(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Panos Karnezis’ lovely novel The Maze is a story of despair, loss of faith, madness, addiction, and treachery that conveys the absurd heroism of a military disaster. The disaster comes three years after a Greek military force has attacked and occupied western Anatolia (Turkey) to protect the ethnic Greek population there, which first colonized the area in classical times. Nationalist Turkish forces mustered from the collapsed Ottoman Empire eventually stop and crush the attack. The focus of the novel is on a retreating Greek brigade of a thousand soldiers and later an unnamed, Greek-dominated town near the Aegean Sea coast. Despite hardship, crumbling discipline, and a haunting war memory, the brigade, accompanied by the Greek townsfolk, reach the sea and safety; by the time they do so, it is clear that the last vestige of Greek's colonial empire and ancient civilization is leaving with them. An epoch is ended. Karnezis does not leave things at that, however. He uses the love story of two naïfs and an idealistic medic to hint at what kinds of bonds will replace traditional Western culture.

Just as the original Greek colonization of Turkey occurred in the age of myth, so does Karnezis try to give his plot a mythlike aura. Aside from allusions to specific ancient myths, the techniques he uses are, for the most part, stylistic. He has a vividly imagistic style, and he focuses on objects and scenery that recall the distant Hellenic past, such as an ancient temple destroyed by the brigade to make a defensive fortification, or that underscore the long Greek presence in Turkey, such as architectural style and clothing. Karnezis’ prose is also sonorous and slow-paced, which help sustain the grave, deliberative tone of the book.

The chief technique, however, comes in his handling of the characters. They never are given complete names. Either the name is formal and suitable to the person's station in life—such as Brigadier Nestor and Mr. Othon, for the professional class and simply first names for servants—or no name is given at all, only an occupation—mayor, medic, cook, war correspondent. This restrained particularity has two effects. Its sets the major characters in sharp contrast with the minor characters, a quality of heroic literature, and it makes the major characters sound as if they are equivalent to the legendary figures in ancient histories, such as those by Herodotus or Xenophon.

The impression is reinforced by Karnezis’ fondness for leaving the reader guessing at the beginning of a chapter or section of a chapter about the character being discussed: He uses pronouns alone until the subject finally becomes obvious (or the reader is on the point of complete confusion). The suspension of naming injects the characterizations with a tantalizing bit of mystery. Moreover, only a few soldiers and civilians appear in the story, and the focus on them highlights character development rather than narrative action.

With all this emphasis upon characterization, the reader infers that the characters represent types, or ideas, rather than simply individuals, and that is the case. The principal character is Brigadier Nestor, commander of the retreating Greek column. Like his namesake in Homer's Iliad(c. 725 b.c.e.), he is an old man who represents tradition. He is among the leaders in the expeditionary force, which is intended to save Greek towns from mistreatment by Turkish nationalists. He is also something of an amateur scholar, and his passion is ancient myth. An able tactician, he has foreseen the futility of the campaign, and after the collapse of the Greek front, he leads his troops through the desert toward the sea and evacuation, seemingly against all hope.

Nestor is also a deeply flawed character, and each flaw hints at something troubling about the civilization he loves. He has lost his wife and is in despair because of it. This despair, coupled with the infirmities of age, drives him to use morphine to remain calm and sane; he is an addict, although he refuses to admit it. His fierce adherence to the past—the myths of Greek culture and his personal history—gives his heroic struggles an air of decay and obsolescence. During the course of the novel, a further cause of torment is revealed: The brigadier ordered a massacre of the people in the town that helped the enemy adjust artillery fire against his troops, a barbarity that belies Greek humanistic values.

Moreover, Nestor is tormented by two internal challenges...

(The entire section is 1829 words.)