The Birthday Party

The Birthday Party

by Panos Karnezis

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780676978889
Publisher: Knopf Canada
Publication date: 08/05/2008
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.22(w) x 9.38(h) x 0.73(d)

About the Author

Panos Karnezis is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Small Infamies and The Maze. Born in Greece, he moved to England in 1992 to study engineering, and worked in industry before he started to write. He was awarded an M.A. in creative writing by the University of East Anglia. He lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

The previous night he had gone to bed with the windows open after the doctor had said at dinner that at his age even a minor infection could kill him. In the morning he woke up with the flutter of the curtains and the cool breeze blowing in through the french windows that faced the sea and discovered that he was still alive. He pushed the blanket aside and sat up naked in bed, contemplating the clouds with arms folded behind his head and thinking about his dream. He had managed four hours of sleep, a rare achievement for an insomniac like himself, whose nights were a torment without reprieve, but the sleep had done him no good. He had dreamed that he was a boy in Izmir and was seeing a dead man for the first time, a steward from a steamship knifed through the heart during an argument, floating face up among the filth of the harbour. In his dream Marco Timoleon was standing on the promenade, dressed in striped pyjamas, and was watching as the current pushed the sailor out into the sea where the fish waited to peck at his eyes. The curious thing was that the dead man was waving at him.

He believed in dreams and other omens with a deep faith, and although he believed in God too, he obeyed Him with less enthusiasm. He consulted astrologers, palmists and mediums on a regular basis, a secret he kept from rivals and most of his friends, thinking of his premonitions as one of the last uncharted sciences — like weather forecasts. He signed no contracts on the thirteenth of the month, banned cats from his houses with the excuse that he was allergic to them and threw salt over his shoulder to fend off the Devil. He was also afraid of being buried alive; he had read about it in Plutarch, who described the execution of vestal virgins breaking their vows of chastity in Roman times, and had come across it again in an article about Thomas à Kempis.

The interesting thing was that Marco Timoleon had never before dreamed either of death or water: until then his dreams were uncomplicated memories from his life. He had a good memory, especially for trivia. When he dreamed about women, he was able to recall the colour of their hair, their birthmarks, the smell of their perfume. When he dreamed about cars, he could remember their registration numbers. When he dreamed about a place he had visited over fifty years earlier, he could describe it down to the last detail. Furthermore: no matter how deeply he slept, he could wake himself up at will, a trick he used when he had to escape a dream that was sad or frightening. Yet the night before, he had slept through the whole thing because the sight of a dead man waving at him had neither frightened nor saddened him. It had intrigued him. Marco Timoleon tried to interpret his strange dream without success. In the end he dismissed the greater horrors suggested by his imagination, admitting that the doctor had been right: he should not have slept with the windows open.

He was much shorter than one who had only seen him in photographs would expect. His skin was not simply tanned but bruised from the sun and covered with small liver marks that resembled lichen. He was a good swimmer, and despite being old and a little overweight, his skin was tight like a corset. When he had turned seventy, he had stopped dyeing his hair, a habit he always thought a little undignified but at the same time necessary. His most distinctive feature these days was the loose flesh under his eyes that gave him the permanent expression of one about to burst into tears.

He had been born under the sign of Leo seventy-two years earlier but was still in command of his faculties and in good health, apart from a persistent cough caused by smoking and his recent sexual dysfunction. For the latter he had tried homoeopathic medicines, acupuncture and hypnosis, but neither the human nor the vegetable magic had helped. He had slowly come to terms with the end of a lifelong habit that had started at the age of fourteen in the brothels of Izmir and continued until he could claim with pride that he had sampled everything that life and imagination had to offer — among them having slept with a man, an act he could not simply attribute to the curiosity of youth because he had slept with him more than once.

It was the end of August. He had arrived on his private island, eleven nautical miles from the Mediterranean coast, a week earlier after a short voyage from Monte Carlo on his luxury yacht. Normally he could stand the rough sea, but this time he had been sick. His pride forbidding him from taking any pills, he had tried to recover by pacing the deck despite the bad weather until the captain banned him from coming up for fear he might be swallowed by the waves. He had protested but in the end had given in and passed the rest of the journey between his stateroom and the bar where he had tried to shake off the haunting shadow that had settled over his mood with alcohol.

Marco Timoleon thought about the hours ahead without enthusiasm. He had arranged every detail of the party as if his daughter’s birthday were indeed the true reason for the celebration. Today Sofia was turning twenty-five. He had long ago stopped celebrating his own birthday or attending those of his children and wife in order to save himself the embarrassment of having to grow old in public, but tonight he was making an exception, throwing a big party on his private island.

His villa, a three-storey house with a tiled roof, peach stucco walls and wide balconies, stood among the trees on a steep slope above a cove with shallow green waters. There were eleven bedrooms on the upper two floors, several sitting rooms and a dining room, and on the lowermost floor a vast ballroom with a black lacquered grand piano and three Venetian chandeliers. The master bedroom was on the top floor and decorated without regard for either cost or taste. Its centrepiece was a marble fireplace, and in the room were several armchairs, coffee tables and china vases filled with freshly cut roses. The walls were hung with mirrors, crimson drapes and original paintings in gilded frames. What saved the room were the four glass doors through which Marco Timoleon could watch the Mediterranean sunrise from his bed as soon as he opened his eyes. A balcony outside allowed an uninterrupted view of the sea.

His wish had been to have on his island every kind of tree mentioned in the Bible, and his gardeners had followed his instructions to the letter: there were almond and olive trees, cedars, pines, chestnut, fig and bay trees, cypresses, oaks, palms, poplars, acacias, tamarisks and willows, as well as a Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Rising above the orchards, on the top of a hill, was a small stone church with a blue dome. The church was dedicated to Saint Mark of the Cypresses, and on a plot behind it were three graves with simple marble crosses. One read: Daniel Timoleon, 1954—1974. In his will the ageing tycoon specified that he wanted to be buried next to it, leaving the details of his funeral to his executor.

