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Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Book Reviews

Folk Without the Lore

Little Infamies by Panos Karnezis. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2002, 281 pages, $24.




When Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov gave up their native tongues to write fiction in English, they chose to work in sophisticated forms and elaborated styles. In this first book of stories, Panos Karnezis has wisely selected very different methods — “naïve” narration and minimalist style — to write about a Greek village that lacks a school and is too poor to have a name.

Karnezis grew up in Athens and left Greece in 1992 to pursue a PhD in engineering in England. After working in British industry for several years, he became dissatisfied with his job and enrolled in the creative-writing program at the University of East Anglia. Following magazine publication of several stories, Little Infamies was released last year in England. Since an agent once told me he’d “rather drag a corpse from New York to Los Angeles than represent a book of stories,” the publication of Karnezis’s collection by Farrar is quite a coup for the young writer, who now lives in Oxford.

All 19 stories in Little Infamies are set in or around a village that, after an earthquake, has fewer than the 30 houses it needs to keep its communal status. Located in a barren valley far from Athens, reached by rutted roads, the village with its single church, taverna, coffee shop, and butcher could be almost anywhere on the Greek mainland. The time of the stories is as fuzzy as their space. Some seem to occur not long after the Second World War; others refer to an exiled king and television. With just a few changes in religion, currency, and technology, many of these stories could have happened in any rural community since the Renaissance.

 

Composed in a style American readers will associate with Hemingway and Carver, Little Infamies as a whole — with its single setting and recurring characters — most resembles Sherwood Anderson’s classic small-town work, Winesburg, Ohio. Karnezis shares Anderson’s fondness for what he called “grotesques,” characters physically or emotionally twisted into ugly and beautiful shapes by their isolation. A villager returns from many years in America and confines himself to an unneeded wheelchair to solicit attention. Like some medieval saint, he becomes known as “Alexandro the Lame.” A former weightlifter called “Whale” finally finds a use for his grotesque size and strength when he kills the much-hated butcher. The owner of the village “pension” allows herself to be robbed if it means she can recover her ability to dream her way through lonely afternoons.

 

The one-armed village “doctor,” Panteleon, never finished his medical studies. The lawyer, Zacharias, is an alcoholic. The mayor is an ineffectual farmer. With these recurring secular authorities in disrepair, aged Father Yerasimo asserts considerable influence in the village and helps hold together the stories. In the first, “A Funeral of Stones,” the priest attempts to make sure that a father who abused his twin daughters is punished here and hereafter. Despairing of the villagers’ faithlessness, Yerasimo blackmails Alexandro the Lame to stand when the bishop visits, a “miracle” that brings some townspeople back to their religion. In “On the First Day of Lent,” Yerasimo manages to catch the man who stole the pension-owner’s jewelry. But not even the crafty old priest can save the village from the “end of the world” — its flooding for a hydroelectric dam in the last story, “The Legend of Atlantis.”

In one of Karnezis’s few uses of literary language, he says that the vicious landowner had “become a mere allegory” (p. 105) of the villagers’ hatred. Taken together, the stories in Little Infamies could be read as a political allegory. Neglected by the capital, villagers consume each other in minor cruelties or “little” infamies. They manage to kill off the landowner but do nothing to negotiate with the more distant and more powerful state. When the flood does occur, the villagers die because they pretend to themselves that their village will last forever. Is the flood an “infamy”? If so, it is one the villagers have partly brought upon themselves. Unlike most contemporary writers, Greek and otherwise, Karnezis heroically resists nostalgia for the village, where life is nasty, brutish, and short — and sometimes lovely.

