The Maze: A Novel

The Maze: A Novel

by Panos Karnezis


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The Maze: A Novel by Panos Karnezis

"The bastard love child of 'M*A*S*H' and Shakespeare...Supple prose and perfectly tuned dialogue."--Philip Connors, Newsday

In the summer of 1922, the Greek army is in retreat from Asia Minor, leaving behind one lost brigade, wandering in the Anatolian desert under a seemingly inexpiable curse. There is the doomed army commander addicted to morphine; the chaplain who induces the commander to strike a bargain with God; the hooker with a heart of gold whom he wants to redeem; a foreign correspondent who can't file stories; a deserter lost and found, and a prize stallion bolted. A debut novel of ambition and charm, The Maze marks the emergence of a stunning young talent whom The New York Times has called "downright miraculous."

"Karnezis's storytelling talents know no limits...Using dark humor and revealing dialogue, Karnezis, like the best writers, shows not only the flaws of his characters but also other traits that inspire understanding and even compassion for them...Inventive and striking."--Nicholas Gage, The Washington Post

"Economy, well-crafted plots, intense quiddity, and resonance that emerges inevitably from the stuff of the story...The Maze succeeds because it imagines so exactingly the hope, struggle and eventual futility of its characters' lives [and] shows a truly talented writer finding his way into more expansive regions."--Sam Thompson, Times Literary Supplement

"Colorful cast [with] antic incidents and delicate shades of prose."--The New Yorker

"Accomplished...Karnezis dramatizes with remorseless clarity and dry humor."--The New York Times Book Review

Panos Karnezis, author of Little Infamies(Picador, 2004), was born in Greece, moved to England as an engineer, and was awarded an MA in Creative Writing by the University of f0 East Anglia.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312423834
Publisher: Picador USA
Publication date: 03/01/2005
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Panos Karnezis, author of Little Infamies (Picador, 2004), was born in Greece, moved to England as an engineer, and was awarded an MA in Creative Writing by the University of East Anglia.

Read an Excerpt


By Panos Karnezis

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2004 Panos Karnezis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-374-20480-2

Chapter One

Brigadier Nestor rubbed his eyes and sat up in his cot. His 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. He yawned and unlocked the trunk with the keys that hung from his neck. The armoured trunk was packed with pressed and neatly folded clothes, some of which he had not yet worn on this tour of duty: a parade uniform with its medals and ribbons, a black one for evening functions with satin lapels and gold epaulets, a short riding tunic with coloured lanyards. He rummaged impatiently through the trunk; under his patent-leather boots with the silver spurs he found the bundle with everything his wife had sent him since the beginning of the war: Christmas and Easter cards, newspaper clippings, a postcard of a spa by the sea, a child's crayon drawing. He pulled off the rubber band that held the letters together and let them drop to the corrugated floor.

It was hot and dark in the back of the lorry. A thick canvas stretched over the roof and the sides, letting no light in or heat out. Brigadier Nestor felt nauseous and his throat was dry, but he craved neither a drink nor fresh air. He stood up and struggled to keep his balance while the moving lorry rocked from side to side. Stepping over his once precious correspondence, he leaned over the stove, lifted the lid of the steaming kettle with a pair of tongs, and removed the glass hypodermic syringe. He drew from a little vial, rolled up his sleeve, fastened the rubber band tight above his elbow, and finally injected the morphia.

The lorry continued its journey, moving in and out of the potholes in the dirt track; blasts of hot sand exploded on the tarpaulin like enemy potshots. The exhaust backfired and the smell of petrol entered Brigadier Nestor's nostrils, causing an unwelcome awakening of his senses. The sun cast the shadow of the vehicle on the saltpetre; it resembled a crawling scarab. There were dunes of soft, gold sand all round, and on the side of the track were the bleached bones of birds and camels. Feeling the morphia in his blood, the brigadier rolled his eyes and smiled like a child. Soon the drug had erased both his tiredness and his thirst. The suspension creaked and a tin cup rolled across the floor. The wind carried over the padre's voice.

'... When the poor and the needy seek water and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.'

For a moment the brigadier forgot the horror and felt as if adrift in a tranquil sea, the sea that was their destination - albeit not the ultimate one; that was the motherland. But if they reached the coast - anywhere along the coast - they would have a good chance of salvation. His eyes watered from the petrol fumes. Only now did he register the explosions of the battered exhaust and his intoxicated reason misinterpreted them. Were they being fired at? he wondered, but with little alarm, as if an ambush were not a threat but a mere inconvenience. While the lorry was driving round a bend on the road, a little light came through the crack of the hatch and the dust in the carriage sparkled. Outside, the vultures circled the walking soldiers and croaked impatiently.

'I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys. I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.'

