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‘Maze’ deftly negotiates between history and irony

Special to The Times

Something in us loves a maze. Clearly we derive a peculiar pleasure, at least a thrill, from experiencing confusion and physical disorientation. Else why are there fun houses at state fairs, or vegetation pruned into a complex of walls and cul-de-sacs, whether in an imperial garden or a farmer’s just-harvested cornfield -- where for a buck or two anyone can have the adventure of getting lost then found?

Metaphorically, a maze, or labyrinth, holds an embarrassment of riches -- and therefore through the ages has been exhaustively mined by poets and writers. Today, only a very confident author would risk basing his novel’s conceit on such a familiar trope, let alone proclaim the fact in the title. For that matter, how many first novelists would dare to test their readers’ patience by studding the text with pedantic footnotes on classical mythology or by taking as a setting a failed and generally forgotten Greek military campaign, a misbegotten postscript to the First World War?

“The Maze” by Panos Karnezis chronicles the feverish wanderings of a last, lost Greek brigade, stranded in Anatolia in late summer 1922 after its invading army’s rout. Historically, that ill-fated British-backed Greek campaign helped fuel the rise of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the creation of modern, unified Turkey -- an unintended consequence very much in the disillusioned spirit of this novel. It goes unmentioned, however, because Karnezis’ characters know nearly nothing of the political world outside the lost brigade’s tattered micro-cosmos. This dusty, decimated world is under the command of Brigadier Nestor, an aging, stubborn, tormented disciplinarian whose eyes “were faint and colourless like paper watermarks, as if his eternal habit of rubbing them with the hard knuckles of his forefingers had slowly eroded their sheen.” Over the course of three years of war, Nestor (like the mythological Agamemnon’s crusty officer) learns he’s a widower, commits an atrocity that haunts him, and turns secretly to morphine for relief. His disintegrating consciousness retains one goal: to avoid surrender and dishonor by leading his surviving soldiers on a circuitous course through desert and mountains to the Aegean shore and then home, in echoes of Homer and of Alexander’s expeditions.

Like Nestor, other souls trapped in the errant brigade display an allegorical edge. Major Porfirio, for all his habit of sarcasm ("[I]f the sandstorm had buried the brigade alive last night ... an archaeologist ... would be able to guess the magnitude of our defeat just by the squalor of our personal belongings”) epitomizes blind idealism. In contrast, the unnamed medic, though starved of supplies, clings to his Hippocratic oath as an antidote to nihilism. There is Father Simeon, the chaplain whose pious scruples lead paradoxically to ever greater moral transgressions, grossly visible to the reader if not to the padre. The fleeting nature of wealth and beauty is embodied in an aristocratic flyboy whose search mission ends in a fiery crash, forcing him to join the brigade he was sent to rescue.

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A series of unsolved, petty thefts do nothing to improve the claustrophobic atmosphere of this all-male traveling world. But hope returns suddenly when, by tracking a runaway horse, the soldiers stumble on a small town that, thanks to its canny, pleasure-loving mayor, has managed to elude the consequences of war.

Here we meet Violetta, a golden-hearted French putain and an array of mostly buffoonish civilians who share the soldiers’ blinkered vision -- for just as the soldiers can’t discern the route to the nearby sea, these complacent Greek citizens live oblivious to the misery of the Turkish underclass in their stinking slum. Nestor, between morphine jolts and rage over anonymous communist handbills that rain periodically over the troops, can’t help but notice that there are vultures everywhere.

“The Maze” is an extraordinarily firm and finished novel, filled with luminous imagery and infused with a mordant sense of irony. It is even more remarkable in coming from a young writer (Karnezis was born in Greece in 1967) for whom English is presumably a second language. That may explain a tendency toward elaborate phrasing -- “Violetta began to understand how such a spectacle could be mortifying to the ingenuous” -- and when combined with rather spartan character development, serves to keep the reader at an emotional remove from the dramatis personae. At times one longs for a single protagonist, for old-fashioned fictional close identification.

On the other hand, when it comes to the mapping of fate’s implacable structure, omniscient distance may be the best strategy.


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