A convent in rural Spain around the year 1921 seems, atfirst glance, to be an unlikely setting for a psychological thriller, but PanosKarnezis’s new novel, The Convent , findshypnotic appeal in just such a place. “Time and damp had scarred thesaints in the niches beyond recognition,” Karnezis writes of the isolatedconvent of Our Lady of Mercy, “the worn flagstones shone from thousands offeet having trodden on them over the centuries; the wooden staircases groaned….”Here the statue of a crucified Jesus “[after] four centuries in the dampair of the convent… had turned a dull, almost black colour.” Five nunsremain, “…the last survivors of an age that was coming to its end,”their only visitor a cleric who arrives periodically to say Mass and to hearconfessions.
The world of the sistersexudes peaceful decay. Yet the first scene is one of shocking disruption. Onthe convent steps, a young novice finds a suitcase that contains a living baby.Assessing the infant, the Mother Superior, Sister Maria Ines, betrays littleemotion. This does not surprise us; Karnezis has already distilled her naturein a few sentences. “Sometimes she wished that she were with theCarthusians so that she would not have to speak…she still believed thathumankind had been given perhaps more intelligence than was necessary.”
Nevertheless, within hoursSister Maria Ines declares that God has sent her this baby to be raised amongthe nuns. There are mutinous rumblings, particularly from spiteful Sister Ana,at this spasm of apparent religious lunacy, and an atmosphere of inchoatemenace thickens. At the same time, Karnezis cunningly exposes the human dramaunderlying the mystery. The diocese’s worldly Bishop may observe that “…miracleshappen very rarely but babies are being abandoned all the time.” Thetruth, however, is more subtle and more complicated. It leads us into the past,first to a crisis in Sister Maria Ines’s youth—one that in its perfectdesolation could stand alone as a short story—and into the more recent historyof a young nun and of the Bishop himself.
Eachlayer of these individual dramas is revealed with delicate economy as the novel’squiet mesmerizing power intensifies. In scenes at times reminiscent of J. G.Farrell’s masterpiece The Siege ofKrishnapur, Karnezis mingles the immediate and the mystical.”The Mother Superior took her for long walks in the orchard,” hewrites of the young novice, “and they discussed the creation of the world,how many nails were used to crucify Christ and other important doctrinalmatters….” A few pages later, we observe the Mother Superior’s pre-dawnroutine when “…she would unlock the door of the chapel, light the oillamps…. inspect the traps baited with chocolate and throw away the dead rats….”And we contemplate Bishop Estrada, a superb creation, as he walks in his palacegardens where “[the] skirt of his cassock was constantly caught in thethorns of rose bushes, leaving behind a trail of perfumed red petals whichhours later his deacon had only to follow to find him….”
In his astonishing firstnovel, The Maze, Karnezis brought us inside the minds of doomedGreek soldiers lost in the Anatolian desert in 1922. In The Convent he has created a smaller, but not lesser hallucination.