‘Arkas’ is the nom de plume of a popular Greek cartoonist. His real name is unknown and he is remarkably self-effacing, not a quality I would readily associate with Greeks as a rule. (Συγγνώμη, παιδιά.) He gives no interviews, and there are no photographs of him in his books or on the net. Back in the nineties, I learned a huge amount of vocabulary very enjoyably from reading his cartoon strips. A favourite series of mine was ‘O Isovitis’, ‘The Lifer’. Isovitis (he doesn’t have a name) is a mild-mannered intellectual who has been sentenced to 500 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. The prison is a place of unrelieved grimness, with downtrodden prisoners banged up in solitary and chained to dripping walls, callous warders and a world-weary and embittered prison doctor. The humour is black as pitch. ‘Doctor, am I going to die?’ a sick prisoner asks. ‘Maybe,’ the doctor replies, ‘but I can’t promise.’
Arkas frequently uses the prison to satirise Greek burocracy with its Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass logic and dedication to buck-passing. Isovitis, stir-crazy in solitary, begins to recite little dialogues. A guard shunts open the spy hole of the cell and demands to know who he is talking to. 'To myself' Isovitis replies. 'Απαγορεύεται! It's forbidden! If this continues I'll put you in separate cells!' A special committee concludes that the prison is not to blame for a spate of suicides where prisoners jumped from the roof – the responsibility lies with the law of gravity. Admittedly this is funnier if you have lived in Greece for a few years.
The other main character is Montechristos the rat. Montechristos was born in the prison, knows no other life, and thinks the place is pretty cool. Prisoners feed him for the privilege of a few minutes of his flea-ridden company, and he always has goods to flog, and an inflatable plastic woman that he hires out to prisoners by the hour.
Prisoner: Can you imagine me making love to that plastic doll? I find the idea UTTERLY DISGUSTING!
Montechristos: So do I, but that’s her problem!
Lacking any conception of a life beyond the walls, Montechristos has little sympathy with human sadness at the loss of liberty. Early in the series the despairing Isovitis asks him ‘But for God’s sake, what can you DO with 500 years?’ Montechristos has an immediate answer: ‘you can cook 5256000000 hard-boiled eggs!’
The strip below translates as follows:
Montechristos: You know, Isoviti, there’s an old lag in the next wing over a hundred years old. Been in here since he was eighteen. Imagine - he can’t even remember what he got convicted for. He's completely lost it
Isovitis: My God… that’s what I’ll be reduced to. I’ll get old and go gaga.
Montechristos: So enjoy yourself now, while you’re still young.