Although Little Infamies may have broad cultural purposes, it is better in its parts than as a whole. And the best parts are the “little” stories, the shorter sketch-like pieces that resemble extended anecdotes. Some years ago, Toni Morrison said she wanted to write “village literature,” by which she meant that the rural, marginally educated characters her fiction was about could, if they were real, read and enjoy the stories they were in. Many of Karnezis’s villagers can’t read, but they could have told some of the best tales in the collection. Oddly, Karnezis uses first-person narration in only a few of the stories. The most culturally revealing of these is “Immortality,” a first-person-plural account of the day a one-eyed and exotic photographer visits the village. The residents scurry to put on their best clothes and gather the elderly and sick and children for the group photo. “We could not believe our luck,” the villagers say, “we were going to live for ever now, in a photographic plate we would frame and hang on the wall of the coffee shop for everyone to remember” (p. 158).

Like “Immortality,” many of the fictions report the villagers’ responses to outsiders. In “Another Day on Pegasus,” a bus driver and conductor keep up an amusingly stupid patter with each other and with an attractive female passenger they don’t know. Bored and unhappy with their new lives as bus owners, the macho men fail to notice that the passenger has stolen the contents of their cashbox. It is easy to imagine the men telling and retelling a version of this story as they jounce back and forth to the village. In “Classical Education,” Nectario the town clerk buys a parrot from a traveling “bird-fancier” and attempts to teach the bird Homeric Greek while baby-sitting his niece, who watches children’s programs on television. The result of this outside influence is the bird’s learning nursery rhymes, a story illiterate villagers are sure to tell for decades about the educated Nectario.

The shorter and, I think, superior fictions are usually humorous. Villagers trick others and themselves, all the while trading joking insults. The unexpected inheritance of an old racehorse in “Deus ex Machina” sets off a series of comic events culminating in Father Yerasimo’s fill of horsemeat. In my favorite, Jeremias goes to the county capital to appeal his pension. Sitting in the government office, he dies of a heart attack, but no one notices throughout the day. Finally, the government official tells the dead Jeremias that his “situation has finally been resolved” (p. 84).

When Karnezis becomes more serious and extends the stories with conventional plotting, violence is often his way of resolving them. The landowner is killed in the church by a trained wolf. The butcher shoots the mayor for reneging on his promise to marry his daughter to the butcher; then he is butchered by Whale. In “Medical Ethics,” Panteleon mixes arsenic in some suppositories to kill the abusive stepfather of a young woman who has come to Panteleon to have her virginity verified. Murder is plausible in each story, but when repeated the violence seems unrealistic, a “literary” device at odds with the ordinariness that gives the stories their illusion of authenticity.

The least successful story is the most literary. In “A Circus Attraction,” the gypsy manager of a touring show heading to the village tries to persuade a centaur to continue working for the circus. Is the centaur a man in a costume who imagines himself a centaur, or is this star attraction a real centaur? Karnezis doesn’t say, so the story has the magical realism that he has praised in his essay about Marquez’s “No One Writes to the Colonel” in Spiked magazine . But Karnezis doesn’t need this literalizing of ancient myth in Little Infamies. The village itself comes to be legendary, if not mythic, and fabulous, if not magical, because Karnezis works his realism right up to the edge of Marquez’s impossibilities. Karnezis’s characters are folk without lore, and it’s their stolidity, as well as the press of reduced circumstances upon them, that makes them memorable.

Two of the stories are 50 pages long, and here we see the limitations of Karnezis’s folk minimalism. When his usual linear action is interrupted by flashbacks and scene changes, we sense the author behind the page. And when characters denied much inwardness are given more than 10 or 20 pages, they can seem mere puppets of a plot the author wants to construct. If Karnezis’s agent is like the one I’ve quoted above, he or she will be encouraging him to write a novel. To do so, he will probably have to move from methods perfectly appropriate for his material in Little Infamies to some of the means adopted by Conrad and Nabokov. When interviewed about this collection, Karnezis said he was reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s sprawling Middlesex. I look forward to Karnezis’s middling and large infamies.

Tom LeClair’s novel, Passing On, was published last year by greekworks.com, which will release The Liquidators this winter.
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