CHILDREN IN PRISON

The next post will be on or before Sunday March 11th. If you want to read my latest comic novel The Lawless Book of Love you need to look at the January and February 2018 archive, see below to the right

CHILDREN IN PRISON

‘The brigadier shook his gouge in disagreement. “I believe we come back as flies for three reasons,” he said. “First, there are enough for there to be one for every soul on Earth since the beginning of time. Second, aren’t they often flying around corpses? And third they like living in houses – old habits die hard.”

The woman next to Mr Jeremias asked; “Yes, but they eat-”

The brigadier shrugged. “In the next life we reap what we sow.”’

Jeremiad (from LITTLE INFAMIES) by PANOS KARNEZIS

 The brigadier’s words might be a fitting epigraph to Little Infamies, which is the blackly understated title of the 2003 fictional debut of Panos Karnezis (born 1967), an infinitely accomplished collection of stories, dazzling in more ways than one. Karnezis is Greek but writes in flawless English which puts him in the select company of e.g. Anglophone Japanese Kazuo Ishiguro, and of Irishman Samuel Beckett who eventually wrote exclusively in French. Both Ishiguro and Karnezis are graduates of the legendary Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK, though it is perhaps salutary to reflect that the bulk of such legendary graduates do not have anything like their talent nor do they go on to such acclaim, or to put it another way Ishiguro and Karnezis would inevitably have produced their outstanding creations MA or not. As one who has taught Creative Writing himself for the last 30 years, at the end of the day I do believe that branch of so called learning regularly needs to be put in its place. That said, I would urge everyone to get hold of this remarkable book as the stories have a brilliance, coherence and understated intensity, that put him in the superleague as a short story writer (albeit in my view his subsequent 4 novels, though readable enough, are definitely not in the same league).

These 19 powerful and darkly funny stories are linked by a common stock of characters from the same obscure and humble village or rather forlorn hamlet in mainland Greece. Karnezis comes from the Ilia region in the Peloponnese (the capital is Pyrgos) and his stories are so vivid it is fair enough to assume they owe at least something to his home area. They reveal an area of deprivation and considerable remoteness, with a railway station whose toilets are so rank everyone stands a mile off to get away from the stench. The trains as in India tend to be several hours late and the station master sometimes fiddles with the station clock in anticipation of the complaints of ireful passengers. Nearby is the mining quarry aka regional penitentiary, one of whose inmates in one of the best stories seeks vengeance from Father Yerasimo who shops him to the police when he burgles a credulous and bejewelled spinster he has just slept with. The orthodox priest is an excellent creation, so poor he exists on a diet of beans whose explosive effects condemn the widower to solitude. He regularly harangues his wicked flock and assures them that the various droughts and earthquakes are heavenly recompense for their sins, and this is scarcely hyperbole given the appallingly shocking theme of the first substantial 50-page story, A Funeral Of Stones.

An earthquake (greeted interestingly by the alarmed priest with ‘Shit! It’s the Second Coming’) disturbs the local graveyard and throws up a tiny coffin which turns out to be full of stones, not the twin babies who supposedly died at birth. Yerasimo goes round interrogating the villagers none of whom will give anything away, until he confronts the midwife who reveals that their father, incensed by the loss of his beloved wife who died in childbirth, wreaks vengeance on the twin girls and hides them in a cellar where he has kept them naked and filthy for the last 14 years. Worse than their evil incarceration and the fact everyone but the doctor and the priest know about it, is that their father regularly brings these grunting, feral waifs up chained by collars and gets them to perform monkey tricks for the delighted villagers. At this point one stands back from the story and reflects that a Greek writer in his mid-30s writing not in Greek (would he dare?) describes something set in a convincingly evoked Greek village, that is so wicked and revolting it is barely credible. And yet it is surely the case he would not invent from nothing such a bizarre scenario about lifelike and credible villagers, or he would likely face lynching next time he goes home to visit his relatives. My best guess is that this horror story is based on some notorious folk tale rooted in some real event, for we all know that Werner Herzog’s 1974 film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, about the 17 year incarceration of the eponymous out of wedlock embarrassment, was based on a true story from the early 19th century, and we all shudder at the recent memory of the Austrian monster Josef Fritzl who imprisoned his daughter for 24 years and raped and fathered children by her to boot.

