The Convent

A convent in rural Spain around the year 1921 seems, at first glance, to be an unlikely setting for a psychological thriller, but Panos Karnezis's new novel, The Convent , finds hypnotic appeal in just such a place. "Time and damp had scarred the saints in the niches beyond recognition," Karnezis writes of the isolated convent of Our Lady of Mercy, "the worn flagstones shone from thousands of feet having trodden on them over the centuries; the wooden staircases groaned…." Here the statue of a crucified Jesus "[after] four centuries in the damp air of the convent… had turned a dull, almost black colour." Five nuns remain, "…the last survivors of an age that was coming to its end," their only visitor a cleric who arrives periodically to say Mass and to hear confessions.

 

The world of the sisters exudes peaceful decay. Yet the first scene is one of shocking disruption. On the convent steps, a young novice finds a suitcase that contains a living baby. Assessing the infant, the Mother Superior, Sister Maria Ines, betrays little emotion. This does not surprise us; Karnezis has already distilled her nature in a few sentences. "Sometimes she wished that she were with the Carthusians so that she would not have to speak…she still believed that humankind had been given perhaps more intelligence than was necessary."

 

Nevertheless, within hours Sister Maria Ines declares that God has sent her this baby to be raised among the nuns. There are mutinous rumblings, particularly from spiteful Sister Ana, at this spasm of apparent religious lunacy, and an atmosphere of inchoate menace thickens. At the same time, Karnezis cunningly exposes the human drama underlying the mystery. The diocese's worldly Bishop may observe that "…miracles happen very rarely but babies are being abandoned all the time." The truth, however, is more subtle and more complicated. It leads us into the past, first to a crisis in Sister Maria Ines's youth—one that in its perfect desolation could stand alone as a short story—and into the more recent history of a young nun and of the Bishop himself.

 

Each layer of these individual dramas is revealed with delicate economy as the novel's quiet mesmerizing power intensifies. In scenes at times reminiscent of J. G. Farrell's masterpiece The Siege of Krishnapur, Karnezis mingles the immediate and the mystical. "The Mother Superior took her for long walks in the orchard," he writes of the young novice, "and they discussed the creation of the world, how many nails were used to crucify Christ and other important doctrinal matters…." A few pages later, we observe the Mother Superior's pre-dawn routine when "…she would unlock the door of the chapel, light the oil lamps…. inspect the traps baited with chocolate and throw away the dead rats…." And we contemplate Bishop Estrada, a superb creation, as he walks in his palace gardens where "[the] skirt of his cassock was constantly caught in the thorns of rose bushes, leaving behind a trail of perfumed red petals which hours later his deacon had only to follow to find him…."

 

In his astonishing first novel, The Maze, Karnezis brought us inside the minds of doomed Greek soldiers lost in the Anatolian desert in 1922. In The Convent he has created a smaller, but not lesser hallucination.

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