We Are Made of Earth

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‘Visceral, heartbreaking stuff… realistic and thoughtful.’—The Observer

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Panos Karnezis is widely regarded as ‘the leading Greek novelist of his generation, and one of Europe’s most distinguished storytellers’ (Irish Times). His latest novel transports us to a remote Mediterranean island where both the tragedy and the comedy of human weakness are acted out.

This timely story of refugee arrival on a foreign shore opens when an overcrowded dinghy capsizes at sea. A doctor is among the refugees thrown overboard. In the panic, he saves one life and condemns another. The doctor and the boy he saves—the only witness to the crime—wash up on a tiny Greek island where they are offered shelter by the owner of a small travelling circus. Debt-ridden, the circus owner has just one asset: an Asian elephant, far from her natural habitat but lovingly tended by the owner’s wife even as she mourns their young daughter.

As the two refugees, man and boy, await an endlessly deferred ferry to continue their journey, the displaced elephant becomes both symbolic and substantial, and the unfortunate catalyst for precisely the kinds of misunderstandings and misinterpretations that regularly drown lives.

From the heart-in-mouth opening scene to its melancholy ending, We Are Made of Earth is a skilled blend of seductive linguistic simplicity and luminous moral depth. With Karnezis’ trademark details ‘catching like splinters in that part of the imagination that responds to pure storytelling’ (Times Literary Supplement), this is a timeless story of connection and disorientation as well as a profound comment on the emotional cost of peace and security.

Irish Times

8 January 2020

Panos Karnezis is possibly the leading Greek novelist of his generation, and one of Europe’s most distinguished storytellers.

His early novels, with Greek backgrounds, explored themes in his native culture such as disorientation, hope, fear and greed, which he has more recently transposed to a wider canvas. The Maze centered on the emotions aroused by the rout of the Greek army in Turkish Anatolia in 1922. The Birthday Party exposed the fears of an Onassis-type tycoon. But The Convent was set in Spain, and The Fugitives was laid in Latin America (the Mission territory, both physically and metaphysically). Each of them examines human weaknesses and strengths when confronted with challenges that seem to be sent by God from hell.

In We are Made of Earth he takes us, perhaps irresistibly, to the current refugee crisis and, although his location is dystopian, it can be readily imagined as a remote Greek island on which both the tragedy and the comedy of human weakness are acted out.

The main players—until the huge influx of refugees in the last part of the story—are a doctor, Mokdad, and a young boy, Jamil, possibly Syrian or Afghan, arriving on the island after surviving the wreck of their boat, only to be greeted, somewhat bizarrely, by an Asian elephant called Shanti (meaning ‘peace’), the star of a defunct circus with a horrible resemblance to the situation in Brian Friel’s Crystal and Fox. Their interplay with the circus owners is set against the island itself, a gradually intensifying drama that is catalysed by the sudden arrival of hundreds of similar refugees.

The developing relationship between the doctor, the boy and the circus owner and his wife, each with their own secret agenda, is subtly and compassionately drawn. In fact it is Karnezis’s characteristic compassion which defines a narrative skill which could otherwise become vindictive.

All of them, and the native islanders themselves, are prisoners not only of circumstance, but of necessity and even of choice. Karnezis suggests that it is not only refugees, but those whose hopes have met an unfortunate reality, who (as in Peter Ustinov’s story Frontiers of the Sea) spend their lives ‘staring at the horizon’.

Karnezis examines with both love and cruelty his character’s attitude to fate. The stasis of the drama is contrasted with the determined haste with which the new influx of refugees address their necessity to be elsewhere. These refugees retain some sense of purpose, of destiny, as a means of combatting their current misery, whereas Mokdad, Jamil and the circus people—including Shanti, who becomes a vital personality—pursue a philosophical acceptance of a fate which is always receding, diminishing and, ultimately, evaporating. The boy Jamil, trying to find a way out of the web in which exile and shipwreck have caught him, works out that ‘God belonged to the adult world, which was enough reason to regard Him with suspicion’.

The ‘realities’ of the current crisis between Greece and Turkey, with mostly Syrian refugees caught between them, intrudes slightly into Karnezis’s narrative. He presents us with the stark contrast between Mokdad, the doctor, before and after: ‘Educated, well off, he had been esteemed, and now this: nameless, homeless, an alien, an intruder’.

