In his choice of subject matter Panos Karnezis often seems to be channelling Louis De Bernières. So far he has covered rural Greece (Little Infamies), Anatolian tensions (The Maze), and his latest novel The Fugitives takes place in an unspecified Latin American country. Although that’s as far as the similarities go this time, as the main theme is religious rather than political.
Father Thomas is an English priest who has spent years on a missionary posting in the jungle, introducing the Indians to ‘Hesuklisto’. He spends much of his time in a remote village accessible only by donkey, and finds himself increasingly involved in the villagers’ struggle against ‘squatters’ who are steadily burning the forest for land, a leopard who threatens the villagers and their animals, and the impending obsolescence of their way of life. Even the head villager’s son wants to abandon the village.
“The man picked up the rag he used to clean the gun and squeezed it until his fingers dripped with oil. He had taken the boy along to the town once. He had wanted him to see how unhappy and cold and friendless the people were over there, but instead the boy had been fascinated by the music and the cars and the shops that served hot food. The Indian wished he had not done it.”
Meanwhile Father Thomas battles with loss of faith and incurs the displeasure of the Bishop for failing to forbid the Indians from worshipping their own gods.
Written with an air of pastiche, the style is reminiscent of magic realism, so much so that I kept expecting something weird to happen. But it never did. Instead there is a rather dark tale of human greed and the struggle for dominance between different religions. The Fugitives attacks the seamier side of Catholicism, as did Karnezis’ last novel The Convent, this time daring to venture a bit further along the path towards heresy.
Karnezis has been criticised in the past for his straightforward English, and there are no sophisticated linguistic gimmicks here, but still the storytelling just works. Yes, there are details that you could pick at (the priest does not seem very English sometimes) but this reader was sufficiently captivated not to care.
Any Cop?: Judging by the lack of critical interest shown in this book, it seems I might be the only one to hold this opinion, but I really enjoyed it. Neatly constructed, subtle commentary and understated hilarity. Who cares if De Bernieres has been there before?