The Birthday Party
By Panos Karnezis
Jonathan Cape ₤12.99, 272 pages
FT bookshop price: ₤10.39
Panos Karnezis’ first novel, The Maze, told the story of the retreat across Anatolia of a bedraggled Greek army at the end of the war against Turkey in 1922. Early in Karnezis’ new book, The Birthday Party, we see the same sorry expeditionary force in ignominious flight from the Anatolian port of Izmir.
Karnezis describes this spectacle from the point of view of Marco Timoleon, an 18-year-old Greek-speaking inhabitant of Izmir. Timoleon watches as the General, who had commandeered his family home in the early days of the Greek invasion, rides on to the quayside bandaged and held up in his saddle by ropes “like a sad wooden effigy”. The General’s pitiful appearance is a metaphor for the end of Greece’s dream of domination in the eastern Mediterranean and also for the end of a chapter in Timoleon’s life.
Abandoned some years earlier by his father, after the Greek retreat Timoleon decides to leave for a new life in South America. Packed to the gunwales with desperate immigrants from old Europe, the ship carrying Timoleon south is the crucible both of his business acumen (he wangles his way into a first-class cabin) and a “wild imagination” that will come to “blur the line between fantasy and reality”.
These complications of memory and imagination are a central theme of the novel. The episodes in Izmir and the mid-Atlantic, along with several others, are told in flashback.
The narrative present of the book is 1975, by which time Timoleon is a fabulously wealthy shipping magnate (with a decided, and presumably deliberate, resemblance to Aristotle Onassis). The birthday party of the title is a celebration he is organising for his daughter Sofia. Timoleon tells stories of his past to a young Englishman named Ian Forster, whom he has hired to write his biography. In the middle of one of these tales, the narrative voice warns the reader that the older man’s flights of fancy would later cause Forster “countless headaches” when researching his book.
Forster also plays an important role in the novel’s main plot line. He has been having an affair with Sofia, who, it turns out, is pregnant. Timoleon knows this and plans to coerce Sofia into having an abortion, using the occasion of her birthday as cover.
This makes Timoleon sound like a vengeful Mafioso from The Godfather, a film he watches repeatedly and obsessively. But Karnezis is careful not to allow The Birthday Party to degenerate into lurid melodrama. His real interest is in the exploration of the inner life of his protagonist, and he deploys his considerable rhetorical powers to this end. For instance, the insomniac Timoleon is described as enjoying the “brief truce” of the small hours – a lovely metaphor, and powerful too, for it reminds us that this is a man who lives his life as if it were a battle. Echoes of this ripple throughout the book, in references to Timoleon’s “fighting spirit” and in his wife’s decision to hire a divorce lawyer who specialises in war reparations. Such careful and subtle patterning confirms Karnezis as a novelist of unusual gifts.