But it is not the principal point of the story. His intention, as it is in The Maze, is not to depict or predict history, but to calmly assess the damage provoked by expectations, the pathos elicited by passion deferred, and the sheer meaningless of life when context and hinterland are removed. ‘A person had no fixed qualities. It all depended on the circumstances’.

Karnezis, as a superb storyteller, leaves us with not one, but two, vicious twists of his plot in the last chapter. And he has the ability to catch us unawares in the self-reflections of his characters. The circus owner, reduced to absolutely nothing by the death of his elephant, decides ‘You could not avoid making bad decisions if you wanted to be in charge of your own life’—a reassuring view for some, no doubt. Meanwhile his wife, having sex with Mokdad, ‘felt neither unease nor passion, but the calm conviction that she was setting herself free from grief’. She was, Karnezis tells us, ‘easy to hurt, like everyone, an open wound’. It is the fact that Karnezis can tell us this and yet reconcile us to those wounds and that woundedness, that marks him as both a sensitive and an honest observer. This is a fine addition to Karnezis’s already impressive list.

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Stevie Davies, The Guardian

9 January 2020
The epigraph to Karnezis’s celebrated short story collection, Little Infamies (2003), quoted CP Cavafy: unforeseen disaster “suddenly, violently, descends upon us ... sweeps us away”. Somewhere between novel and novella, We Are Made of Earth is Karnezis’s most perfect exposition of this theme. A dinghy full of refugees capsizes. A desperate man who can’t swim grasps a doctor; won’t let go. Enraged, the doctor frees himself, before impulsively ripping off the man’s life jacket, flinging it out of reach. Everyone drowns except him and a boy he elects to save. Though when the boy says, “The life-jacket. I saw you”, and latches on to him like a nemesis, the doctor regrets his compassion. The theme of the compulsive crime, committed by a civilised person for reasons beyond his comprehension, drives the story. The doctor, Mokdad, and the lad, Jamil, reach a small Greek island, where “from among the trees an Asian elephant was shyly looking at them”. The creature belongs to a circus whose owner, Damianos, and wife, Olga the elephant keeper, offer them hospitality. If we expect the circus to provide an element of the carnivalesque, we are mistaken. The elephant is displaced, stranded, forsaken, like everyone else. Damianos, whose business has failed, faces bankruptcy on the mainland if he leaves the island: the elephant is his sole, precious commodity. Mokdad will abuse Damianos’s hospitality. Conflicted, guilt-stained, mired in equivocation, he seeks an inaccessible atonement, inspiring the reader’s painful pity. Who is meant by “we” in We Are Made of Earth? The word encompasses all mortals in the continuum of creaturely life: refugees, islanders, elephant, birds – and ourselves, the readers. Karnezis’s novel has the universalising succinctness, moral complexity and ironic force of the greatest novellas. Disaster looms in the seed ofevery phrase – and yet its tone is neutral, distanced, and the dark narrative is spellbinding. The doctor is a decent, damaged man. Olga, also good-hearted and wounded, punishes her elephant. Just as at sea the doctor “wondered whether anyone had seen what he had done”, so Olga, thrusting a sharp stick into tender flesh in a paroxysm of rage, cannot “explain to herself why she had done it. She would tell no one.” Secret visceral action betrays the spirit of all we are. We break a taboo. Then the taboo breaks us.
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NB magazine, 4/4 stars