In general, there is a tragicomic solidarity among the villagers united in their common misfortune, for typically their longsuffering mayor has had to campaign for years to get a bus from the county capital to drive the dirt road all the way to the village. The same mayor faced with an endless drought is so personally impoverished, he decides to accept the marriage offer of the middle-aged butcher who seeks his beautiful young daughter Persa. The butcher is loathed by the villagers for short changing them, and also for buying up their stock for a pittance during the drought, and consequently Persa is kept in the dark and in fact never learns of the offer at first hand. Her suitor doggedly wishes to perpetuate his line and all is going well until the drought breaks, the rain teems down, and the mayor withdraws his hasty offer. The butcher is so incensed he instantly blasts him with his carbine and this explains the harrowing start of the story where the mayor is staggering across the village square pitifully trying to hold his entrails in. This convincing motif of the dishonoured Greek male’s willingness to face 20 years or more in the penitentiary is repeated twice more in the collection. There is the prisoner out on bogus compassionate leave, intent on killing Father Yerasimo who once shopped him as a thief, and in another fine story there is an improvident villager left a gorgeous racehorse by a remote relative who is mocked by the local landowner when an expert reveals the horse is old and past it. The legatee is only just restrained from knifing the landowner, who had earlier tried in vain to buy the horse off him. But the villagers refuse to report the attempted murder to the policeman, the poignant irony being that the useless old racehorse is promptly slaughtered and the stew given to the poor, much to the priest’s gratification who is tucking into a plateful himself.

At least 2 of the stories function as disturbing fables, even as malign and shocking fairy tales. There is a sinister first-person narration by someone part of a gang of marauders who come to the village though we never know who or what exactly they are, robbers, mafia, political rebels or what. They claim to be hunters in the winter, a palpable lie, and casually explain that that they are lost. Meanwhile they run over an old shepherd’s dog by driving too fast and when he objects they blast a gun in the air to intimidate him. Later they kill a rabid dog and an old woman angrily shouts at them ‘Murderers!’. They then bully a barber into giving them precedence and the dialogue exchange here is Karnezis’s typically assured gallows humour.

‘A man pulling a mule came to the door. He could not see us in the dark. He was an old man and his hands were shaking.

“I came for my shave, barber.”

“Not now, Fanourio.”

“I look like a thief, barber.”

“I am sorry, Fanourio.”

“But I have an appointment.”

“The barber is busy,” we said. “You’ll live longer with a beard.”

More sinister still, these terrifying strangers gather together the whole of the village and make them strip off in the snow and burn their clothes to warm themselves. Then, without any elaboration before or afterwards, and all the more harrowing as a result:

“Please don’t,” the mothers cried. “They’re only little girls.”

The final story The Legend of Atlantis is truly apocalyptic as it describes the villagers being evacuated en masse to some horrifically barren area many miles away in order to accommodate a hydroelectric dam. Outraged at the heartless crime reminiscent more of apartheid South Africa than modern Europe, they all make their way back home, only to be drowned and obliterated from history by a pathologically unfeeling bureaucracy.

‘Later a flotilla of torn pages of books appeared, drifting among the dreary pages of flotsam. The water had smudged the ink on all of them, where a lonely word of faint letters was written: TELOS – which means THE END.’

These harrowing and angry fictions no doubt give a wrong overall impression, because many of these tales are drily funny and challengingly original. There is one, for example, about a gullible villager Nectario buying a garrulous parrot who at first can only ask in Portuguese where the nearest brothel is, but later thanks to the quantity of hempseed the owner tempts him with in order to increase his narrow vocabulary, falls off his perch stoned on dope. A parallel folly is when the same Nectario, doggedly determined to fly like the Greek Icarus, builds a kind of Charlie Chaplin kite construction covered in turkey feathers, and sure enough comes to grief for the umpteenth time. The villagers then gather round and state the glaring obvious:

‘“What a fool,” they said with a single voice, and looked at Nectario bleeding on the tiles. “Didn’t he know that turkeys can’t fly?”’

 

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