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Friday, March 26, 2004

Book Reviews

Lost in a Novel’s Maze

The Maze by Panos Karnezis. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2004, 364 pages, $24.

Panos Karnezis was born in Greece and studied engineering in England, where he now lives and writes in English. A year ago in this space (see, “Folk Without the Lore,” April 15, 2003), I praised his first book, a collection of stories entitled Little Infamies, and worried that the techniques of those village fictions — “naive” narration and minimalist style — might not work so well in a novel. It’s not often that a reviewer gets to tell a fiction writer “I told you so,” but The Maze, a novel about the Greek army’s retreat from Turkey in 1922, suffers from a mismatch of story method and novel material. Karnezis’s Greek characters and contemporary Greeks call the 1922 defeat a “disaster.” The Maze is not a novelistic disaster. Like the earlier stories, the novel often amuses — if one can ignore everything Karnezis leaves out of his purview.

The villagers in Little Infamies were mostly prominent citizens, sometimes named for their occupations, and frequently engaged in petty scheming against each other. The brigade in The Maze resembles a traveling village. The brigadier, a morphine addict, and his chief of staff, a secret Marxist, are awarded names, Nestor and Porfirio (respectively). Others are known only as “the medic,” “the corporal,” “the cook.” Chief among the schemers (as in the stories) is the chaplain, Father Simeon, who constantly exhorts the men — and steals from them. Porfirio surreptitiously spreads subversive handbills. Nestor makes deals to get his morphine. A reader can almost forget that the characters are cut off from other Greek forces and wandering about a desert maze.

Nestor, Simeon, and others are trying to forget a massacre of Turkish civilians perpetrated by the brigade two years earlier, when optimism was high and the fighting was going well. It’s fairly easy for the reader to forget this war crime because Karnezis spends little time dramatizing it. His description of an oversized and much-traveled bathtub takes up nearly as much space as the massacre. Karnezis is more concerned with his characters’ ongoing “little infamies” than with their past major infamy.

Karnezis is also more interested in myth than history. The vague setting (a desert within a few hours of Smyrna?), character types with little personal background, numerous allusions to fairy tales, and Nestor’s constant references to Greek myths (which Karnezis explains in footnotes) give The Maze an ahistorical, legendary atmosphere, as if the soldiers were heading home with Odysseus, Alexander, or Xenophon, all mentioned in the novel. Karnezis includes a few references to then-current European history — Einstein, the Soviets in Russia — but almost nothing about the then-recent history of Greece and Turkey that precipitated the invasion. In Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor, 1919-1922, Michael Llewellyn Smith describes the period before the Greek retreat in a chapter called “A Maze with No Exit,” possibly the source of Karnezis’s title. But the multifaceted political history Smith reports gets flattened out into a blank screen, against which Karnezis projects his puppet show. The characters are not so much pawns of politics as of their creator.

This authorial manipulation becomes obvious when, after 144 pages, Karnezis has his brigade accidentally discover a small town still governed by Greeks. His imagination as exhausted as his troops, Karnezis puts them in his comfort zone. The town has a crooked mayor (“the mayor”), a lugubrious schoolteacher (Mr. Othon), an Armenian grocer, a French prostitute named Violetta, and possibly hundreds of Turkish inhabitants who live in the Muslim Quarter, described as a labyrinth and through which several characters quickly pass. Karnezis shows no more interest in this maze than in the maze of history and politics that brings his Greek troops to the town.

In the unnamed town, the scheming can expand. Father Simeon wants to refurbish the abandoned church and become “Apostle of All Anatolians” (p. 363). Everyone wants favors from the prostitute. An airman, who joined the brigade just before it entered the town, decides to settle a grudge against Porfirio. A war correspondent staying in the town devises a self-serving plan to transform Nestor from a war criminal into a returning hero. In the last 50 pages, these schemes coalesce into something like a plot, which ends with the court-martial and execution of two Greek soldiers. Then the brigade and the town’s Greeks head east, toward the coast. The Turkish inhabitants move west. Only the priest remains in the looted, ruined town.

With its occasional personification of nature, glosses on well-known Greek myths, and basic syntax, The Maze feels like a book for the Harry Potter set, “the disaster” as an occasion for comedy and invention. Nestor says he’s like “some grotesque character in a fairy tale for children” (p. 111), and the brigade is compared to a traveling circus, a subject in Little Infamies. Karnezis throws into his collection of entertainments a thinking dog, the farce of the fat mayor attempting to imitate the Kama Sutra, the priest trying to climb out of a sewage ditch.

The little dialogue that exists in The Maze almost always leads to a comic punch-line, often some folk-saying that punctures the preceding speaker’s official discourse. One can see the author setting up the witticisms, but they are still (usually) funny. Rarely, though, does Karnezis push through to the kind of punishing understatement found in this passage from Ernest Hemingway’s “On the Quai at Smyrna”: “When they evacuated they had all their baggage animals they couldn’t take off with them so they just broke their forelegs and dumped them into the shallow water. All those mules with their forelegs broken pushed over into the shallow water. It was all a pleasant business. My word yes a most pleasant business.”

The bemused tone of The Maze makes much of it an unironic “pleasant business” — for reasons I confess to not understanding. The comic war novels I know best are American — Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato. They use the absurd, the extraterrestrial, or the fantastic to deglorify war. Perhaps there are Greek writers who have mythologized the 1922 rout, and perhaps Karnezis means his collection of petty plotters to demythologize such fictions. Except that The Maze itself has a mythic atmosphere and humorous, rather than satiric, content. Maybe Karnezis wants to imply that the Greeks’ myths about themselves sent troops across the Aegean. He refers to Dante as a “genius of allegory” (p. 198). Carrying a book of Greek and Roman myths, the brigadier leads the nation, all along encouraged by the Bible-toting priest. Marxists, as during the invasion, attempt to undermine the imperial cause; and the Greek-speakers, foreigners in Turkey, and Turks are caught in the inferno. But it’s still mysterious why Karnezis would construct an allegory of hell with the gentleness he employs. Dante certainly didn’t. And, besides, does an 80-year-old series of events need allegorizing — or, at this remove, a more literal kind of remembering?

There are other possible explanations for The Maze’s gauziness. Writing in a second language, Karnezis might be more comfortable with a fuzzy, slightly archaic, “naive” style than with contemporary colloquial English. Indeed, The Maze sounds translated, though it’s not. In an interview with The Independent, after the novel was published in Britain, Karnezis said he “remembered his grandfather’s stories of having to ‘run back to the coast without his boots’” and that he (the author) “tried not to do too much research.” The interviewer supplied the information that Karnezis “hasn’t even visited Turkey.” The novelist’s job is to imagine; but when that imagination enters a vexed and sordid history, his invention must somehow be adequate to the material. The village or grandfatherly storytelling of Little Infamies just isn’t equal to “the Disaster.” Is this inequality simply an esthetic mistake? Or an evasion of the novelist’s responsibility to educate his imagination? Perhaps The Maze is worth reading as an exercise in considering such questions.

The novel’s career-minded journalist, who plans to fictionalize the retreat, says: “Given time and a good narrative people will believe you could circumnavigate the globe on the back of a dolphin” (p. 288). I, for one, didn’t believe The Maze. Brigadier Nestor muses, “A pity when one doesn’t know one’s history. But almost a crime to be ignorant of one’s mythology” (p. 262). I, for one, would put it the other way around. In the mythic terms of which Karnezis is so fond, The Maze is a Tantalus-izing book. The author afflicts readers, as he explains in his note on Tantalus, with “tormenting thirst and hunger” (p. 292) for what he doesn’t give us.

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