Friday, November 22, 2013

William Azuski's "Travels in Elysium": Book Review

This philosophical thriller mixes a novel of ideas with a mystery plot on the Greek island of Santorini. The site of an immense volcanic cataclysm recorded about 3600 years ago, wiping out this bastion of Minoan civilization known once as Thera, at the village of Akrotiri (where real-life digs began in 1967) around the time of the military junta forty-odd years ago, a group of archeologists convene. They hack into the tephra, to claw into what some imagine might be remnants of Atlantis.

Whether this is metaphor or "Trojan Horse," farce, mass hypnosis, wish-fulfillment, or some "echo" of the "Perfect Form" perplexes student Nico Pedrosa. From England, he's recruited hurriedly to take his place alongside the scholars under the supervision of Marcus James Huxley. On this island, names and much more suggest hidden meanings. As Nico learns more about the rivalries, factions, and uses to which he and his fellow enthusiasts are applied under Huxley's charismatic but unsettling power, the novel burrows into the possibilities that the excavation appears to reify or which appear to recur. Frescos appeal to the imaginative, and Platonic forms appear as if to revive, deepening the uncanny.

The plot must be left somewhat vague to remain surprising to you, but this suspense earns genuine engagement by the reader.  It's not easy going; characters needed development and early on the style appeared too awkward. The book takes its time, and it's longer (I was asked to review an e-book) than I expected.  Often, the style felt overwritten. However, in conveying Nick's own youthful bewilderment and eagerness it makes sense for awhile, to portray an student in his early 20s plucked from British academia to be plopped onto a sunny island. His predicament, and his difficulty in deciding whom he can trust, enable this novel to be a coming-of-age tale, set among a lively and vivid locale, but one with its own spirits which may be emanating from its mythical shadows. This grounding in place, stranded on an awesome otherworldly terrain, heightens drama effectively.

It reminded me of some Iris Murdoch or Charles Williams storyline, or Stanislaw Lem's "Solaris." A character wonders if this isn't all an "archetypal Greek tragedy." For the Mediterranean setting, compare "Ghosts" by John Banville in a similar motif. Or even Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Abzetis manages to hold his own with a narrator who never lets on where he is ahead of the moment; this verisimilitude lets the reader along with Nico as "sorcerer's apprentice" listen to back-stories and lore.

Plato's conundrum, optical illusion, necropolis, Isles of the Blest, Oracle of the Dead, and/or the Burnt Isles: Santorini resembles other islands towards or beyond the sunset, a feature in mythological landscapes the world over. Why this attracts seekers, such as the Friends of Orpheus, and how near-death experiences may intersect with what Huxley and his rivals and supporters investigate draws in both Azuski's reflections in this intellectual whodunit, and Nico's own quest to figure it out.

Doppelgangers, ignis fatuus, wish fulfillment, Critias and Socrates, Solon and Plato: these inspire new allegories of these caves below Santorini. One character responds with a lovely analogy to coming back from the dead: "siphoned back into my body like a captured cloud," and Azuski does strive for fresh imagery. The second half of the novel does slow, as Huxley's motives keep shifting as Nico and the reader struggle to keep up with this enigmatic antagonist. He's not necessarily evil, but he's the type of elusive antagonist that compels the outmatched protagonist Nico to pursue him.

Certainly, near the end, Azuski packs a wallop. I think to enhance this impact, earlier sections needed trimming, and sharper arcs of maturation for supporting characters. Certain people come and go as if to prop up the meandering, repeatedly delayed or attenuated plot. Still, as an intellectual project, this must have consumed him as much as Huxley regarding the grand metaphor underlying, physically and psychically, this complex story. "The final deception is not the deception that comes last, but the metaphor that makes sense of all the others." Nico tries to figure out Huxley and the increasingly bewildering or dazzling insular swirl around him and emanating behind the entrance marked #34.

I would have advised stronger delineation in terms of the supporting characters in terms of this penultimate situation and how they respond--the prose does not distinguish a range of personal testimonies although a shared education may elide or mask their respective tone and fluency. While the ending does keep its own enigma that causes one to rethink the entire novel, the value of immersion in a thoughtful if sprawling examination of Thera's mythic power is ultimately evident.
Amazon US 7-23-13)

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