The brigade had been on the move since dawn. What time was it? Brigadier Nestor only knew it was daytime, it was hot and they were still in the desert. How long ago had they entered this maze? Had he been sober he could have answered, but his memory had now been swallowed by the quicksand of the morphia. On the horizon whirlwinds of dust shot upwards. The old officer coughed; his eyes grew heavy and he dropped back on his cot.

'I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the shittah tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree; I will set in the desert the fir tree, and the pine, and the box tree together.'

The reciting voice became distant and the brigadier sank slowly into a dreamless sleep.

In August the waiting had been over. That morning the sun had risen red and ominous to inaugurate the fateful day. Under the sun the line of the horizon had appeared gradually, like a line made of sympathetic ink, and soon the rest of the Anatolian steppe was revealed, an endless plateau interrupted by a few hills, shrubs of myrtle and ancient ruins. Then it began. The artillery barrage, thundering like an untimely storm, had signalled the beginning of the enemy offensive. The guns had pounded the trenches long enough for the soldiers to think that the gunners were set on levelling the hills and opening new gorges and caves in the prehistoric landscape. The batteries had ceased fire and shortly, from the pall of smoke, the infantry had emerged. There were ten divisions at the front and the soldiers came in waves behind their bayonets, panting. They ran across the barren plain, up the fortified hills, and neither "the barbed wire nor the machine guns could stop them. The dead piled up in the gullies that ran down the hills, but more men came until one after another every stronghold was overwhelmed.

Brigadier Nestor had been in bed when the offensive had begun. The evening before he had attended a dance at a nearby town that had continued well into the night. It had been a pleasant soirée. He had welcomed the invitation, presented to him by the president of the local social club, for the long uneventfulness on the front had also caused a stalemate in his disposition. For sure, he had strong views about the situation and had made these known to his superiors: namely, that the present inactivity was not prolonging peace but increasing the likelihood of a great disaster. But for some time his frustration, like that of many other officers and soldiers, had given way to a fatalistic apathy. Accordingly, at the dance, when ambushed by a cheerful group of educated ladies and prosperous merchants, he had refused to discuss the status quo, saying only that in his opinion the front line was the sharp edge of a knife stuck into the enemy's side, and those who believed that there could be peace without it being carefully removed were deluding themselves. That evening he had devoted most of his energies to the plundering of the inexhaustible buffet, and only after midnight, when the brass band had played Rosen aus dem Süden, had he allowed himself to yield to the pleas of a luminous young beauty and had made the brave, for a man of his age, decision to dance in the rapid Viennese style. That waltz was still ringing in his ears when the enemy bombardment began at dawn.

It was all over in two days. On the barren landscape now lay decomposing bodies, abandoned garrisons and telegraph poles with cut wires. What remained of the army split into lawless units that ignored their leaders' orders and fled for their lives. The war in Asia Minor had been lost. In the whirlpool of the defeat Brigadier Nestor's decimated unit, less than a thousand men, had preserved its discipline and was trying to find a way out of the maze and to reach the sea. They had to avoid contact with the enemy; they had been travelling for days, changing direction every time they suspected an ambush ahead, but there had been no sight of the coast as yet. Furthermore, communication with General Headquarters had been lost, and many suspected that the rest of the Expeditionary Corps had by now evacuated the peninsula.

In any case, Brigadier Nestor refused to raise the white flag.

The first thing the brigadier did when he awoke was to hide the syringe under his cot. It was late afternoon and the column had halted. There was the snorting of horses outside and the occasional clop of a shod hoof on stone. Brigadier Nestor sat back and crossed his hands over his belly. He felt contented, even though he knew well that his emotions were only due to the generosity of the morphia - he had grown to accept its effect without shame. After a while he sat up and with a bayonet attempted to open a sealed cigar box. He was still struggling when a younger officer climbed into the lorry and gave a casual salute. His uniform was caked with dust, his kepi was missing its cockade and a towel was tucked into its back to cover the nape of his neck. Brigadier Nestor looked fleetingly at his subordinate - it was enough for his eyes to register their disapproval of the man's beard.

'It's you, Porfirio - I mistook you for Don Quixote.'

His Chief of Staff wiped his face on his cuff. Through the open hatch the sand of the desert blew in, settling on the blankets, the maps, the smoking coffee pot on the stove. With his face clean the major looked much younger.

'Is it time?' the brigadier asked.

The radio-telegraph was in a corner, next to the old bicycle that drove its magneto. Without replying, Major Porfirio sat on the seat and began to pedal with a burdensome sense of duty. He looked like someone arriving for a long but uncomplicated shift - a night porter or a watchman. The rear wheel, kept an inch above the floor, was set in motion with a hissing sound. There was a certain desperation in the task, which was supplemented perfectly by the assortment of dusty utensils, the small stove, the table with the yellowed maps.

