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Panos Karnezis: The Birthday Party

Karnezis’ second novel nominally takes place during a twenty-four hour period, though much of it is taken up with filling in the background of the main character, Marco Timoleon. Timoleon is an Aristotle Onassis-like character, a rich and unscrupulous Greek shipping magnate. He has two children. The youngest, as with Onassis’ youngest son, was killed in a plane crash. Specifically, he was trying to land a sea plane in bad weather and the plane tipped over and he drowned. This took place near his father’s private island and in full view of his father, who was devastated by it. His daughter is called Sofia and the day of the novel is her twenty-fifth birthday, for which her father (to whom she has not spoken for some time) has decided to throw a sumptuous party, flying in guests from all over the world, including Sofia (who lives in Paris) and his estranged second wife, Olivia. Timoleon knows that Sofia is pregnant and disapproves of both the fact that she is pregnant and the father. Sofia, however, does not know that he knows. The main reason for the birthday party is to persuade her to have an abortion, for which he has a doctor and operating theatre all prepared.

As the day proceeds, Karnezis tell us Timoleon’s story. His father, Victor, has worked on the railway that would link the Bosphorus to Mesopotamia. However, he takes an interest in reading the classics and neglects his job for reading. Indeed, it is his love of classics that lead him to meet the lady who will become his wife. She was a teacher and, having run out of books, he goes to her school to borrow some. They marry but she refuses to live out in the wilderness so he gives up his career to become a tobacco merchant in Izmir. They have a son – Marco – but Victor keeps on reading. While Marco is salvaging a ship and repairing it, Victor is running out of books to read. He is devastated and leaves the family, never to return. Once grown up, Marco sets out to make his fortune. He works hard in Buenos Aires, studying the language but, more particularly, becoming a successful if not an honest business man. He soon transfers to New York. He has realised that shipping oil was likely to be successful and gradually built up his shipping empire. He is unscrupulous, ruthless and dishonest. He marries twice, the first marriage to the much younger daughter of another shipping magnate. Father-in-law and son-in-law hate each other. Once Timoleon and his wife fall out, primarily because, as he has affairs, she does too, he will attack his wife by ruining her father.

Timoleon is a man used to getting his own way and that includes his family. If he cannot do so honestly, he will do so dishonestly. Yet he has a few loyal friends. When he arrived in New York, his accent was so strong that he went to an elocution teacher, a former opera singer. She soon became his secretary and then his partner and ends up running most of his business. His doctor, an honest man on the whole, who is being asked to perform the abortion, stands loyally by him through thick and thin. The portrait that Karnezis paints of Timoleon is somewhat stereotyped – ruthless, womaniser, arrogant, charismatic, macho, a weakness for astrology and the like. As it is he that dominates the book, other characters being merely adjuncts to his life, the failure to create a thoroughly original and complex man does tend to detract from this novel. But Karnezis tells a good tale and there are lots of anecdotes about Timoleon to keep the book lively.

Publishing history

First published 2007 by Jonathan Cape