(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Panos Karnezis’s Little Infamies is an impressive literary debut. Its nineteen short stories concern an isolated Greek village and its eccentric, squabbling, grasping inhabitants. Through the little infamies they visit on one another, and their brushes with the people outside the village, the reader witnesses the decline and destruction of the community. Karnezis, however, studiously tries to make the book about more than one simple, pathetic village. By leaving it unnamed, by referring to many of the villagers by their occupations or nicknames, and by leaving the time of the stories vague, he generalizes the village and offers it as a symbol: Its demise at the end of the book represents the end of localized culture under the modern, technocratic state, the fall of distinctive rural character before the juggernaut of national progress.

Karnezis supplies so few specifics about the village that it becomes as much as an idea as a place. The reader infers that it is in Greece from a couple of short quotations in the Greek alphabet and that most of the stories take place in the 1950’s and 1960’s from references to the Korean War and various new consumer items like television. The village has a church, an array of specialty shops, a police station, a railroad depot, a town square, and fewer than fifty houses in the small valley where it lies. Beyond that, little is clearly described except for the hardscrabble landscape and impoverished farms and olive orchards. Moreover, in the first story, “A Funeral of Stones,” local time appears to come to a standstill. An earthquake breaks the only public clocks in town, and the villagers elect not to have them repaired. They freeze their own present and, as a consequence, exile themselves from the time observed by the rest of the nation.

If the setting is vague, the characters are vivid. They are the village as much as are the buildings, and in resting the focus almost wholly on them, Karnezis produces a documentary of a mini-culture in brief, loosely connected episodes, many grotesque, some funny in their absurdity, some nearly tragic. There is a long literary tradition behind this sort of fiction—Sherwood Anderson’sWinesburg, Ohio (1919) or Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915), for example—but unlike similar books, Little Infamies regularly shifts the point of view and avoids letting any character appear to be a protagonist or spokesperson. Thereby Karnezis goes well beyond simply exposing the narrow, ingrown pettiness of small-town life. He nearly manages to make that narrow pettiness seem heroic.

The stories are thought-provoking. The convoluted plots often lead readers to false expectations, which are reversed deftly and, sometimes, movingly. This technique is not just a way to create snappy surprise endings, however; through it, the author lets readers know again and again that they do not think as his characters do, that there is a culture gap.

The first and longest story, “A Funeral of Stones,” is also the most perplexing. The story opens as an earthquake shakes the village. The cemetery sees especially macabre damage: Coffins are unearthed and corpses exposed. In reburying them, the village priest, Father Yerasimo, discovers a child’s coffin that contains small heart-shaped stones instead of a body. The priest is a self-righteous, venal, hypocritical old man, but he is still the village’s spiritual caretaker. Angered by the deception, he vows to solve the mystery of the stones.

It turns out that he is almost the only villager not to know the truth. Years before, a young farm woman died while giving birth to twin girls. Her husband, maddened by the loss, avenges it by raising the twins as beasts, after having faked their deaths (hence, the stone-filled coffin). They grow up unclothed in a dark cellar, nearly speechless, and are forced to do lewd tricks for the amusement of villagers. At age eleven, they escape, and an itinerant animal merchant takes them in. In her care they develop into intelligent, beautiful women who yet have untamed emotions. When one day they inadvertently discover the intense pleasure of revenge, they vow to avenge the misery of their childhood by punishing...

(The entire section is 1725 words.)