THEO PANAYIDES meets a poet who used his diagnosis of MS to fight for and change his life, who now says that coronavirus is a chance for us to start a new way forward
Savvas Varnavides is taking advantage of the lockdown to write another book, despite having found himself “enclaved” in his house in Nicosia (“I’m in quarantine within the quarantine!”) instead of the tiny village of Pelathousa where he usually does his writing. This one is a work of cultural history, looking at assorted famous figures like the French poet Arthur Rimbaud who, having completed his extended prose poem A Season in Hell in 1873, abandoned the literary life and went off – via Cyprus – to Africa, where he “spent all his life doing. In praxis. He stopped poetry, and he started living. From poetry to praxis”.
Savvas himself may be said to exemplify the opposite – from praxis to poetry – though he’s not a poet per se (indeed, he’s not really a writer per se) and his mid-life switch from the world of business was enforced as much as chosen. ‘What if we were talking face-to-face?’ I ask over a rather glitchy Skype connection; ‘Would I know just by looking at you that something was wrong?’ Not really, replies Savvas airily. “I might be dragging a leg, or something like that, but – no, it’s not visible. Though I do feel a great tiredness – which is not apparent to the viewer, but it’s a permanent condition”.
What kind of tiredness? Like aching muscles?
Well, it’s more of a neurological issue, he replies, so “it’s like the message of tiredness”. He pauses and laughs, at the way we’re ruled by feelings that are really just the sum of whatever mixed-up message our mind decides to throw at us. “Everything in this life is fantastic!”
Savvas laughs often, signifying not so much mirth as a kind of good-humoured acceptance – of the lockdown, of this whole fantastic life, and indeed of the multiple sclerosis (MS) with which he’s lived since 2004. He’s now 58, a puckish, bespectacled man with sparse hair and a full beard – and something of a character, coming off as a homespun philosopher with his own view of life. “You know, the Greek translation for multiple sclerosis is ‘sklyrinsi kata plakas’,” he tells me – “so I use the word ‘plaka’ which means ‘fun’, ‘to have fun’, and I say that I’ve been afflicted with having fun!” He rocks with laughter, his head bobbing madly so it almost disappears from the narrow phone-camera sliver I see on my screen.
But seriously, adds Savvas: “Any disease is also an opportunity for someone to fight for life, and also to change his life. And we don’t often have such opportunities to change our lives, and our ways”.
We seem to be going through one such collective opportunity right now, I note, and he nods in agreement.
“How does the new come into life, if we don’t do it ourselves? I mean, life cannot change unless we change it… Look at what’s happening now. This coronavirus is such a chance to put an end to what’s been happening till now, and start a new way forward.” There’s a similar line in the introduction to his book – actually a quote, written by Nietzsche in his diary during one of his few lucid moments in the midst of madness: “Every illness can also be a great stimulus for life,” wrote Friedrich Wilhelm (I’m translating loosely; Savvas’ book is in Greek). “It is necessary, however, for one to be quite healthy about one’s illness.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The book is titled The Experience of Truth, and subtitled Anarchic Stories; it came out last year and is quite a slim tome, containing eight stories plus a short introduction and epilogue. All the stories are true, he assures me – though they’re not really stories in the fictional sense, more like anecdotes acting as a spur for philosophical reflection. One story mentions Christian, the South African youth whom Savvas befriended and sponsored in the early 00s, only for the young man’s life to be cut short in a road accident. Another story is about Pelathousa, the half-deserted village – a few miles from Polis – where he moved after being diagnosed with MS, living in a house right above the old Greek cemetery (abandoned centuries ago when the village converted to Islam overnight, for political reasons). He enjoys the sense of having his old neighbours – or their souls – so close by, he relates with a chuckle – and, when he gazes at the view from his window, it feels like he’s gazing for them as well. “Through my eyes, I have the feeling that they also see what they used to see, when they were in the Light.”
Like his book, he’s full of such quirky touches – yet Savvas was a businessman in 2004, running Viometal, the engineering/manufacturing company founded by his father. (They made – and make – office furniture out of metal sheets; lockers and filing cabinets, that sort of thing.) He’s always been a man of multiple parts. He studied Engineering and Literature in New York, an unusual pairing, followed by Philosophy – which one might define as a blend of engineering and literature, building the equivalent of office furniture for the life of the mind.
“A poet-winemaker-gourmet with high-culture affinities in literature, music, art, philosophy and design aesthetics,” was how Matthew Stowell described him in a piece in the Financial Mirror in 2009 – and that piece celebrated yet another aspect of his life, the then-newly-opened Library Hotel & Wellness Resort in Kalavasos. The Varnavides family have form in the hospitality business; they ran two hotels in Nicosia – the Castelli and what used to be the Holiday Inn – when not making metal furniture. Savvas opened the Library as “a small inn with a library theme” (its 11 suites are named after famous authors, the choice of names – Pessoa, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Poe, Borges – clearly reflecting his own tastes) and watched it grow into “a beautiful boutique spa hotel… Although sometimes it looked like Fawlty Towers, with me running around there!”. That too was part of his life for a while – but he’s now moved on, leaving the hotel in the capable hands of his two nieces.
