Travels in Elysium is an elegantly written novel that takes the reader on a breath-taking journey to a major archaeological excavation on the Cycladic island of Santorini and from there to a metaphysical tour of the fabled Elysian Fields of Greek mythology beyond that into the very souls and psyches of the project’s crew members.
Nicholas Pedrosa, a young man with limited ambition, a lackluster job and few prospects, finds himself selected to apprentice to the famed archaeologist Marcus James Huxley, who is directing a major dig on the Greek island of Santorini, known in archaic times as Thera, which was torn apart in a cataclysmic volcanic eruption 3,500 years ago. His background—a four week field school in the Peloponnese, his mediocre command of Greek, and a half-completed Classics course in college would hardly seem to recommend him for such a prestigious position, but he quickly finds himself aboard a tramp steamer sailing for the Greek isles. The headlines of a newspaper read by an imperious, dyspeptic old man aboard the steamer promises a future of high adventure: “Archaeologists Unearth Mystery Hieroglyphs” at Theran dig.
Disembarking from the steamer, Nicholas stumbles upon a funeral procession—that of his predecessor, Benjamin Randal—whose hysterical widow stridently accuses Marcus Huxley and the island of killing her husband. Further signs of discord are quickly evident as Nico happens upon a heated discussion among town leaders, some of whom believe the dig will bring new wealth to the island and others who believe it is cursed and will bring only destruction. When he finally arrives at the excavation camp on the far edge of the island on Cape Akrotiri, he finds similar rifts among the day laborers, many of whom believe the project and the site to be cursed, haunted by a vrykolakas, a vampire spirit of Benjamin Randal. He is introduced to each other excavation’s experts—Nestor Louganis, the dig foreman; AnnaTrevisi, the pottery specialist; Sam Gascon, the restoration expert who often clashes with Huxley, and Dr. Adrian Hunt, expert in excavation strategies and cataloging. Each character appears to be haunted by inner demons that create stresses and strains in their daily labors, but each seems drawn to the almost mystical quality of Marcus Huxley’s larger than life personality. For Huxley is the key to all that transpires on the excavation; his imagination, his obsession drives all the others to achieve his goals and soon Nico finds himself falling into that irresistible gravitational field that is Marcus Huxley.
But what are Huxley’s goals? He claims he wishes to unlock the secrets of the ancient Theran civilization that seemed, based on the splendid frescoes and unearthed artifacts, to fear no enemies and to embody an Edenic existence; Sam sardonically dismisses this as high-minded claptrap—that Huxley believes Thera was the origin of Plato’s discourse on Atlantis, and he means to find it. Perhaps, it is rumored, he seeks to discover the unexplored territories beyond life itself—to be transported by the mythic Ferryman across the River Styx to the land of the dead. Nico is drawn into the obsessive world of the old archaeologist and the island itself seems to hold him in its grasp as he journeys into a mythic land of islands in time and space and into a world 3,500 years earlier when Thera was being destroyed.
Alternately lyrical, allegorical, sensual and spine-tingling, William Azuski takes the reader on an exciting voyage of discovery, an allegorical tale of the search for very meaning of existence. It takes the reader to that place where myth, mysticism, nature and human obsession converge.
This is not an easy novel. It is best if the reader sets aside preconceived notions of myth and reality and allows the author’s narrative skills to illuminate the landscapes, both real and imagined, of Santorini/Thera, and of the haunted psyches of the characters he has created. It is a journey worth taking.
Four trowels for William Azuski’s marvelous Travels in Elysium.