Margarita Karapanou’s “The Sleepwalker”

Reviewed by Valentina Zanca

Image of Margarita Karapanou’s “The Sleepwalker”

Originally published in 1985 after her harrowing fictional debut Kassandra and the Wolf, Karapanou's second novel The Sleepwalker confirmed her reputation as one of Greece's most talented postmodern writers and one of her most imaginative chroniclers of human alienation. Part dystopia part satire, this surreal tale of lost souls, and a dethroned deity, is not so much a murder mystery as it is a murderer's mystery: the reader knows who is killing the islanders, but is left to wonder about the killer’s motives and real identity.â�¨ â�¨

The novel starts with an embittered God who, disappointed by the "small and ridiculous" human beings who put pleasure and beauty above Law, vomits a new Messiah onto an unnamed Greek island (clearly modeled after a real island in the Aegean Sea, Hydra). Emmanuel, as the Messiah is called, is a blond and strikingly handsome police officer who goes by the name Manolis; this Manolis is the murderer whose killings set the novel’s plot in motion. He is the savior men deserve, "made in their image and likeness." The islanders "adore" this beautiful cop—and particularly so the members of the island's eccentric community of bohemian expats, who worship beauty above all things.

Nearly all of these artists are suffering from a lack of creativity. They came to the island to find inspiration, but the island has betrayed them. "A prison smothered in flowers," the island is blindingly, flawlessly beautiful: it stifles inspiration rather than fuelling it. As one character, a devotee of Cioran, puts it: "would Kafka ever have written his Metamorphosis if he'd been smacked in the face with a view like that every morning?" The novelist Luka keeps repeating to herself "I have to write," but her hand seems paralyzed. To Mark, a gifted painter who can only turn out images of headless boys, the island is an infernal place: "this must be what hell is like . . . to have the same beauty constantly before you so your eye can never rest on anything ugly or plain." He used to draw the island incessantly and under his strokes the place would be born again. However, the harmony of the artist and his surroundings has ceased, and the island is now empty and full of frustrated ambitions.

In Karapanou's world, art brings neither redemption nor joy. In the words of the newly minted Messiah, "the island is full of writers . . . They all come here and drive themselves crazy, this one can't write, that one can't stop, they all go nuts in the end." What drives artists insane is their hubristic presumption to be able to capture man's fleeting emotions on paper (or canvas) and endow them with enduring significance. However, the artists fail because human feelings are transient and impossible to gauge. Through her blood-thirsty, tortured Manolis, Karapanou is tipping her cards: her writing repudiates any facile pretence of "realism." Instead it represents a wild celebration of the imagistic and the absurd. Karapanou’s writing style is fragmentary and cinematic, each chapter an almost self-contained vignette. She favors striking images (often laden with symbols) over psychological analysis. She deftly moves between opposite registers—the slapstick and the tragic live side by side in the same paragraph, and sometimes even the same sentence. This multifaceted tone is masterly conveyed by Karen Emmerich’s fluent and vibrant translation, which also enhances the almost electric, centrifugal quality of Karapanou’s sentences. The plot may at times seems disjointed and puzzling, yet her writing has a haunting, mesmerizing quality and a brutal, seductive power that keeps the reader engrossed to the very last line. And rather than looking dispersing or unnecessary, the fragmentary nature of the book acts as a vortex that sucks its readers in and allows them to experience the same disorientation and bewilderment Karapanou’s characters are going through. Her divine serial killer embodies her critique of Realism and rejection of bourgeois conventions, in society as well as in art.  In the words of the Chief of Police, Manolis is "a fag, a cocksucker, a lady's man, a sex fiend, a murderer—what can I say, I've never seen anything like it." Karapanou's Messiah is radically anomalous: at the same time a victim of God's inscrutable designs and victimizer, savior and assassin, homosexual and heterosexual, pious and blasphemous. In Manolis all traditional dichotomies blur, and yet the God fashioned by Karapanou appoints him as champion and restorer of the old order. â�¨
 
With the exception of Mark and Luka, the island's cosmopolitan artists are inveterate do-nothings who use art to disguise their hopelessness. They clutter the place with their idleness and disrupt the traditional societal structure the locals try to maintain with their rituals: "for Manolis that kind of disorder was worse than murder." The foreigners' Satanic drive is bent on altering God's prescribed order. From this perspective Manolis's killings are an indispensable service: "to kill was something clean, the nostalgia for a kind of order." These killings, then, are akin to sacrifices.  Sacrifice reestablishes and celebrates the divine order of things and man's place within it. God created the world "in a moment of unlawfulness," and his Son's murderous paroxysms mimic that instant of unlawful creation. Manolis always stabs his victims while having sexual intercourse with them. Rather than terror, what his victims experience is therefore death in a state of ecstasy, filled with "an inexpressible pleasure." Like in the myth of Semele Karapanou is obviously referring to, being pierced or penetrated by a god brings about deadly rapture.
 
One morning the islanders wake up to find themselves totally surrounded by trash. No one bothers to collect it. The garbage comes to life and spreads like the gods' plague. Manolis takes upon himself the task of cleaning up the island: "If I don't do it, who will?" Like in Saramago's The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, God's motives remain unfathomable to the Anointed: "I'll never be able to understand your infinite perversion. First the murders, now this." He's only a blind tool in the hands of a superior, remote entity. He is the Sleepwalker of the title, carrying on actions he has no control over or no understanding of: "I'm at the center of a dream that lights up the world and guides it. I feel like the island is that dream, and I'm the one dreaming it." On the day of the Assumption, after the island's mules offer God the ultimate sacrifice by trampling to death most of the islanders in religious procession, Manolis vanishes—or rather, he meets his final apotheosis as Helios, the Sun god. From then on, the sun never sets and shines, motionless, on the island, disinfecting the ground and pushing all inhabitants indoors. Like one of Manolis's ecstatic victims, the island gives itself to the sun/Helios "like a body"—all human traces erased, the island is finally redeemed.

Karapanou's savagely ironic tour de force ends therefore with its very own catharsis, the horror and confusion expunged by an eternal summer day. Her main character's progression from Angel of Death to destructive natural force and her identifying salvation with the removal of mankind confirm Karapanou's ferocious misanthropy. She seems to relish the violence Manolis unleashes on the islanders—first as serial killer, then as scorching heat. A the same time though, her all-embracing sun that penetrates the painter Mark "with masterly strokes" reveals her nostalgia for a lost communion of man and Nature. It was that harmony that once allowed Mark's art to flourish and make sense of the world. Karapanou's tale of the "second coming" is all about recreating that harmony. Revitalized by the new Messiah's assaults, the artists stop sleepwalking and retrieve their voice. Mark can finally complete one of his portraits, and Luka's next book just flows out of her. The sun engulfs the island, and the island is one with God again.