Then there’s the winemaking. As implied in Stowell’s description, our versatile hero also co-founded Aes Ambelis, one of the first small wineries that signalled the emergence of a new Cyprus wine industry after decades of mass-produced plonk. He did it, in 1991, “as a game, with a good friend of mine,” he recalls playfully. “We took the decision, while drinking wine, to make our own winery”. (The friend in question is George Tripatsas, who still runs the place and is doing “an excellent job”; Savvas himself bowed out in the late 90s.) The story suggests the kind of life he used to have, entrenched in the world of business – and financially confident – to the point of investing in a winery almost on a whim. The irony, of course, is that now, with MS, he can’t drink at all – yet the double irony is that, as it transpires, he never could (tests show he was always allergic to alcohol; he just didn’t realise at the time how badly it affected him). Once again, a disease turns out to be not just a matter of loss and impoverishment, more a spur for a new way of thinking, a new life.
How does he cope with MS? He’s stopped eating meat, for a start. He’s discovered the joys of swimming in the sea, which he describes as the single greatest balm for an MS sufferer: “You have the sense of all your body again. Your skin is alive. I cannot describe it in other words, it’s a revival!”. There’s also the magic of cannabis oil, which he calls “miraculous” – and he now has a doctor’s prescription, but resistance to medical marijuana remains; “We’re doing it Cyprus-style,” sighs Savvas wryly. (He’s properly scathing about the fact that, unlike other countries – which used cannabis cultivation to support the countryside and prop up small farms – our government handed a monopoly to an Israeli company.) Treatment options are generally good, though he actually ran for Parliament in 2016, with no hope of winning, purely so he could use his TV time to crusade – pre-Gesy – for a national health system.
There’s something else too, another facet of living with MS. Savvas’ first symptoms, back in 2004, were “a numbness in my left foot, then after a while I lost some of my sight, in the left eye. But then, this is what is miraculous and fun about ‘plaka’ – because I lost sight, then in a few months I recovered it”. His ability to walk came back too, undiminished. “So it’s like this disease is giving you a sign every time,” he concludes, “so you appreciate what you have. I appreciated walking, I appreciated seeing – what it means to see, to walk. And every time I got it back it was like a new beginning, a new start…”
The theme of being forced to pause, then hopefully starting anew, is very much on our minds at the moment – but will we also appreciate the world more, post-lockdown, as Savvas did with his recovered faculties? That Nietzsche quote may be useful again: every illness can be a great stimulus – but only if you’re “healthy” about your illness, meaning presumably ‘honest’ or ‘positive’. The honest truth, reckons Savvas, is that we can’t go back to how we were living before. “We have crossed every threshold,” he sighs; “We have made our planet a toxic place.” What exactly does he have in mind? He shrugs, as if to say ‘Where to begin?’. Look at the migrants piling up on every border, a movement of people unseen for millennia; look at the fires burning everywhere. “Australia was on fire. It’s not like saying ‘My house was on fire’, a continent was on fire!” He laughs: “I have an unending list of things that are ending now”.
Maybe that’s the point – that things have to end, like his old life at Viometal ended, before they can change. Covid is making our fear of death more vivid than ever – but Savvas, like all good philosophers (he refers to himself as a Stoic, like Zeno of Citium), is calm about death; it skitters and skips throughout our conversation. He’s unafraid of the virus, despite being squarely in the vulnerable groups (MS is an autoimmune disease, so any treatment tends to knock out one’s immune system) – but it’s not just this particular risk of death, it’s death in general. He speaks with affection of the ancient dead in the cemetery next to his house. He mentions his beloved father, now 88, and the way he likes to pretend that Savvas’ late mother is still alive – not because of dementia, just as “a game he plays with himself”, treating death with the lightness it deserves.
Then there’s Christian, the young man Savvas all but adopted all those years ago – a much-abused orphan who came to Cyprus on his way to Germany, looking for work. Savvas hired him at Viometal then “discovered he was a very special person”, and paid for his place at university. For a year, Christian was cared-for and supported like never before; then, quite suddenly, he died. “I never had a child of my own, and when I got one I lost it!” he muses, and laughs – not out of mirth, obviously, but that same good-humoured acceptance.
From praxis to poetry – and not just writing poetry, but perhaps a more poetic view of the world too. Would he still have changed his life, I ask Savvas Varnavides, if he hadn’t been struck down with ‘plaka’? “I think, if it wasn’t for the MS, I don’t think I could’ve made this leap,” he admits. “But this leap is not something spiritual, or a heroic thing that I did. Everybody can do this, everybody… Actually this is what makes us human, this is the special thing about us. We are the only being on this world that can make our own life”.
The lockdown is a pause, an opportunity. What happens next will depend on us, and how we respond – whether we’re “healthy” about our disease, and decide to change our parameters as Savvas changed his. Another Nietzsche quote from his book (which is hopefully coming out in English soon) may be relevant here: “Life is not tragic in itself. What is tragic is for us to believe that life is tragic!”. Like the man said, it’s all in the mind. Everything is fantastic.