Refugee crises of the heart and soul

Lead­ing Greek nov­el­ist Panos Karnezis fo­cuses on the mean­ing­less­ness of life when con­text and hin­ter­land are re­moved

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOK REVIEWS - Richard Pine

We Are Made of Earth By Panos Karnezis

Myr­iad Edi­tions, 224pp, £8.99

Panos Karnezis is pos­si­bly the lead­ing Greek nov­el­ist of his gen­er­a­tion, and one of Europe’s most dis­tin­guished sto­ry­tellers. His early nov­els, with Greek back­grounds, ex­plored themes in his na­tive cul­ture such as dis­ori­en­ta­tion, hope, fear and greed, which he has more re­cently trans­posed to a wider can­vas. The Maze cen­tered on the emo­tions aroused by the rout of the Greek army in Turk­ish Ana­to­lia in 1922. The Birth­day Party ex­posed the fears of an Onas­sis-type ty­coon. But The Con­vent was set in Spain, and The Fugi­tives was laid in Latin Amer­ica (The Mis­sion ter­ri­tory, both phys­i­cally and meta­phys­i­cally). Each of them ex­am­ines hu­man weak­nesses and strengths when con­fronted with chal­lenges that seem to be sent by God from hell.

In We Are Made of Earth (not the most ex­cit­ing of ti­tles) he takes us, per­haps ir­re­sistibly, to the cur­rent refugee cri­sis and, al­though his lo­ca­tion is dystopian, it can be read­ily imag­ined as a re­mote Greek is­land on which both the tragedy and the com­edy of hu­man weak­ness are acted out.

The main play­ers – un­til the huge in­flux of refugees in the last part of the story – are a doc­tor, Mok­dad, and a young boy, Jamil, pos­si­bly Syr­ian or Afghan, ar­riv­ing on the is­land af­ter sur­viv­ing the wreck of their boat, only to be greeted, some­what bizarrely, by an Asian ele­phant called Shanti (mean­ing “peace”), the star of a de­funct cir­cus with a hor­ri­ble re­sem­blance to the sit­u­a­tion in Brian Friel’s Crys­tal and Fox. Their in­ter­play with the cir­cus own­ers is set against the is­land it­self, a grad­u­ally in­ten­si­fy­ing drama that is catal­ysed by the sud­den ar­rival of hun­dreds of sim­i­lar refugees.

The de­vel­op­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween the doc­tor, the boy and the cir­cus owner and his wife, each with their own se­cret agenda, is sub­tly and com­pas­sion­ately drawn. In fact it is Karnezis’s char­ac­ter­is­tic com­pas­sion which de­fines a nar­ra­tive skill which could oth­er­wise be­come vin­dic­tive.

All of them, and the na­tive is­lan­ders them­selves, are pris­on­ers not only of cir­cum­stance, but of ne­ces­sity and even of choice. Karnezis sug­gests that it is not only refugees, but those whose hopes have met an un­for­tu­nate re­al­ity, who (as in Peter Usti­nov’s story Fron­tiers of the Sea) spend their lives “star­ing at the hori­zon”.

Karnezis ex­am­ines with both love and cru­elty his char­ac­ters’ at­ti­tude to fate. The sta­sis of the drama is con­trasted with the de­ter­mined haste with which the new in­flux of refugees ad­dress their ne­ces­sity to be else­where. Th­ese refugees re­tain some sense of pur­pose, of des­tiny, as a means of com­bat­ting their cur­rent mis­ery, whereas Mok­dad, Jamil and the cir­cus peo­ple – in­clud­ing Shanti, who be­comes a vi­tal per­son­al­ity – pur­sue a philo­soph­i­cal ac­cep­tance of a fate which is al­ways re­ced­ing, di­min­ish­ing and, ul­ti­mately, evap­o­rat­ing. The boy Jamil, try­ing to find a way out of the web in which ex­ile and ship­wreck have caught him, works out that “God be­longed to the adult world, which was enough rea­son to re­gard Him with sus­pi­cion”.

The “re­al­i­ties” of the cur­rent cri­sis be­tween Greece and Turkey, with mostly Syr­ian refugees caught be­tween them, in­trudes slightly into Karnezis’s nar­ra­tive. He presents us with the stark con­trast be­tween Mok­dad, the doc­tor, be­fore and af­ter: “Ed­u­cated, well off, he had been es­teemed, and now this: name­less, home­less, an alien, an in­truder”.

But it is not the prin­ci­pal point of the story. His in­ten­tion, as it is in The Maze, is not to de­pict or pre­dict history, but to calmly as­sess the dam­age pro­voked by ex­pec­ta­tions, the pathos elicited by pas­sion de­ferred, and the sheer mean­ing­less of life when con­text and hin­ter­land are re­moved. “A per­son had no fixed qual­i­ties. It all de­pended on the cir­cum­stances.”

Karnezis, as a su­perb sto­ry­teller, leaves us with­out not one, but two, vi­cious twists of his plot in the last chap­ter. And he has the abil­ity to catch us un­awares in the self-re­flec­tions of his char­ac­ters. The cir­cus owner, re­duced to ab­so­lutely noth­ing by the death of his ele­phant, de­cides “You could not avoid mak­ing bad de­ci­sions if you wanted to be in charge of your own life” – a re­as­sur­ing view for some, no doubt.

Mean­while his wife, hav­ing sex with Mok­dad, “felt nei­ther un­ease nor pas­sion, but the calm con­vic­tion that she was set­ting her­self free from grief”. She was, Karnezis tells us, “easy to hurt, like every­one, an open wound”. It is the fact that Karnezis can tell us this and yet rec­on­cile us to those wounds and that wound­ed­ness, that marks him as both a sen­si­tive and an hon­est ob­server. This is a fine ad­di­tion to Karnezis’s al­ready im­pres­sive list.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: RICHARD BAKER / CORBIS VIA GETTY IM­AGES

One of Europe’s most dis­tin­guished sto­ry­tellers: Panos Karnezis.

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