He left his bed, walked out on to the balcony and leaned naked against the marble balustrade. The cool breeze began to resurrect his body. Watching the faint outline of the distant shore, he felt a hint of doubt about his plan. There was a knock on the door, and a young man dressed in a white uniform walked in, carrying a pack of sheets and towels that smelt of lavender. After a quick search around the room and the en suite bathroom, the servant found him on the balcony. He was not surprised to see him naked; it was a habit his employer had got into in recent years. The smell of lavender was enough to bring Marco Timoleon back from his contemplation, and he told his servant, in his terse tobacco voice that tolerated no delay, to run him a bath. The young man went inside to carry out his wish before making the bed and cleaning the room. When he could bear the morning wind no longer, Marco Timoleon went to the bathroom, sank into the hot water and called his servant to come and rub his back with a brush.

The preparations for the party had begun long before his arrival on the island with a close attention to detail that was intended to thwart suspicions. Invitations had been printed and posted from his Paris office to guests all over the world, a three-tiered birthday cake had been ordered from Demel in Vienna, and the twenty-one-piece orchestra of Maxim’s, the Parisian restaurant, had been booked at astronomical cost.

When his servant finished rubbing his back, Marco Timoleon stood up and showered with scalding water, enduring the high temperature with a sense of self-punishment. He used to be able to wash and dress in ten minutes, a habit that had grown out of an old eagerness to accept every invitation, but success and age had long taught him how to say no. He turned off the water, dried himself with a towel embroidered with his initials and sat on the toilet seat to catch his breath. Then he overwhelmed his servant with a series of questions, fired in quick succession, about the preparations for the birthday party. He listened to the answers with suspicion, challenging every one of them with yet more questions and a stern look, finding fault where there was none, changing his mind about orders he had given only the day before. He ended his interrogation with a harsh warning: ‘Don’t lie to me.’

His servant nodded and reassured him once again that everything was ready for that evening. Marco Timoleon was not satisfied. He wanted to know whether the orchestra was on its way and whether the bus that would be picking them up was at the airport. He said: ‘Make sure they come straight to the island. They need to practise.’ His servant had already made the necessary phone calls but said he would call the airport at once.

‘They don’t have to go through customs,’ said Marco Timoleon. ‘Tell whoever’s in charge they’re my personal guests.’

He had an army of servants, maids and cooks, who saw to his every need with a combination of devotion and fear. He had the reputation of being very generous, giving money freely if he heard that someone was in difficulty and always at Christmas and Easter, but he could also be unkind and violent like an ancient god. The last time he had guests on the island, he had insisted that Olivia should be at his side not only to silence the rumours that their marriage was failing but also to help him charm his guests. Olivia Timoleon seemed not to have the capacity for boredom. She had an instinct for discovering the wishes of her guests, laughed at their jokes, flattered them about their appearance and gave them her full attention, fixing them with her eyes, which had once charmed Marco Timoleon too, on their first encounter.

He normally woke up at midday and immediately put on his glasses because without them he was lost in a world of ghosts and shadows. His first of many daily cups of coffee waited for him on his bedside table, and he drank it while reading the papers. He always started with the society columns, which interested him the most, and then went on to read everything, including the advertisements, the obituaries and, of course, his horoscope. Only then was he ready to leave his bed and bathe. He was an immaculate dresser. His taste had matured to the austere combination of black and white that he had made his trademark. He himself dismissed any betterment of his taste over the years, stating with good humour a different reason for his choice of clothes: ‘I’m colour blind.’

He was at his desk no later than three in the afternoon. He had offices in Paris, London and New York and could be in all of them at the same time if he needed to be, a trick he had not learned from God but taught to himself with the help of telephones and telexes. Following his wishes, his offices were all furnished in exactly the same style, with oak-panelled walls and heavy, permanently drawn curtains: he had discovered that darkness gave him an advantage over his visitors. In the middle of every study was a large Louis XV writing desk with leather top and cabriole legs. Even though computers were already becoming popular, he himself did not use one and discouraged his subordinates from doing so: when it came to business decisions, he had a deep-seated mistrust of electronics.

Until he turned seventy, he worked twelve hours a day, which were not enough to go over all his business affairs. If there was a crisis, he could easily carry on for forty-eight hours without an interruption, sustained by his passion for business and his faith in alcohol. He was a heavy drinker of Scotch, and although he admitted to the fact, he also insisted that he was not an alcoholic because he drank only as much as his metabolism permitted. Whatever the case, he consumed half a bottle at work and the rest afterwards in one of the nightclubs where he usually ended his day.

He did not leave the office unless the clock had struck midnight. He owed seven black Cadillac Fleetwoods, each parked somewhere in the world with a chauffeur in attendance and the engine running. He no longer walked anywhere, no matter how close. He professed security reasons, but the truth had more to do with the spent cartilage in his knees. He shaved twice a day, once when he woke up and again in the evening, with the cutthroat razor his father had given him long before he had needed it. This morning he took his time with the blade, stopping to rinse it under the tap and dipping it in a jar filled with surgical spirit. When he came out of the bathroom, rubbing cologne on his cheeks, his servant was choosing clothes for him. The young man helped him to dress.

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Birthday Party 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
magentaflake on LibraryThing 5 months ago
This book is about an elderly billionaire celebrating his daughter's birthday on his own island. Reminded me about the Onassis family. With flashbacksdetailing his history, how he made his money and his children and how he still likes to manipulate everything. Couldn't put it down.