The work of Greek-born Swedish writer Theodor Kallifatides is not widely known in the United States. But based on the merits of his charming, late-life memoir, Another Life, that shameful wrong needs to be righted. Slender in size, yet anything but slight in scope, this inviting meditation on age, writing and sense of place, beautifully translated into English by Marlaine Delargy, is witty, profound and thoroughly captivating.
When Kallifatides turned 77 a few years ago, totally spent after producing more than 40 books, he decided it was time to retire as a writer. That decision would prove troublesome for a man whose identity and purpose were inextricably tied to the act of writing. What transpired was a kind of spiritual journey that took Kallifatides both mentally into the past and physically to the central places of his life as he sought a new objective.
The first of these places is his longtime studio in the heart of Stockholm, where he continued to go each day even after making the decision not to write. When he ultimately gives up the office and stays home each day, it proves a jarring experience—not only because of the routines he must abandon, but also because he suddenly finds himself negotiating for space with his wife. Worst of all, he feels he is losing touch with the people and the rhythms of the city in which he was formerly and quite naturally immersed.
He and his wife then head to their summer cottage in a lovely coastal town that has lost population over the 40-some years they have stayed there. Despite the beauty and memories of the place—or perhaps because of them—Kallifatides feels the emptiness within himself growing.
Finally, he travels to Athens, Greece, and to the village where he grew up, where the local school is to be renamed in his honor. He encounters a country that has changed greatly since his departure 50 years before, not least of all because of Greece’s financial crisis and the widening gap between rich and poor.
This inviting meditation on age, writing and sense of place is thoroughly captivating.
Despite the aging writer’s ennui, Another Life is far from somber. Kallifatides is a companionable and funny guide (his 13-year-old grandson states that at Kallifatides’ funeral he will remember his grandfather not as a great writer but as the funniest person he knows—a declaration that brings tears to the old man’s eyes). So while Kallifatides ponders the dilemmas that plague Sweden and Greece and beyond—intolerance toward migrants, materialism, the growing propensity to offend others in the name of free speech—his manner is rueful, but not pessimistic. His friendly encounters with others—on the streets, in cafes—speak to our shared humanity and concurrent desires for a better life.
In the end, as he witnesses Greek high school students performing Aeschylus in his honor, his life as an expat comes full circle, and he reconnects with his native tongue after years of speaking and writing in Swedish. The floodgates open, and he begins to write again—for the first time in many years—in Greek. These writings eventually become Another Life. “You can say what is to be said in every language of the world,” Kallifatides writes in the final pages of this exquisite book, but some things are best expressed in your mother tongue.