Panos Karnezis on ‘The Maze’

Panos Karnezis’s literary debut in 2002 brought him unusual success, not least because he wrote his acclaimed short-story collection «Little Infamies» (Jonathan Cape, 2002) in English rather than his native Greek. The book sold, and traveled, well. He translated it himself into Greek for Ellinika Grammata and it has also been translated into several other languages. Now he’s back, this time with a novel, «The Maze» (Jonathan Cape, 2004), where he shows equal assurance in operating on a broader canvas – plotting a complex tale and drawing in all the threads. Unlike the short stories, which were set in an unnamed village that wasn’t exactly in Greece or indeed anywhere else, the novel is set firmly in a historical time and place – 1919, Asia Minor, after the defeat of the Greek expeditionary force – though the action and characters are invented. Fictional territory Karnezis has already staked out his own fictional territory – universal human nature in its myriad and fallible forms – here exemplified by a demoralized band of soldiers lost in the desert under the command of the less-than-charismatic Brigadier Nestor. Echoes of the Anabasis and the Odyssey are intentional. The brigadier is addicted to morphine and to reading ancient myths from which, however, he seems to extract little wisdom. A pious but bigoted priest, an undercover communist, a mayor and a schoolteacher vying for the favors of Violetta, the local madam in a small town with a Greek population that the troops are led to by a runaway horse, are some of the characters thrown together in a shared misfortune that will prove each one of them. To this representative sample of the human race Karnezis brings a slightly surreal sense of humor and an all-seeing but non-judgmental narrative eye. He deploys economical means to set the scene, delineate character and portray the moral world of his narrative, often using objects to set the emotional tone or generate humor. The trackless desert mirrors the maze of the brigadier’s drug-addled mind. The plump mayor stuffed into his boy scout uniform is foolish and heroic all at once. The camp medical tent is a relic of a traveling circus, Violetta’s bath is so large that her maid has to help her «embark,» and even the ever-present vultures hovering over the ragtag brigade seem to share its misfortunes: «Father Simeon surprised a vulture walking with a limp.» In an e-mail interview with Kathimerini English Edition, Karnezis talked about his venture into the novel and his choice of subject. What made you move from the short story to the novel and what new challenges did that present? I think it was the theme and the tone that determined the form. The story began, in my mind, with the image of an army lost in the desert. From the moment I started to write the first chapter I could see that the detailed characterization, the inclusion of the characters’ deeper thoughts and not just the description of their actions slowed down the narrative. In other words, there was so much I wanted to say about the place, the people and the story that I did not think I could have fitted it all in a short story. Not having written anything longer than 60 pages before, the big challenge for me was to find ways to maintain the reader’s interest until the last page. I simply did not have the confidence. The presence of so many characters in the book has something to do with this: I sort of enlisted their help to carry to the end a story that is less of a one-directional plot and more a sum of parallel plot lines, some of which do not end on the last page. I was intrigued to see that you included footnotes explaining the Greek myths and wondered if you assumed your readers would not be familiar with them. Will you do the same for the Greek version? My original idea was to include the footnotes simply for anyone who was not familiar with them – some of the myths, I have to admit, I did not know myself. In the process, the footnotes began to seem in my eyes like entries from Brigadier Nestor’s «Lexicon of Greek & Roman Myths:» The novel appeared littered with the irrelevant pages of his pagan faith. At the time, I found that thought provoking. In retrospect, however, it seems that the footnotes do more harm than good: They disrupt the reader’s suspension of disbelief and make him or her more aware of reading a piece of fiction rather than being part of it. Mea culpa. They will not appear in the Greek translation. Your first book dealt with the purely fictional; the second is anchored in a specific historical time and place, though it is still fiction. Where do you think you will go next? Although I have started slowly working on something else, I have not as yet decided on the exact story I would like to tell next: I work on the background of the characters, the place and time. But having written «The Maze,» I found that even a loose connection to a true and historically important event restricts what I want to say or how I would like to say it. Therefore, I am more inclined to return to a purely fictional mode. You have chosen to set your novel in an historical moment about which Greeks are still very sensitive. What kind of reaction do you anticipate when the Greek translation comes out? I have chosen to set the book in that particular time exactly because it is still a very important period of Greek history – my grandfather fought in the Asia Minor campaign too. I hope the book will be read more as an allegory than some sort of a polemic. The fantastical elements and poetic hyperboles in it should make it clearer that it is not a historical novel. However, I did try for the story to be reasonably truthful to fact, and also to insert a few question marks here and there in order to challenge the clear-cut version of events we are taught at school.