The Maze by Panos Karnezis

The case of the particularly irksome courtesan
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The Independent Culture

In the deserts of Asia Minor, a terrible dream has died. The Greek expeditionary force sent into Anatolia in 1919 has been annihilated by the troops of Atatürk. Under the command of the morphia-ridden Brigadier Nestor, a lone brigade attempts to find its way back to the Aegean coast. But the desert seems endless, a maze of dust and delusion.

Panos Karnezis first came to prominence with Little Infamies, a collection of short stories about an unnamed Greek village. It was a stunning and refreshing debut: the characters perfectly realised, the invention coherent and reliably sinister, and the style as sturdy and unobtrusive as a good pair of walking boots. Inevitably perhaps, The Maze, his first novel, is itself rather like a collection of cameos. Each character is given his little history, and the plot is, to say the least, slight. Karnezis is too fertile a writer to disappoint, but the insouciance of style which served him so well in Little Infamies isn't always up to presenting the bigger infamies of war.

Brigadier Nestor has a lot on his mind. Quite apart from the urgent questions of where are they, how are they going to get home and where is the enemy, things seem to be loosening up alarmingly. A thief has been quietly whittling away at the brigade's little luxuries: the sugar has disappeared, the major's store of wine has been filched, and even the brigadier's cache of cigars is not safe. Added to this, a saboteur has been spreading seditious handbills throughout the brigade. An airman spots the ruined column of men and then promptly crashes. The airman is rescued, only to become the agent, later, of tragedy. Karnezis catches with poignant conviction the atmosphere of defeat: everyone is engaged on terribly important little tasks which have assumed a shrill urgency now that nothing really matters. The padre has his makeshift church which no one attends, the communist major has his impotent handbills, the brigadier his ever more intricate maps. And the elements, true to form, catch and make nothing of their projects. Like children searching in the rubble for some broken doll on which to lavish their love, the characters move about in a state of desperate whimsicality. Beneath all the conversations, undermining their best intentions, lies the memory of a massacre.

But it is undeniably slow. Dramatic convention requires that the brigade eventually establish contact with civilisation. The trail of droppings from a freed horse leads them to a town. The point of such a device, surely, is that contact leads to conflict, that latent troubles start flowering, that unwholesome spawn should now be generated. But if anything Karnezis starts to relax here. The characters in the town - the mayor and the schoolteacher vying for the hand of the local prostitute - are suspiciously stock: Violetta, the saccharine courtesan, is particularly irksome. Even when the major is arrested for high treason, events unfold with frustrating nonchalance. Dust rises, the town turns red: everyone decides that it is, in some unspecified way, cursed, and they all leave. All, that is, except for Father Symeon, who has determined to make up for a life of moral compromise by converting the town's Muslims.

Perhaps Karnezis feels that it would be too obvious to show the imminent rage of the reconquering Turks as the true spur to the town's exodus. As it is, he alludes to it, but glancingly, preferring, as with the massacre, to leave the blood offstage. Fair enough, that's his privilege, but there should at least be something humanly convincing in its place. Vivid as the image of the town turning red is, an image can't drive the action like a motive. While "maze" is permissible, haze is not. And the dialogue smells a little formulaic. A good portion of the characters' conversation comprises, "such-and-such is worse than... (dollop of learned reference follows)." This goes some way towards eroding individuality.

Despite the brittle characterisation and a rivulet of cliché which sometimes bubbles up, none can marry menace and humour as Karnezis can. Perhaps The Maze required a more forceful mode, but Karnezis is only limbering up. He'll get there.