A man and a boy, sole survivors of an inflatable boat full of refugees, wash up on a remote and unnamed Greek island. Before long they come upon the incongruous sight of a grazing elephant. It turns out the animal belongs to a circus which is stranded on the island due to its owner’s debts, but the owner still takes the strangers in and gives them food and shelter.
The boy, Jamil, who has lost his family at sea, dotes on the man, Mokdad, who has saved him. Mokdad feels responsible for the boy, but dislikes him and keeps him at arm’s length. The circus owners are, in a way, immigrants themselves—or, at least, aliens on the island—but still manage to provide for the strangers out of their meager means.
When more refugees arrive on the island, Mokdad avoids them, even though they are compatriots who speak his language. He feels guilt about having fled his country, and about an incident that happened at sea.
This slim volume, written by Greek-born author Panos Karnezis, deals in a terse but evocative manner with themes of alienation, hospitality (philoxenia, as it is called in Greek, being the antithesis of xenophobia), life and death decisions, courage and cowardice. Nothing is as it seems at first, and yet the novel brims with compassion. None of the characters are particularly likeable; even the child seems strangely unaffected by the death of his family. In fact the most likeable character, to me, is the elephant, who is also a migrant in an alien land, but is totally innocent. She is sad and lonely, but ever dignified, and makes us care the most about her fate.
The narrative is spellbinding. The physical details of the island are described sparsely but so evocatively that, for a Greek at least, they ring vividly true. As does the difficulty humans feel in connecting with each other.
Karnezis was born in Greece in 1967, and came to England in 1992 to study engineering. After working in industry, he studied for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. His first book, Little Infamies (2002), was a collection of connected short stories set in a nameless Greek village. This is his fifth.
Karnezis is a brilliant storyteller, and this book will stay with you for days after you’ve turned the last page. Its theme is a very current one, but he deals with it in a delicate and original way. Highly recommended.