An English Odyssey ; Panos Karnezis Came to This Country to Study as an Engineer, but Soon Turned to Fiction. His Highly Praised Novels and Short Stories Illuminate Greece's Recent History but, as He Explains, He Had to Leave His Homeland to Write about It Properly
Words Murrough O'brien, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Explaining his love for fiction and distaste for preaching, the novelist and short-story writer Panos Karnezis suggests: "In everyday life we are faced with stories more than with essays or explanations." He takes up rather less space on the chair than his long, lean body would seem to require. His voice, a soft Greek rasp, comes almost as a surprise as his writing is entirely accentless. His conversation is similarly self-effacing. Inscrutable, if not evasive, he presents himself as the craftsman he trained as.
It is rare for an author to achieve eminence with a collection of short stories, but that is what Karnezis did in 2003 with the widely praised Little Infamies. Its interlinked stories told of a remote Greek village where babies are brought up as dogs in revenge for the death of their mother, and where an old man is left to die in a pensions office until people start recognising the smell. Karnezis's first novel, The Maze (2005), which was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel award, recounted the retreat of a defeated Greek battalion from western Asia Minor after the First World War. But do not be deceived, this author can draw humour from the gullet of the macabre. Now, in The Birthday Party, he shows an ageing Greek tycoon, Marco Timoleon (based in part on Aristotle Onassis), fretting about his daughter's unlikely and unwanted pregnancy, and wondering how to persuade her to terminate it.
The choice of Onassis as the inspiration for his protagonist was informed less by any fascination with the agonies of the extremely rich than by a desire to understand what he finds utterly alien. He explains: "Writing was my way of getting into that world. They say you should write about what you know, but I'm more drawn to characters who are very different from me."
Panos Karnezis was born in Pirgos in the northwestern Pelopponese in 1967. He did not come to England to be a writer, but to be an engineer. He attained a PhD at Oxford in engineering, before deciding that his opportunities and talents in that direction had run their course. He then studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia, following the course established by Malcolm Bradbury. His life as an engineer, however, informs much of his attitude to storytelling. The frequent use of words such as tool and toolkit, though often uttered with a faint outline of inverted commas, is revealing.
He is a fabulist above all, and the novels reflect this as much as the short stories. His work hums with hidden taboos, and the vagaries of happenstance. His design is not to pick a brain or unpick a complex, but to take a picture and hear where the sounds of words lead it. "I find there is a certain music in all narrative, and I try to have that in the back of my mind - perhaps like rock music. It sets a tempo that I try to follow. Then you can see that your narrative can go on for several pages."
In none of his books are the details entirely right, and this is deliberate. Some would say he belonged to the magic realist tradition, but while the magic realist tradition shows reality interrupted from without, Karnezis's work gives us a reality exploded from within, from ordinary passions and obsessions taken beyond ordinary human experience. But Karnezis does not believe in being too specific. At one and the same time, in all his books he sticks resolutely to the world of the Greek Levant while trying to keep things as universal as possible. "I like playing around with geography to fit my mood, or the mood of the story. For example, there's no desert as such in Asia Minor. When The Maze was published in Turkey, they would ask, 'Where is this desert?' and I would have to explain, 'It's a desert of the mind'."
His grandfather fought in the disastrous campaign of 1922, in which an already exhausted Greek army, led in part by a general who had become convinced that his legs were made of glass, was beaten back by the resurgent Turks. …