For the next hour Brigadier Nestor sent messages and waited for a reply, but the only thing he heard in the headphones was electromagnetic noise. He gave up with a shrug of his shoulders; his Chief of Staff wiped his forehead and stopped pedalling. They had failed again. For the past week they had been trying to contact General Headquarters, but the only replies they received were a message from the enemy calling on them to surrender or face total annihilation and a prayer to St Varvara keyed by the operator of the wireless on board a Greek cargo ship nearing Suez. The brigadier sighed and poured two coffees. As soon as he took a sip he grimaced.

'Unsweetened coffee could have been the punishment of Sisyphus,' he said.

He had awakened that morning to discover that the tin with the sugar had disappeared. At first he had suspected his orderly, but according to several witnesses the boy had spent the night in the infirmary, recovering from a snakebite. Brigadier Nestor threw his hands in the air: Major Porfirio raised his eyebrows. The mystery had caused the old man a disproportionate glumness - one might have thought the fate of the sugar concerned him more than that of the brigade itself.

'A breakdown of discipline. If only I knew who had stolen it.'

He set his cup on the floor and took the cigar box in his hands again. On its lid was the picture of an African wearing a fez, with smoke coming out of his ears. The brigadier tried to break the seal again with the bayonet. It slipped and cut his finger, the box hit the metal floor with a dull sound and the old officer set to sucking his finger. At his feet the caricature of the African stared at him. Brigadier Nestor felt his disposition balance on a tightrope. The major lifted up the box, took a switchblade from his pocket and worked its tip into the groove of the seal. When at last he heard the metal break, the brigadier let out a sigh of relief and welcomed the scent of tobacco. For a while the two men smoked.

'I miss reading the papers,' said the brigadier.

'There would be nothing to read. When the situation took a turn for the worse, they started printing the old stories with the names and dates changed.'

Brigadier Nestor agreed that the heavy censorship had affected the quality of the news. But any newspaper would still be better than none at all. He shoved his hand under his cot and revealed a large leather tome. The spine read Lexicon of Greek and Roman Myths in fading letters. In its thick creased pages several lines had been underlined by a passionate hand. He closed the book and tapped the burgundy cover with his finger.

'A most pleasurable read. The padre is incensed that I know more of this by heart than the Bible.'

The major glanced at the heavy book. Behind the desk the rusty bicycle stood like a relic of old, carefree times. At that moment the experience of pleasure felt to the officer like a very distant memory. He put out his cigar, hid it in his pocket and spread a map over his knees. He ran his hand across the gridlines, then stopped and rubbed the nape of his neck.

'Well,' he announced. 'We're lost.'

His commanding officer received the news without surprise.

'There is always the possibility of divine intervention.'

A bird's cry came from afar, sounding like a curse. Feeling queasy from the heat, Major Porfirio put down his cup.

'I didn't like this campaign from the start,' he said.

The brigadier closed his eyes.

'Discipline is needed now more than ever, major.'

The major let his eyes wander from the kettle on the stove to the envelopes strewn across the floor, to the leather belt with the holstered revolver that hung from a crossbar of the roof of the lorry. Brigadier Nestor sneezed.

'The dust is giving me an allergy ... Naturally, I understand your disappointment - under the circumstances.' He took a deep breath and summoned the last reserves of his optimism. 'But rest assured this story is not over. Now we are down - but.'

The major went back to studying the map.

'Not to mention our Christian brothers here in Anatolia,' continued his superior. 'They shall need our help again.'

The brigadier tapped his boot on the floor. The morphia had unearthed a rare eloquence in him - he felt as if he were not sitting on his cot but standing on a marble plinth. He looked a few inches above the major's head, to the past.

'Once there was an empire, major"

The younger officer arched his eyebrows. 'An empire?'

'The Byzantine Empire.'

'A long time ago, brigadier.'

Brigadier Nestor raised his forefinger.

'History is what happens over centuries - not yesterday.'

He gulped his coffee. The sun was setting and he asked for his greatcoat. Through the open hatch he watched a scudding cloud with a castaway's expression. He took the terminal puff on his cigar and savoured the mentholated smoke.

'This cigar is not bad. But the coffee tastes like my mother-in-law.'

He handed over his cup and cracked the joints of his fingers. The drug had afforded him its brief windfall and was now receding - if only he could maintain that feeling a little longer ... Brigadier Nestor tried to recall the time he had no need of the services of chemistry, but it was like trying to remember how it had once felt being a boy. His subordinate poured the remains of both cups back in the pot. 'Any orders?' he asked.

The miracle of the morphia was evaporating.


Excerpted from THE MAZE by Panos Karnezis Copyright © 2004 by Panos Karnezis. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Historical Note..........................ix
Part One: The Desert.....................7
Part Two: The Town.......................145
Part Three: The Sea......................321

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