Panos Karnezis: Engineer of human souls

Panos Karnezis has packed ambitious journeys into a short life: from engineering to fiction, and from Greek to English. Marianne Brace follows a remarkable odyssey
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The Independent Culture

Anyone whose debut short-story collection was hailed by Annie Proulx as "the literary find of the year" might feel tempted to swank. But it would be hard to imagine Panos Karnezis swanking even slightly. Indeed, Karnezis seems faintly surprised that he's a writer at all. Having spent eight years studying mechanical engineering, he only thought about writing fiction when he was 30 - and then never imagined that his first book would have such a high power-to-weight ratio.

Little Infamies, which appeared in 2002, delighted its publisher by selling around 8,000 copies - impressive for a debut in literary fiction, even more so for short stories. It also delighted readers with its atmospheric quirkiness. These loosely related stories are set in a generic Greece where centaurs and television sets co-exist. There's a parrot who appreciates the dactylic hexameter, feral children chained like dogs in their father's basement, and a Greek chorus of villagers - priest, landowner, doctor, bartender - with their enmities and secrets.

Indifferent rather than cruel, they are themselves subject to the vagaries of nature, the authorities, the weather. The first story begins with an earthquake; the last finishes with the deluge from a dam. It's tragic realism on the Aegean.

Karnezis arrived in England 10 years ago. Greece seems a universe away from the north London flat he moved into last month, just as his first novel, The Maze (Jonathan Cape, £14.99) was published. It does still have a Spartan look. Books are stacked against the wall; a computer takes pride of place. Karnezis believes he would not have become a writer at all had he stayed at home.

"I really thought I knew what I wanted to do," Karnezis explains. "I thought science was my thing." Although he read popular fiction from the age of 16 to improve his English, he decided to study engineering at university. But, after working in industry for some years, Karnezis felt unsatisfied. "I wasn't getting great pleasure out of it - not just in terms of the technical part but the business part and the meetings. It wasn't interesting."

Loneliness and boredom prompted him to start writing. Karnezis was living in Sheffield. One Christmas, he thought: "I have to do something with my spare time." Karnezis saw an advert in the newspaper for a correspondence course, "and that's how it started."

The course tackled the mechanics of writing. Set exercises - composing a poem, or writing 300 words about your mother - were sent to tutors for a critique. "Maybe because I'm an engineer I follow this kind of approach, of cause and effect. I'm used to writing scientific papers and I try to make my writing rigorous. I thought I had to learn how to do description and it appealed to me." He muses that, "people say it doesn't work, but it worked for me".

Having managed to save enough money to do a second course, Karnezis gave up his day job. He applied to the creative writing course at UEA, where the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion was teaching.

Motion regards him as "one of the most interesting young writers around". At the time he was struck by Karnezis' short stories. "They were highly original, while obviously absorbing influences from South America as well as Europe; ingenious, scrupulous and resonant. Several of them linger in my head to this day. And the work he's done since then has been even more impressive."

It took Karnezis about 18 months to write Little Infamies: "My imagination feels like it has been boiling for a long time." Ideas came from an article read in the newspaper, stories his parents had told him, even classic Greek comic films of the 1950s and 1960s: "I'm a sort of rag-and-bone man when it comes to writing."

What's particularly impressive is that Karnezis - like Joseph Conrad before him - writes in English rather than his native tongue. "I left Greece and never wrote anything in Greek, so my literary language is not Greek." He adds: "I live here. That's probably how it started - subconsciously, as a way of communicating with people."

Apart from the commercial advantages of being able to sell English-language fiction worldwide, there are technical reasons, too, for Karnezis' choice. "The Greek language is a bit like Spanish - more other, much more wordy. It's common to have very long sentences. As a language, Greek is more dramatic. I try to bring the Greek experience - the bathos, the pathos - into English."

Is there a tension, then, between the language and what Karnezis is writing about? "Yes, yes. It's very interesting. You can explain a man's macho attitude with one word in Greek. You can be much more specific. Here, you have to do it in a few sentences, which I find a great challenge. It's like building a wall."

Part of the excitement for Karnezis lies in exploring the language. His text is dotted with words like "auscultate" and "anechoic", which have you scrabbling for your dictionary. English has a tensile quality, which he enjoys. "It's very flexible compared with Greek, perhaps because of being spoken by so many nations. Maybe now Greece has more immigrants moving in from North Africa and Albania, the language will begin to stretch a bit more."

