The Phantom Fisherman
Excerpted from Lingua Franca, Volume 11, No. 2 - March 2001
(reprinted in The Manchester Guardian, March 24, 2001)
by Ben Downing
But if Solway permits himself a bit of sport, he also takes Karavis seriously. "I arrived," Solway explained in a letter to Lingua Franca, "at a juncture that may be described as both impasse and crossroads.... The tone, stance, and poetic attitudes that had marked my work for a decade were, I felt, exhausted and in need of replacement. Such a 'new' language cannot be summoned by fiat; it must flow from a new set of postulates and a new quality of experience.... So I invented Karavis to serve as alter ego and heteronym, provided him with a life history, and situated him as a sort of renegade and loner in the polemical context of contemporary Greek poetry." The term "heteronym" ineluctably brings to mind Fernando Pessoa, with whom Solway is pleased to be compared.
Still, Solway clearly relishes the practical-joke side of l'affaire Karavis, in no small part because it allows him covertly to tweak his countrymen. "Canadians are not a very exciting people," he says. "Like rubes at a carnival, they need to be poked, challenged, gulled, bedazzled, so that the collective jaw drops in something other than an insufficiently stifled yawn." Solway also derives bittersweet irony from the fact that having published a raft of books in both poetry and prose, he has won Canadian fame only in the guise of a grizzled Greek sea dog.
[ . . . ] When all is said and done, how persuasive is Karavis? Rachel Hadas, an American poet known for her connections with Greece, finds that "some of the poems are quite good, but many do not seem to me to be extremely plausible as poems translated from Greek." Certainly, some Greeks are not amused: In December 1999, To Vima, a major Athenian newspaper, sternly upbraided Solway and Reed for having bamboozled Canadian readers (although, bizarrely, the article included a boyhood photo of Karavis).
What's surprising is the degree to which the Canadian press has coyly abetted the hoax, or at least refrained from rumbling it. To an American audience, all this may look like a big canard in a small pond. Such a national flap is almost inconceivable in the United States and that, perhaps, is our loss.