Tuesday, 22 April 2014

A Helmsman’s Journal, by Nikos Kavvadias


(This is a short piece, about 2,500 words, by the Greek poet/sailor Kavvadias. Here is the first page or two, in my English translation. I hope to post the rest of it during the next few days.)


Extracts from papers found in the kit-bag of a sailor who jumped ship in Tonkin from the freighter Tamatave.


Standing up twelve hours out of twenty-four, for fifteen, twenty, thirty days, turning a wooden wheel with knobs on sometimes a little to the right, sometimes a little to the left, endlessly gazing at the compass and trying to keep your course exactly right. The days aren’t so bad, you can watch the sky, the sea — you hear people talking now and again — but the nights… I haven’t been on duty for two hours yet but I’m hopelessly sleepy. My watchmate’s sleeping on his feet beside me; he wakes up every time he loses his balance, only to drop off again a little later… at home, about now, we’d be getting ready for bed. My mother’s folded her newspaper and my sister’s finished — for about the hundredth time, in tears — Maria Bashkirtseff’s journal… I’d be in my usual place, closing ‘The amazing journeys of Bosun Will’, or the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ from Hamburg. But now?… Now, a narrow bridge, next to a shipmate I’ve got nothing in common with but exhaustion, on a ship full of coal, rolling on the watery expanse of the Indian Ocean, on the way to Tonkin, and I’m tired to death. The duty officer goes from one side to the other, stamping his boots, trying to wake his legs up.

I remember my first embarkation, on a big Postal. The moment my bright dream came true, I was suddenly full of doubts and fears. I remember that tragicomic ‘Mal du Dèpart’ that tortured me for so long. Then arriving at the happy harbours of the Mediterranean. Marseilles, Naples, Barcelona, the painted women in the bars, the endless leavings, the women who were travelling, the farewells, the tears,the stifled sobs and waving handkerchieves put such a spell on me that all the doubts and fears that had grown up in me just evaporated.

Then the black, dreary freighters. There’s no more miserable departure — life on them’s so mournful, and the continual silence is torture.

Here on the freighters they never talk out loud. The fo’c’sles are always dark,full of heavy smells; they’re like big prison cells.


Even me, I can’t understand myself. There are times I think I’m n o better than Johnny the black stoker, who only lives to eat. There are times I think everything inside me’s died, as if my heart’s hardened, like the palms of my hands… I’ve seen so much, so much… And then there are other times when I think I’ve got all the goodness and innocence that’s missing from the world inside me…

I’ve never in my life been in love… I’ve known thousands of women. They’re all the same, always… it’s been ages since I slept with a woman; the sailors laugh at me. I’m not to blame… it’s a story that started on the passenger ships I used to work on… miserable story…

I can’t remember her name any more. It doesn’t matter. Women shouldn’t have names, because they’re all the same… she was going from Alexandria to Marseilles with her mother. She was the daughter of a cotton merchant who’d gone bust and committed suicide. She wore black, read poetry. She could talk straight, she was a good, innocent creature. She gave me a fish-skin wallet, and I gave her my crucifix…

Three years later in Buenos Aires I spent the night with some woman. In the morning when I got my wallet out to pay — what can I say — she screamed when she saw it, and I screamed too, when I saw the little crucifix pinned to her dressing-gown… maybe I only saw it in my sleep. Anyway it seems to me all women are the same.


Translation © Simon Darragh, 2014.

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