Karnezis also translates his own work into Greek. "I try not to use any idioms or slang in my writing, not even in the dialogue. So I almost translate word by word. It's not the Greek that Greeks write. It's very different." What does change is the rhythm. "When I write in English, very slowly, a page a day, maybe less, I have a rhythm in mind, perhaps like rap music. I need to keep that rhythm before I start writing and then it seems to me it flows. When I translate I lose that rhythm most of the time, or it's a different music."

His novel The Maze is set in Anatolia. The remnants of a Greek brigade flees homewards after a defeat by the Turkish army. The brigade, literally on its last legs, limps into a small town near Smyrna with a Greek population. His characters are archetypal - the morphia-addicted brigadier, the idealistic major, the fanatical priest, the bitter teacher. It is 1922, the beginning of the modern age where faith confronts science, history opposes myth, and tradition is undermined by idealism.

The rout is based on a true incident in the three-year war during which the Greeks penetrated almost as far as Ankara as an occupying force.

But Karnezis locates his story a short time after the last battle. He didn't want to write a historical novel and tried not to do too much research. (He hasn't even visited Turkey.) His own grandfather fought in that campaign and Karnezis remembered his stories of having to "run back to the coast without his boots".

Karnezis began with the image of a ragged army in the desert going round in circles. There are echoes of The Odyssey. The brigadier is obsessed with myths, some of which are retold in footnotes. They resonate throughout. A character on the edge of dementia is left behind, giving a whiff of the raving Philoctetes abandoned on his island. Two men are executed, suggesting the sacrifices demanded of the Greeks by the gods.

But Karnezis wouldn't want readers to think The Maze is only about myths. They are there as part of the Greek psyche. He says that, "it's a blessing and a curse at the same time, that classical background. Children are told myths very early on and in secondary school they are taught Homer. It's so much part of one's upbringing. The resonances are something I can't control."

It's tempting to see these characters' stoicism as coming from that source, too, not just from the extremes of landscape and climate. A culture based on myths must, at some level, be fatalistic. Men are punished for transgressions forced on them by the whims of the gods.

There's an operatic feel to this eclectic mix. Men still ride to war on horseback, trailed by lorries filled with radio equipment and microscopes. In dire straits, extraordinary measures are taken. A man's arm is amputated before he has time to make his will. The man dies, his will unsigned. The nurse explains, "I had to pick up the arm and sign the will with it myself. His hand still held the pen - the will was, after all, signed by the testator's hand."

Objects cannibalised because of shortages take on surreal identities. A tent that once belonged to an Armenian travelling circus, for instance, painted with an elephant "like a teapot" and a kangaroo wearing boxing gloves, is now used as an infirmary for the dying and wounded soldiers. A cast-iron bathtub "the size of a rowing boat" is said to have had more adventures than the Wandering Jew. It has passed from Chicago to Mexico City to Devil's Island, where it was used by a convict to escape to Panama, before ending up in a Smyrna brothel.

Karnezis pictures everything down to the last tent-flap. He particularly likes the films of Terry Gilliam and, in writing, sees himself as "a director with a camera, zooming in and out, seeing the landscape, then the characters and their facial expressions. That's the pleasure of writing. It's like watching a film, but instead of a few hours it lasts for 18 months."

If writing is Karnezis' own odyssey, then what next? Can he see himself working on a contemporary, urban novel? "Perhaps yes," he laughs. "I couldn't imagine being a writer, anyway, five years ago. So I can imagine many things now. I'm slowly getting there."

Biography: Panos Karnezis

Panos Karnezis was born in 1967 in Patras in the Peloponnese, Greece. His parents were civil servants and, in 1971, they moved to Athens. He did a five-year degree in mechanical engineering at the university in Patras, followed by a PhD at Oxford University. Having gained his doctorate, he accepted a job in Bristol with British Steel, then worked for Rolls-Royce in Sheffield. Awarded an MA in Creative Writing by the University of East Anglia, Karnezis published his debut collection of short stories, Little Infamies, to widespread acclaim in 2002. His first novel, The Maze, has just been published by Jonathan Cape. He lives in north London.