Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Reading group: The Maze by Panos Karnezis

Something is happening to our reading group, or maybe it's just this nasty cold thing, but there were only five of us to discuss Ann's choice, The Maze by Panos Karnezis. Perhaps it's just that life is more important than books. Or maybe, I am sorry to say, it was the way people reacted to this book.

Having spent much of her childhood in Armenia, Ann was understandably attracted to this novel which centres on the retreat of a Greek army brigade at the end of the brief occupation of Armenia after World War 1. However, even Ann - or maybe especially Ann with her inside knowledge - was left somewhat puzzled by this novel, which we thus felt was, ironically, aptly titled. Ann's main problem with the book was that it did not square with her conception of the history: the mass upheavals which the real-life events created - Greeks having to return en masse from Turkey, the evidence of which can be seen in the Turkish street-names of so many suburbs of Athens - did not seem in any way represented by this story, which centres on the effectively claustrophobic situation of a single brigade lost in the desert until it happens upon a small isolated town where the soldiers come to be haunted by an act of vengeance they committed. She then wondered if she should be reading the book differently, perhaps as symbolic or mythic (especially as there is much reference to Greek mythology in the book) but once again she found it unrepresentative, as the desert, such a huge force in the novel, is not representative of Armenia's landscape.

Or were we meant to read it as a psychological novel about particular individuals rather than a period in history? But it was hard to do so, people agreed: most thought the characters were cyphers, representatives of certain states or positions, and they failed to come to life on a psychological level. Was this intended? The author had a particular technique of introducing his characters. Initially we would observe a character objectively in a setting, performing certain actions, and sometimes he/she wouldn't even be identified to us straight away - a technique which hints at a kind of Everyman universality. Then the author would provide us with a potted history of the character (another somewhat distancing technique) but which, however, would include accounts of the character's feelings and psychological processes. Was there some kind of special point to this? (After all, this book had been shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award, so we had to take it seriously.) Or was this simply a case of Telling Not Showing? At any rate, we never felt engaged by the characters on any deep level.

Ann said that she was also distanced and puzzled by the language, which seemed stilted and archaic. She had considered that this was deliberate - as had Doug who, once he had taken it as so, got on better with the novel - but a Greek friend had told her that actually the prose reads like someone translating from Greek into English as they write. (Karnezis is Greek, but wrote the book in English.)

People just didn't know what to think. Was this book flawed or were we just not getting it? Was it naive or very clever?

I said, Well, look at how viewpoint is handled. At one point the priest is sitting alone thinking through his dilemmas - an unequivocally psychological moment - and suddenly we read this: 'Science,' he said unexpectedly. Unexpectedly to whom? Not to any other character, since the priest is alone; not to the author, since he's writing the damn thing; and not to the priest since it's he who's having the train of thought. In other words, the author has lost control of viewpoint here, a pretty good pointer to overall naivity.

It would seem that the treatment of the pivotal issue of the novel is intended as psychological, that what the author is interested in here is psychological repression: it is only once they are installed in the town that their terrible previous act forces itself back into the conscious thoughts of the soldiers. Yet the overall lack of psychological narrative treatment meant that the force of this repression was not conveyed, and the fact that the incident was left unmentioned for so long seemed to group members simply like a narrative mistake.

John said, 'Anyway, look at this sentence: The moon rose silently' and someone else pointed out that it was a bit weird that soldiers kept going in circles when they had a compass (even if the brigadier in charge of it was off his head on morphine), and when you could go by the sun anyway and everyone knows that if you go west in Armenia you inevitably get to the sea. Also, I said, Would they have operated on wounded soldiers on the move? and everyone shook their heads which put paid to the narrative sense of the medic planning to operate first thing in the morning when the brigade was due to up camp again. Plus, several people said, the brigade was described as an endless line as it entered the tiny town, but thereafter there was hardly any sense of any soldiers around.

But then Trevor, true to form, decided to stick up for the book because, he said, he had liked it anyway, and Doug agreed.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.


Daniel Kudlich said...

I just want to comment, that the book has nothing to do with Armenia, nothing whatsoever. The Greek Army occupied in the aftermath of World War I the Western parts of Asia Minor, which were still largely inhabited by Greek populations. The setting of the book is not Armenia which lies in the east. Other than that interesting review.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks for that. It explains a few things...