Panos Karnezis’s new novel The Birthday Party is a re-imagination of the life of Aristotle Onassis, the shipping magnate. The book is structured around the events of a single day and night towards the end of the tycoon’s life, though the bulk of the text is made up of deftly interleaved backstory. The storytelling method is straight-forward on the verge of simplistic, with an omniscient narrator. Being used to far more murky and intricate approaches, I found myself wondering if some passages were in fact intended as naïvistic parody. The only metafictional twist I’ve detected is that one of the characters is a writer working on an authorised biography of the rich man. He is an Englishman in Greece, while The Birthday Party has been written by a Greek in England.
One thing I missed was a richer backdrop of chronological and topical reference points tying the story to the post-war history of our own or some alternative world. As it is, the narrative kind of floats in a timeless and anonymous late 20th century, where the only things and people mentioned by name are Karnezis’s fictional creations.
I know next to nothing about Onassis, and I have little doubt that the book is packed with in-jokes obvious to the knowledgeable reader. Yet Karnezis kept my interest adequately stoked, mainly through a conflict introduced early in the book (and set out in the back-cover blurb) whose resolution he withholds until the final pages. The tone of the writing is detached and suave, the style austere. And that is my main complaint: hardly anything in the novel is exciting or engaging or challenging, be it emotionally or intellectually. This book will not affect your blood pressure.
Karnezis, Panos. 2007. The Birthday Party. London: Cape. 264 pp. ISBN 987-0224-07932-7.
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