Cypriot journalist and novelist Stavros Christodoulou is motivated as a writer to observe characteristics and illuminate human stories, an approach that has netted him many accolades including most recently the European Prize for Literature (EUPL) in 2020 for his book The Day the River Froze Over.
“Observation is one of my main characteristics,” he said, speaking ahead of his appearance at the 5th EU-China International Literary Festival.
“I hold details from the people around me in my memory, elements that I finally use for the character building. The mystery of human nature inspires and activates me as a writer. Whatever story I tell, what I actually do is to illuminate human stories.”
The jury for the EUPL said that in The Day the River Froze Over “the murder of a famous painter in Athens serves as the deceptively simple starting point of this novel. As the story follows the main protagonist, the narrative focuses on a variety of geographical locations and human conditions. What results has an element of alluring cosmopolitanism that endows the novel with a distinct texture and gives breadth and depth to the plot.
“The writer possesses great ability in conveying with convincing accuracy the topography and cultural climate of cities as disparate as Athens and Budapest. The narrative is structured around continuous flashbacks and biographical accounts by the various characters. Low life and shady individuals, immigrants, privileged locals and aristocratic socialites are successfully portrayed in all their psychological complexity and emotional ambiguity,” the jury continued.
“The author successfully depicts the atmosphere of the time and the location, chronotopes that gain in interest as the story moves towards the unveiling of the murderer and his motives. The jury considers Christodoulou’s novel to be the most relevant for the prize since it possesses qualities that will appeal to European readers, translators and publishers.”
Christodoulou said that he normally introduces the book as a crime story, “but the crime is irrelevant”.
“In the sense that crime is merely the pretext for tracing human nature as a writer. At the center of the story is the murder of a gay painter in Athens. The main suspect is a Hungarian immigrant who is involved in the male prostitution scene,” he said.
“I started writing with a phrase in mind – “no one is innocent” – because I believe that things in life are not black and white. The writing adventure lasted two and a half years and I enjoyed it as I was constantly discovering new facts about my heroes. This fascinates me most: immersing in the lives of others.”
Winning the prestigious EU prize was a great boost for him as a writer, he said.
“The first emotion is joy of course. Every award is a great honor and I feel grateful for that. At the same time, the awards have practical value as well, like the encouragement for the author. The publicity they generate also helps sales, which is critical not only for the authors but for the publishing houses too. In my case, after the European award my book made a second edition and came out as an e-book. It is also important that prospects for translations are created.”
Christodoulou’s first book Hotel National was also a very popular title and was shortlisted for the Cyprus State Literature Prize. Speaking of that book, he said it contains many contemporary themes pertaining to politics and power.
“It is a book about the disappointment experienced by the Left in Europe in the second half of the 20th century. The story takes place mainly in Ceausescu-era in Romania and examines the relationship between two friends on parallel paths. The power, the money and the faith in an ideology that finally failed stigmatize the lives of the heroes.”
Christodoulou studied law in Athens but has never practiced in the legal profession, but has instead dedicated himself to journalism for the past three decades. He has worked as managing director of various magazines in Greece and Cyprus and currently works for the leading Cypriot newspaper Phileleftheros as a columnist. He sees more differences between journalism and fiction writing than commonalities, he said.
“What I think is common between the two is the language. Putting words on paper, struggling to get your meaning across in the written form… But the similarities stop there because journalism is defined by strict rules while literature is much more flexible. After 30 years of working as a journalist I prefer literary texts because they don’t have deadlines or word restrictions. It is a kind of freedom that I enjoy.”
As this year’s EU-China International Literary Festival will be online Christodoulou will not be able to travel to China just yet, but he said he is very much looking forward to the opportunity to visit.
“I’m sorry that the Covid-19 pandemic deprived me of the opportunity to visit a country with such a great culture. Even so, with this online event, I am happy because bridges of communication are being created between China and Europe. We live in a difficult time where our endurance and values are being tested. Literature will always be a point of reference and will provide food for thought,” he said.