Diaries of Exile by Yannis Ritsos

diaries of exile

Everything was forgotten before it was said.
And silence is no refuge.
Yiannis Ritsos, Diaries of Exile

Diaries of Exile is a collection of poems written by one of Greece’s most outstanding 20th century poets, Yiannis Ritsos. It has been translated by Karen Emmerich and Edmund Keely and published by Archipelago Press.

In his Diaries of Exile Yiannis Ritsos recounts his experience as a political prisoner during the Greek Civil War, firstly during his exile in Kotopouli of Limnos and later on the desert islands of Makronisi and Agios Efrstratios in the years 1948-1952. Ritsos’ political exile then continued in the islands of Gyaros, Leros and Samos between April 1967 and December 1970, when the army colonels staged a coup and seized power.



Persecuted for his Communist views, the poet spent many years in exile, in prisons and in sanatoriums. During these years in exile Ritsos produced many poems, essays and dramas and stood in solidarity with his fellow political prisoners (Communists, Trotskyists and other political dissidents), most of whom had fought against the Nazis during WWII. Now the battle for life and human dignity continued for them – it was a cruel struggle to maintain humanity in the face of de-personalization and abuse of power, torture and persecution.

At Kontopouli Ritsos did in fact play his mandolin and paint stones and driftwood, while on Makronisos he became involved in the prisoners’ theatrical productions, part of the re-education project that was the camp’s supposed raison d’être. But if Stefanidis’s description, written at a distance of six decades, doesn’t sound half bad, the letters and poems Ritsos wrote while in exile belie this. Already in Diary of Exile I, written during Ritsos’s first year at Kontopouli, we have descriptions of harsh labor, beatings, and meager rations, not to mention the feeling of entrapment caused both by the inescapable fact of imprisonment and by the daily repetition of the same routine.

(Excerpt from the Introduction to Diaries of Exile, written by Karen Emmerich)

In Diaries of Exile, the minute details—this zooming into a world of objects, animals, elements — are flooding the psyche of the prisoners shattering the boundaries between the inside and the outside, all the while accentuating them. [The door is open / I can’t leave; memories of birds / that sank into the unknown; elsewhere, the eyes open two holes in the wall […] I planted a tree. I’ll raise it. / Whatever happens I am not going back (p.59)]

The prisoners’ last refuge for struggling to preserve their dignity lies in the power of words. ‘Behind a word’ Ritsos encourages them to ‘escape’ in order to ‘take back all the words they took from them’, in order to share and to communicate naked truths:

The deck of cards has no numbers.
The Jack is unarmed.
The other side
was nothing
but an overcoat buttoned to the neck.
(November 28, 1948, p. 47)

‘Forget about words’, he continues…

Ritsos displays a profound humanism. The world can change for the better if man becomes honest with oneself by getting to grips with the transient nature of what one considers to be one’s unique and fixed reality. Ritsos utters words that seem to be aimed at future readers of his diaries (possibly at his old self too, at his old aristocratic family background) — those who have taken for granted a long cherished freedom, when history is contorted by acts of cloud-like forgetfulness:

Things don’t happen
as you expect them to
The cloud isn’t always
A faithful dog
And the most hidden key
One day is lost.
(December 3, 1948, p. 53)

It is a great paradox that cannot be ignored by any reader of Ritsos, that his Diaries of Exile, the first part of which was written during his imprisonment on the island of Limnos in the late 1940s, particularly reverberate in the 21st century—those trampled voices of thousands of migrants and refugees, women and children presently imprisoned in squalid detention camps at the edge of Europe, under appalling living conditions.

Winter came suddenly. It smells of rain.
Great north winds uproot the thristles, blow them against the barbed wire.
We’ve put on our jackets. Put our hands in our pockets.

A cloud came down into the middle of the road
took the telegraph poles aside, is telling them something.
Whatever they say, we know
that bread is always bread and what’s right is right.

Their secret conversations don’t bother us at all.
The afternoon truck came passed by loaded with flour
Leaving behind a torn sack and some orange peels.
One by one the exiles went out and pissed on the grass
Pushing the wind with their foreheads
Then they stood and looked at the clouds.

Somewhere it still smells of pine sap and crickets.
(November 9 – Evening, p. 20)

During the ruthless years that followed on the island of Macronisos (Diaries of Exile II), political prisoners were tortured, driven mad and committing suicide, executed. Due to the lack of hygiene in the concentration camps, they were plagued by serious epidemics, such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, dysentery, typhoid.

The dead are many
very many.
We don’t fit. We’re crammed in.

A gull
shook out its towel.
Nobody wiped his hands.
Nobody saw.

(January 19, 1950, p. 99)

Ritsos will eventually win against the odds his personal fight against tuberculosis, as much as his lifelong battle against depersonalization, abuse of power and tyranny.

In his final poem of the Diaries in Exile II, he will push the wind behind with his forehead and will seek the voices of the dead under the stones where ‘illicit stars’ are shining, revealing a ‘larger and deeper’ sky…

At night those killed
gather together under the stones
with some notes in their cigarette packs
with some densely scribbled scraps of paper in their shoes
with some illicit stars in their eyes.

Above them the sky grows larger
grows larger and deeper
never tires.

(June 1, Macronisos, 1950, p. 138)

A few resources on Yiannis Ritsos’ life and work:
Thanos Mikroutsikos’ discography: ‘Γιαννης Ρίτσος: Του Απείρου Εραστής’; Giannis Ritsos: Tou Apeirou Erastis‘ (Giannis Ritsos, Lover of Infinity), 2000.

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