Alexis Levitin

Photo © Nick Levitin

Alexis Levitin

Alexis Levitin has published forty-seven books in translation, mostly poetry from Portugal, Brazil, and Ecuador. In addition to five books by Salgado Maranhão, his work includes Clarice Lispector’s Soulstorm and Eugénio de Andrade’s Forbidden Words, both from New Directions. He has served as a Fulbright Lecturer at the Universities of Oporto and Coimbra, Portugal, The Catholic University in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and the Federal University of Santa Catarina, in Brazil and has held translation residencies at the Banff Center, Canada, The European Translators Collegium in Straelen, Germany (twice), and the Rockefeller Foundation Study Center in Bellagio, Italy. He has three books coming out in the next year: Eugenio de Andrade’s Furrows of Thirst (Dialogos Books), The Craft of Revision: W.H. Auden at Work (Lexington Books), and The Last Ruy Lopez: Stories from the Royal Game (Russell Enterprises). He loves to travel and regrets that he did not spend his life in the Greek islands.

Beneath the Bougainvillea of Folegandros

On many Greek islands, visitors remain in the port, where they sit in cafes and bars, drink ouzo, nibble at dolmades, dip pita bread into tzatziki yogurt mix, and gaze out at the boats anchored in the harbor, all facing the wind as they swing on their anchor chains. Then they stroll to the adjacent beach, take a swim in the warm, crystal-clear water, apply lotion to their pale limbs, and, beginning to fry in the summer heat, flip their way through a magazine or a newspaper picked up in Athens, just before they mounted the ferry in Piraeus. Once their shoulders have begun to grow pink, they arise, gather up towel and reading matter, and return to their favorite restaurant to share a bottle of retsina, as if drinking sap straight from the pine, followed by an enormous fresh fish with goggle eyes or dripping lamb shish-kebabs.

But on Folegandros, the port was nothing but a pier and the nearby beach merely adequate. The real life on the island was to be found uphill at the Chora, a good hour climb from the sea. There were several squares in the Chora, all pleasantly dappled with shade from willowy lime trees and spreading bougainvillea trellised above the patios of the white-washed bars and restaurants that line each street. Because the Chora was distant from the sea, one felt more intimately at home on the island, as if the absence of touristic beach and the ferry that brought one there and carried one away allowed for a more genuine relationship to the otherness of the small island world. It may have been an illusion, of course, but somehow, lazily seated in the shade, listening to the shrill mechanical cry of invisible cicadas, fingering a cool glass of cloudy ouzo, with the sticky taste of licorice on one’s tongue, one felt less a tourist passing through, and more a human being in a good and human place.

It was in one of those orderly clean squares that I met a young couple from Athens. When the beautiful girl friend with her enormous green eyes and languid dancer’s body arose to freshen up in the lady’s room, I turned from my table to face the young man and posed my usual question. “Do you speak English? Good. May I ask, do you play chess?” His eyes lit up and he smiled. I held out my small portable magnetic set, but he shook his head, lifted his palm to gesture “wait,” and disappeared inside the restaurant. A moment later he returned, carrying a green and white roll up board and a large wooden set, with time-worn weighted wooden pieces. They felt smooth and solid to the hand. We exchanged names and aligned our forces before his girlfriend could return. We were well into a Sicilian Defense by the time she appeared. She merely smiled, as if accustomed to such interludes, and, taking a seat at an adjacent table, immersed herself in a celebrity movie magazine.

I nodded hello to her, said Yiassou, one of my few Greek words, then turned back to the game. Her boyfriend played well. He was attentive and cautious, perhaps too much so. We were evenly matched for about an hour, but then the tide began to favor me. As my mating net tightened, he pondered the situation, contemplating the complexity and its implications. After five minutes of silence, he looked up, smiled, and, with a charming accent, gently said “I resign.” We shook hands and agreed to meet again the next day in mid-afternoon. He went inside to return the house chess-set. While he was gone, his girlfriend held up her magazine opened to a photo of Angelina Jolie. “Andzelina Zoli” she said, with a broad smile and a blinding flash of white teeth, holding the portrait of the movie star next to her own face. She pointed at the Hollywood beauty and at herself and laughed. “Andzelina –Angeliki,” she said. She had great green eyes, long flowing ash-blond hair, a strong nose. When she spoke, it was always Greek and its sound was filled with mystery and exotic promise. In truth, she looked a lot like Angelina Jolie.

Our chess games were so rewarding that I ended up prolonging my stay on Folegandros. It was hard to imagine abandoning the pleasant, shaded town square with its hibiscus and bougainvillea on all sides, its cobbled streets, its white-washed facades. We played every afternoon and we always enjoyed our struggles. And then one day, after I had lingered on the island for a full week, Geórgios finally found his best game. Cramped on my queenside by an uncomfortably passive French Defense, my white bishop blocked forever by my own stupid, stolid pawn structure, I watched as the white pieces marshalled themselves for a concerted kingside attack. I surveyed my position, so constricted that it made my stomach contract. I searched for a way out, for exchanges to simplify, to lead toward an endgame in which I could draw. But there was nothing to be done. I glanced over Geórgios’ shoulder at Angeliki, her green eyes flickering over the pages of her movie magazine. I sighed and reached across the table. “Congratulations,” I said. “That was an elegant game you just played.” We both smiled. We were both glad.

But that game seemed to be a sign, and that night I finally packed my bags, ready to move on. The next day, Geórgios and his girlfriend accompanied me to the ferry that would eventually bring me, via other stops, to Amorgos. As I shook hands goodbye and clasped the Greek’s arm with warmth, again my gaze was drawn to the huge green eyes of Angeliki just behind him, eyes that called to me like fathomless wells of crystal-clear water. Yiassas I said to the chess player and his green-eyed beauty. And suddenly I realized why it had been so hard to leave that wonderful island, why I had lingered, almost transfixed, for an entire week or even more, for I had lost count of the days. And with my hand still gripping Geórgios’ arm, I stared into the sparkling green depths of Angeliki’s eyes for the last time. Yiassou, I said to her, as I reached down for my bags. For a moment she gazed back. She nodded, smiled and understood everything.

Previously published in the American Chess Magazine              

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