After the coldest Spring in England for fifty years I think we should go someone warm, so this week I’ve chosen a novel set on a Greek island. `Travels in Elysium’ by William Azuski came out this year and is available in paperback or as an ebook. I should declare a connection at this point. I’ve never met the author but I did read two earlier drafts of this novel and there is a recommendation from me on the back cover – `This extraordinary novel, part murder mystery, part metaphysical thriller, kept me guessing until the very last page.’ At the front of this book are two definitions of Elysium – `the home of the blessed after death’ in Greek mythology and any `blissful place or condition’. Take this as fair warning that `Travels in Elysium’ is a novel with more than one level of meaning.
The story begins with a vision of destruction by fire and water which may be only a dream. The dreamer is 22 year old Nicholas Pedrosa. Stuck in a dead-end job in a dreary town, Nicholas is overjoyed when he’s offered the chance to work for famous archaeologist Marcus Huxley on the island of Santorini in the southern Aegean. Known as Thera in ancient times, the island was once devastated by a massive volcanic explosion. Now Huxley is uncovering a city that has been hidden under the volcanic ash for three and a half thousand years. On the day he arrives on Santorini, Nicholas stumbles on the funeral of Huxley’s previous apprentice, Benja Randal, who fell to his death in the ancient city. Huxley’s main instruction to Nicholas is to observe everything and try to understand it. As Nicholas observes the dig and his fellow team members, pompous Hadrian, kindly Anna and bitter Sam, he finds much to trouble him. Huxley is a brilliant maverick, distrusted by other archaeologists. Even his loyal team are unhappy at the way Huxley is obsessively searching for something he won’t name amongst the ruins of Theran civilization. Santorini may seem a peaceful place but this is the 1960s and Greece has come under the rule of a brutal military dictatorship. Superstitious islanders oppose Huxley’s excavation and some of them claim that Benja Randal has become a vrykolakas – one of the restless undead.
Nicholas is captivated by the vibrant paintings uncovered during the excavations but he begins to doubt his own sanity when he sees startling resemblances between figures in the ancient paintings and people he has come to know on modern Santorini. One mystery appears to be solved when Huxley declares that he was looking for proof that Thera was Plato’s lost city of Atlantis, but when Nicholas meets the secretive group who sponsor the excavations it becomes clear that they have a very strange agenda. After a failed attempt to flee the island, Nicholas is goaded by Huxley into asking a series of impossible questions. What happened to the original inhabitants of Thera, and how much truth is there behind the legend of Atlantis? Did Benja commit suicide or was he murdered, and why are people seeing his ghost? What is the fabled Oracle of the Dead and can it transport people to a place where their deepest longings are realized? Can ideas create reality, and if so, would that be the most dangerous thing of all?
Never been to Santorini? If you read this book, you’ll feel as if you have. There are wonderful descriptions of the island’s dramatic landscapes throught the seasons. Azuski writes about its rust-red cliffs and black sands, the fitfully sleeping volcano and the vast sea-filled crater with its `charred islets of solidified lava like great heaps of coal, strange obsidian sculptures and the occasional plume of drowsy, sulphurous smoke.’ He evokes the traditional island way of life, with its archaic beliefs and strong sense of community, which largely vanished when Santorini became a tourist-trap; a place of `Atlantis sunset bars, discos and nightclubs’. The paintings of handsome young fishermen and beautiful girls gathering saffron that feature in the novel really do exist. Azuski uses them to conjure up a deceptively idyllic picture of life on ancient Thera. He is equally good at describing strange realms of the imagination such as the Isles beyond Sunset `A place beyond time, or space, where every object in the universe exists in a pure, perfect form’.
This book contains many of the elements you would expect to find in a supernatural thriller – suspicious deaths and unexplained disappearances, an obscure manuscript which may be the key to an ancient secret, a buried statue and a hidden cavern, a rift in reality and love stories that transcend time. Being a writer in the intellectual European tradition, Azuski doesn’t just use these elements to thrill. This is a novel that also makes you think. When Huxley warns Nicholas to `Trust no one. Believe no one. Question everything…’ it’s a challenge to the reader as well. The legend of Atlantis has inspired many bad books and films but Azuski has gone back to the original source material, asked what the philosopher Plato meant by telling the story of the downfall of Atlantis, and come up with an alarming answer. In `Travels in Elysium’, truth is an elusive concept. Nicholas keeps thinking that he has discovered what his mentor and tormentor, Huxley, is really up to but there is always more to find out. An epilogue may offer a rational explanation for Nicholas’ extraordinary experiences in ancient and modern Santorini, or it may raise even bigger questions.
Although this is a novel of ideas, all the people in it seem remarkably real. Local characters, such as `the spindle-thin schoolmaster…, his face sorry as a cracked teapot’ and `the postmaster…sporting a pair of checked knickerbockers and stout brogues, ready for the grim task of negotiating the snake-infested rocks’ are brought to life in a few choice phrases and we get to know the small band of archaeologists very well indeed. There are no outright heroes or villains among this group, just flawed and inconsistent men and women. As Anna tries to explain to Nicholas, `People are contradictory. They say one thing and do another…They act out one reality and dream another.’ When Anna’s dream of a second chance with the love of her life seems to come true, it proves to be one of the most poignant stories I’ve ever read. `Travels in Elysium’ is a demanding book but it’s a journey well worth taking. One final warning, if you do get to the end of this novel, you’ll probably want to go straight back to the beginning and read it all again. Until next week….