe because it is short and chiseled inch by inch with the wisdom of a classical goldsmith – is the second elegy. The poem known as "Sounion!” Riba explains that, whilst lost in the cold groves of the France of his exile, the temple of Sounion appears to him, the symbol of classic culture and democracy. In the middle of World War II, as a refugee, the temple of Poseidon appears to him with all precision, and it gives fertility to the hardness of exile - and it gives us, who have come to Sounion to produce the history of one hundred years of PEN – some immortal verses too:
Sounion! From afar I’ll evoke you with a cry of joy,
you and your constant sun, king of sea and wind:
remembering you I’m transported, happy with exalted sea-spray,
beside your perfect marble, I as noble and ancient as it.
Mutilated temple, contemptuous of the other columns
which at the bottom of your drop, beneath the laughing wave,
dream eternity! You watch, white in your eminence,
over the mariner, whose course is set true by your presence;
over the one drunk with your name, who through scrub-land
comes to seek you, extreme as the certainty of gods;
over the exile who through dark woods suddenly
perceives you, oh life-like, oh ghost-like! and knows
by your strength the strength that saves him from fortune’s blows,
rich in what he has given, and in his ruin wholly pure.
(translated by Joan Gili)
This article is in English:
- Read the article in Catalan
- Read the article in Spanish
- Read the article in French