Book Review

Zorba Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Little Infamies

Like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or Chekov’s provincial Russia, Karnezis’ unnamed village is the force that links the lives of its populace to what the Australian writer Frank Moorhouse would call a “discontinuous narrative.” These stories give us fragments of lives. Like the barber’s mirror smashed by the earthquake in “A Funeral of Stones,” they leave us with a unnerving, if more comprehensive, image of life, when they are finally reassembled. We see a reflection of a whole, but the cracks are painfully present, if we should ever be tempted to forget them.

In “A Funeral of Stones,” Father Yerasimo, who appears in a number of the stories, discovers a child-size coffin filled with heart-shaped stones while he is re-burying the dead after a cataclysmic earthquake. Furious that he has performed a phony funeral, Father Yerasimo begins an investigation that leads to a discovery far more shocking than the stone-filled coffin.

You cannot keep the dead buried, Karnezis reminds us, and delving into history leads to unforeseen and often unforeseeably drastic consequences. Like late 20th-century Greece, the villagers are mired in the muck of history; like wooly mammoths stuck in tar, the more they struggle to free themselves, the more entrapped they become. In “On The First Day of Lent” a lecherous warden gives one of his inmates, Aristo, a 24-hour leave, under the pretense of attending the one-year memorial service for his dead mother, an important Greek Orthodox ritual. A second inmate, the imbecilic farmer Manouso (convicted of cutting out the tongue of a neighbor’s noisy mule), is jealous and tells the warden that Aristo is planning to commit a murder during his leave. Following Manouso’s “tip,” the police shoot and kill Aristo before the truth can be revealed. In fact, Manouso has returned to the village to marry Stella, a spinster he once conned out of her life savings. Redemption is impossible and the fog of tragic banality lingers like incense after the Sunday liturgy. The will of the fool rules supreme, and the ancient Greek ideals of logic, reason and prudence are cast aside.

The strength of Little Infamies is Karnezis’ ability to create such a unique sense of place, such remarkable characters. Sentence for sentence, particularly in his descriptions, Karnezis is as talented as anyone writing in English. (Karnezis was born in Greece in 1967, and came to England, where he now resides, to study engineering. According to his biographical note, he worked in industry before obtaining an MA in creative writing.) His Greece is raw, unsentimental: a country caught somewhere between primitivism and industrial modernity, where superstition and religion are blurred into a vague sense of impending devastation, where fear and ignorance prevail. It’s a place of half-wits, vagabonds and swindlers: virtuous philosophers and altruistic heroes are nowhere to be found. Like the barber’s mirror, much of the landscape seems improvised, thrown together. A shoddiness and general poverty of conditions is pervasive, evidenced by this description of the warden’s quarters:

The moment he raised his eyes the warden felt as if he had stepped into a ransacked mausoleum. Of the festoons that decorated the walls there only remained a few plaster-of-Paris leaves under several layers of cobweb. From a nail hung a torn geopolitical map whose colors were bleached by the sun; red pins were stuck over certain provincial towns. Behind the rack was a national flag strung not on a proper mast but a coat rack, and on the floor, where it had fallen during the earthquake three years earlier, lay the portrait of the President in a pile of broken glass.

Over and over again, Karnezis pounds us with a hammer of irony. But it is difficult to tell if he is appalled by how far a great nation has fallen, or if he’s simply stricken by such a wealth of “material.” “Applied Aeronautics” is a retelling of the Icarus myth in which the Icarus analogue, Nectario, fails to achieve the fleeting success of his predecessor and instead plummets immediately to the ground after jumping out the window of his apartment building, his wings of funeral-candle wax and turkey feathers utterly ineffective. Nectario is not a victim of hubris, but of banal stupidity; laughing at him seems an adolescent thrill.

At times, Karnezis’ heavy-handed irony stifles his characters. Moments of realization, of epiphany are undercut, almost mocked. We wonder if these doomed characters are worth caring about.

Perhaps the best story in the collection—and the most earnest—is “Sacrifice,” which consists of a conversation between a farmer, Dionysio, his son, and a neighbor. Dionysio has just killed his prize bull, which earlier had gored and killed his young daughter. Dionysio’s sense of loss is so well rendered, so palpable in Karnezis’ deadpan dialogue, that we almost feel ashamed to listen:

‘I can lend some money,’ the neighbor said awkwardly.

It doesn’t matter.’

‘I’ll ask the priest for a collection.’

‘He had to go,” the boy said. “He killed my sister.’

The father looked out at the dark again. Some blood was round his eyes from the shirt.

‘I told Father he had to go,” the boy said. ‘He was a killer.’

‘Go and start the fire son. We have to burn our clothes. You can’t wash those.’

Here, Karnezis shows moving tenderness towards his characters. In this quiet, painfully intimate moment Karnezis’ considerable talent is most obvious, most affecting. We have witnessed the death of a hope and the beginning of a great unhappiness. For Dionysio, grief has become a hindrance to the survival of his family. His poverty has become more than a poverty of economic means; it has become a poverty of the soul. Dionysio’s honest efforts have backfired and his family has been crippled by what should have strengthened them. Isn’t that, ultimately, one of the most human, most compelling ironies of all?

Emmanuel Boulukos recently received his M.A. in creative writing from the University of Texas at Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST