This is no Fun and Games, this is the Balkans!

Whenever a Greek wants to nod sagely about the mess that is and ever has been the Balkans (and to admit that they too are stuck in the mess), they’ll mutter Εδώ είναι Βαλκάνια δεν είναι παίξε–γέλασε. “This is no Fun and Games, this is the Balkans!”

I was going to cite the bon mot, and I’ve just sought to trace where the bon mot comes from. And I realise that I have am missing some critical context (like a Bachelor of Arts in Greece, or growing up in Greece in the 70s instead of the 80s) to get it. So partly, this is a plea for help. (As we say in Greek, “what is the poet trying to say?”)

The phrase originated in a poem by the Greek Surrealist poet Nikos Engonopoulos. Engonopoulos was unique for being a surrealist in a country full of magic realism. He was also unique for writing in Katharevousa, decades after Katharevousa was discredited as a literary language: he was opting out of the literary consensus.

The poem… I think I get one tenor of the poem (nationalism is bullshit), and it’s pretty daring for a poem written in 1946, right as the Greek Civil War was making the Balkans too close for comfort. But it’s surrealist, and I’m missing a lot.

Language register always matters in Modern Greek, and this poem vacillates between the detachment and ersatz classicism of Katharevousa, and the Volkisch diction and heroics of folk song. It’s like Cavafy, only more.

The bon mot was popularised in a quotation in the 1971 song Ballos (a couples dance) by Dionysis Savvopoulos. I guess the Wikipedia article hits it on the head: he’s a Greek Frank Zappa, relapsing into Greek folk instead of Doo Wop. Because Savvopoulos required a bit of sophistication to understand, I paid him no attention when I was in Greece and 8 years old, and I’m not sure I can understand him now.

I’m going to translate the song, and then the poem, for my Balkan peeps, especially Lara Novakov, Aziz Dida, and Dimitra Triantafyllidou. Who knows. They live there, they may get more out of it than I can. Μπάλλος. Dionysis Savvopoulos: Ballos. 1971.

IV. In these here Balkans. (14m20 in YouTube vid)

In these here Balkans, in this here age,
I met my friends one winter night.

They sat all silent on some rocks;
their eyes bulged as they saw me coming.

For all this time they thought me dead,
and drank sweet wine and wheaten bread.

They welcomed me; they tired of me;
they worked out my joke on them, and they denied me.

“Drop your miracles, throw off your mask.
This is the Balkans, this is no fun and games.”

I share my bread, I give you my flask.
I look you in the eyes, and I sing a song.

And the song says that I’ll take the blame,
that I’ll be the leader in this festival.

Εγγονόπουλος – Ορνεο 1748. Nikos Engonopoulos. Vulture 1748. 1946.

Vulture 1748. (Interpretation of the painters.)

Was it a yearning good or ill that has led
the gloaming of the young shield-bearers
onto the untrod forests of the night,
amidst the wild woods of Orthodoxy,
the thick clumps of cypress trees of panic,
the moral projection
of a harsh Fate through colonnades of daybreak and lethargy?

Who might have been the frontman
of the rebellion?
Of the rumour?
Of the lust?
The orator?
Were they faithful to the demands of—
who else?—the demanders:
fine parricides and pedophiles,
with only the syllabary of necrophilia
to justify them
against the successive, incredibly fierce attacks
of eulogists?

Might perchance the metaphysical city—as you hearken, O ye youths—
of the industrious painters lie hidden in the hanged paintings?

And as the warlike adzes
fall upon heads,
and the ravines buzz
with the ruin of war
and the hymns
of warrior saints,
a voice is head.

“Kral Mirko, what do you want?
This is no fun and games:
This is the Balkans.”

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