11 November 2019
There’s more that unites us than separates us and that’s one of the things I will take away from this novel. Under the skin, away from the politics and economics, the societal constructs, we all have the same basic desires and when it comes to it the same basic right to try to make a better life for ourselves and those we love. We all want human contact and when we grieve, it may seem like we are alone but it comes from the same well of sadness we all dip into. So We Are Made of Earth deals in universal themes that hit home but the tone of his novel is quite light. Compassion shines out in Karnezis’ new novel. He is addressing the global refugee crisis in his own inimitable style, this is the story of a married European couple, two people with their own problems who find common ground with two refugees, a man and a boy who have suffered too. The relationships highlight how much we are alike in our humanity; anger, mistrust, generosity of spirit, and love. These are people trying to make the best of their lot in life, these are nuanced characters. Karnezis is holding a mirror up to European society and it’s reaction to the humanitarian catastrophe and looking at why refugees put themselves through the most arduous, terrifying and dangerous journeys to seek a better life. We can’t afford as a society to harden our hearts to the plight of others, for our own good as much as theirs, we are all made of clay. In this novel some people demonstrate no fellow feeling while some rise above the mire, we should remember: We Are Made of Earth. The heart-rending opening to this novel puts the reader in the boat with a group of refugees. It’s a powerful exploration of their anxiety and pain, all hell is about to break loose. Karnezis is an original and intriguing storyteller, after the disaster the tone of the novel shifts from the horror of a sinking boat and death in the vast lonely sea to the tale of the two people, a man and a boy, who arrive on an island. Beguiling, charming prose draws the reader into the complex unhappy lives of four people seeking something in each other, but are the connections lasting or a temporary despite from real life? It’s almost subversive the way you are shifted from grief to hope but are always aware there is tragedy ahead, the world can be a harsh place. It begins with the boat: The refugee boat was little more than a dinghy at sea for several hours now. The passengers are anxious, restless, there’s still no sign of land. The traffickers promised they would reach an islands in a couple of hours. They should be there by now. Then the weather turns: “Men cursed, women prayed, children cried.” Someone suggested using the sun to navigate a course, they must stay calm, there is no point in attacking each other, the men who lied to them are not here. Mokdad underestimated the weather at sea, his clothes are too light and he has little else in his rucksack. The weather worsens, the boat is tossed mercilessly, everyone clings tight to each other, to the vessel. They only met on the beach waiting to board, they all have their own stories of the journey to the coast. Mokdad is a doctor, a worried tailor with an orange life jacket who can’t swim asks Mokdad to mind him. The engine dies, the men begin to row but the weather is against them. At dusk they loose the sun and the ability to navigate. The waves turn the boat over, the passengers are cast into the sea, some sink other drift off and then sink. Mokdad sees his rucksack in the water, it’s all he has, he will need it in Europe. He swims towards it, but he catches sight of the tailor, even with the life jacket the man is panicking, drowning. Mokdad abandons the bag, swims to the man but his increasing panic threatens them both. Mokdad witnesses two girls go under, they don’t come back up, it will be a long night. With perseverance, courage, and luck Mokdad survives with a young boy, Jamil. Jamil has lost his mother and sisters. Finally they make land desperate, hungry, thirsty. They share a secret, a bond. Damionos and his wife Olga own a circus, or at least they did, now they own a few rag-tag animals and a collection of rusty caravans. Ranjanya, a Bengal tiger, is loaded onto a ship, sold cheaply, they badly need the money. The captain tells Damionos of the possessions floating in the sea, the remains of a refugee crossing. Nothing to do but radio it in and move on. The shipping agent turns down Damionos for a loan again, the creditors are circling. Damionos and Olga talk but don’t connect, it soon becomes apparent that the couple are grieving the loss of a child. The circus owner is a generous man despite his own troubles, he finds the two survivors when searching for the elephant, he takes them in and gives them a home. The married couple and the refugees become friends and the attempts of the Mokdad and Jamil to leave for the mainland never quite come off. New refugees arrive on the island and, as the relationship between the two refugees and Damionos and his wife develops, tragedy looms. They all share a sense of loss, a suspicion, motives are misunderstood, trust is hard to establish and there is the constant pressure around them from those who view the refugees with suspicion and hostility. The opening of the novel is a tragedy that is played out across the Mediterranean nearly every day of the year now. For all those who make it to Europe many more drown. Often they leave no one behind, they are expunged from the record forever. Karnezis’ story stirs the emotion, the anger and sadness, and empathy for refugees. He has a way of telling a story that feels grounded and flighty at the same time, not exactly surreal but just a little bit off kilter, both entertaining and hard hitting. Melancholic, loaded with pathos this is a gripping read, perhaps it is also an important one. Paul Burke 4/4
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The Observer

23 September 2019
The refugee experience is becoming the story of our times, and Karnezis’s harrowing opening featuring a capsized dinghy adrift at sea, drowning children and, in the end, just two survivors is visceral, heartbreaking stuff. What happens next is odd but initially charming – the doctor and young boy reach a Greek island and are taken in by a small travelling circus that has a wounded elephant. The developing love story and reassuring humanity seems to point We Are Made of Earth in one direction, before Karnezis cleverly and surprisingly pulls away from making this a happy-ever-after tale in favour of something far more realistic and thoughtful.

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