The joy of stories

Gillian Bouras 14 August 2018

I can’t remember learning to read: by the time I was four I could simply do it. Of course I was read to regularly, and it is said that a child who sits in his or her mother’s lap during story time has no trouble learning to read.

I came from a family of teachers who were also keen letter-writers, so I didn’t have much trouble learning to write either. But later, when we lived in a small township, I knew one illiterate person. There may have been more, but at the age of eight I was aware only of Scotty, who was a sandy-headed and freckled hulk of a man, a builder’s labourer. Even then I could not imagine what it must be like to be unable to read or write, but Scotty seemed quite happy with his lot. 

As did my Greek mother-in-law, the quintessential traditional woman, with whom I found myself living some 30 years later. She could recognise a capital A because her name was Aphrodite, but basically she couldn’t read or write, and neither could most of her female friends in the Peloponnesian village. Although it was noticeable they learned to sign their names when they reached pensionable age and the cheques started appearing at the post office.

Oral and literate lives differ greatly

Knowing Scotty was one thing, but living with my mother-in-law was another. I had to learn that the oral and literate lives differ greatly. Illiterate people rely on memory much more, for obvious reasons, and hearing and listening take on a different significance. People of an oral world don’t read stories, they tell them; they also have a vast knowledge of myth, folklore, and genealogy, a richness that literate people do not quite understand. There is both privilege and poverty in being literate.

When young, my second son worried about his Yiayia. How mysterious it was that someone so old and so wise should be unable to read. One day Nik went to her house, and was away some time; on his return he announced sturdily, ‘Yiayia can read – sort of. She knows all her letters. It’s just that she has awful trouble joining them up into words.’

By that time, I had an inkling of the same condition. I had taken Greek lessons, and had socialised with Greek Australians for years, but even so, when I settled in Greece I felt like any new immigrant: bewildered, and as helpless as a five-year-old. I had conquered the Greek alphabet, which proves a temporary mental block to many an aspiring Greek speaker, and I could read and write, but only at an elementary level. In Greek, reading and letters are both referred to as ta grammata. Ta grammata I had were not the right ones: they did not leap off the page; nor did they flow from page into brain with the facility I was used to. It took me a long time to write even a simple paragraph, wrestling as I had to with gender and case agreements.

Oral tradition makes biographies more difficult

When I came, years later, to write the story of Yiayia’s life I realised that I did not possess the biographer’s traditional tools. Yiayia had no books or files, received no letters, had no idea of the pleasure of correspondence, of Jane Austen’s definition of letters as being ‘thorough pictures of the heart.’ I had to rely on her stories, on what she told me about the past, and on my observation of the environment, the dwellings, the artifacts, the rural round. I also had to try to write down the voices as I heard them both in the present and as they called down the long tunnel of the past.

I was often daunted by the task, but Aphrodite and the Others remains the book I am most satisfied with. In a sense the work that I was forced to do enabled me to ‘read’ Yiayia as I had not been able to before: I had come to some sort of understanding of her and her life. At last.

Mighty Cretan novelist Nikos Kazantzakis juxtaposes the oral and the literate worlds in his novel Zorba the Greek. Zorba is not an educated man, and has a misplaced trust in the power of the written word, while his ‘Boss’ is very cultivated:

Why must we die?

I don’t know, Zorba.

You don’t know… then what use are all those old books that you read? Why do you read? If the books don’t tell you that, what do they tell you?

They tell me of the despair of men who cannot answer your question.

The oral world is a rich but closed one; the literate world is also rich, but a world that keeps on expanding.

Image: Aphrodite was the quintessential traditional woman.