More than its reviews, it was the novel’s setting just after the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) — in which a remaining and lost Greek regiment wandered the deserts of Anatolia to find the sea — that sparked my curiosity to read Panos Karnezis’s, The Maze. Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong and A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Story are novels and personal favorites of mine that has also intrigued me for their challenging backdrops of World War I, an unsettling time in an uncertain world that was rapidly changing in unimagined ways, filled with characters caught among of forces of new technology, ideology, and nostalgia.
In this case, the collapse takes place on the other side of the European continent, when the Ottoman Empire fell in 1921. Greece took the fatal decision to sieze the opportunity to annex territory that had been traditionally occupied by Greeks in Anatolia. The campaign ended in humiliating defeat that left Greeks stranded or evacuating from what is today Turkey. The Maze begins with one desistitute Greek regiment winding its way through the desert, desperate to find the sea and return to the homeland. The story of its captain, its priest, and the disillusioned men of the regiment (some conspiring to desert their company, convinced by the new wave of communism) places strongly illustrated characters together, carrying more baggage inside than outside in the rag-tag caravan as they face and hide their individual crimes of theft, murder and betrayal — to say nothing of an unspeakable, collective war crime that haunts them. The moral questions of classical Greek tragedy unfold as they finally encounter civilization in an old Greek city with its own delightfuly corrupt mayor and ethical prostitute. Both heroes and villians, pawns of the Fates they do not control, hypocrisy blurs the lines that define the cast of characters that dream of redemption, and of a “return” — in an obvious allusion to the Odyssey (which Homer had appartently composed in Anatolia).
Panos Karnezis falls just short of biting off more than he can chew. His lyrical command of English is pleasantly resonate and holds together a complex and beautiful narrative of a Greek tragedy that is not without its cameos of classical Greek comedy (from a shopkeeper’s wife, for example, “Men throw away fortunes in search of depraved delights,” she said in the melody of her unshakeable accent. “What they don’t know is that pleasure can be found even in the heart of an artichoke.”). The overtly dropped references to classical Greek mythology within dialog are at times distracting. They might have been more productively integrated implicitly as opposed to explicitly, but there were indeed times when such footnotes were helpful.
A reverberating novel that stood on my shelf years before it called me, it must have been the Fates who found it the right time to once again reflect on a world that is rapidly changing, filled with the ambiguity of the villians and heroes, and how an entire epoch may be at its twilight if only to begin another we hardly control.