The first review
This remarkable book is many things: ‘Bildungsroman’, cultural history, travelogue, intimate diary, and presumably at least to some extent autobiography.
The larger part is a first-person account by the main character, Richard, of his journey to the Greek islands some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Interspersed with this is a shorter section recounting in the third person the adventures in Crete of another young man, Simon, after his and Richard’s paths cross briefly. Both have gone to Greece in search of themselves; on the way they get to know a number of gurus and experience various romantic encounters.
For Richard, Greece is ‘something against which he measured himself’, a setting in which to seek an answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ Indeed, the author tells us: ‘He was a very unGreek hero, more Parsifal than Perseus’. Nevertheless both he and we the readers come to learn much about the ideal and reality of Greece. The real, existing Greece is inhabited by people who (in the words of one guru) ‘take the greatest pride in being Greek, and in avoiding paying the taxes that would enable Greece to thrive; who profess their love of Greece and spend their time dreaming of Australia’. The ideal Greece – and in particular the pre-Hellenic Minoan civilisation – is promoted by some in the novel as a Lawrentian model way of living, an antidote to modern over-rationalised civilisation. As another guru puts it, ‘It might even be that from these ancient roots there can come new roots, to revive a weary world?’ In Crete we even encounter a community dedicated to recreating in some detail the beliefs and rituals of the Minoan world.
It is clear that Keith Walton takes a very serious view of the artist’s role and calling. A professor leading an archaeological tour says at one point: ‘Art both takes us to the just-endurable edge of the horror, the chaos, of life, and is our consolation. It both tells us the truth, and enables us to bear the barely endurable.’ Walton himself remains true to this exacting dictum in his writing. His prose is vivid, at times almost expressionist in style. Visual descriptions abounding in colour and detail betray an early training as painter. A chapter describing the Arts Ball at an art school (before Richard leaves for Greece) brings Harry Haller’s ‘Magic Theatre’ in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf to mind; Hesse is but one of the spirits haunting this novel.
Whatever one may think of the views propounded by some of the characters, this is a novel which challenges one to think, to examine one’s own attitudes and assumptions. There are not many books of which one can say the same. I for one look forward with eager anticipation to a sequel announced by the author, Odysseus’ Island.