Angelos Terzakis: Ταξίδι με τον Έσπερο [Travelling with Hesperus]
This is an unusual book in that it was written in Greek (by an author well-known in Greece, though not in the English-speaking world) and has only been translated into Spanish. The Greek title, as you will note, is Travelling with Hesperus. Hesperus is the planet Venus in the evening. Our hero, the sixteen-year old Glaukos Petrohiritis, wants to be an astronomer, hence the title though, in fact, his favourite star is Vega which he seems to prefer to the planets. However, I suspect that in Greek, Hesperus is better-known than Vega and, in Spanish, Venus is better-known than Hesperus.
Glaukos has lost both his parents and, not surprisingly, had something of a breakdown as a result. He now lives with his aunt Suzana Salani in Belgium. However, this novel is set in Greece, with Glaukos and Suzana visiting the family estate, normally occupied by a caretaker couple, with most of their interaction with Pigui, the wife. Glaukos had not been for seven years, when he came with his parents.
There are three households involved in the story and, for the most part, we only meet them. There is a small town where they go for the annual Saint John festivities but, on the whole, they come in contact with only members of these three households plus Glaukos’ letter-writing friend.
Initially Glaukos does three things. He studies astronomy – he has brought thick tomes with him for that purpose. He exchanges letters with a strange schoolfriend. He goes for long walks, exploring the estate and the area.
The friend is not only nameless but does not even sign his letters. The pair were both loners and, though they knew each other, only really met up when both ran to the rescue of a woman being harassed by their schoolmates. The pair now have become friends. The friend is a year older and Glaukos looks up to him. He seems to spend much of his time reading cheap French novels and does not do well in class. He reminds me of the somewhat supercilious intellectuals you find in French novels of the mid-twentieth century, such as those of André Gide and Paul Gadenne. The advice he imparts to Glaukos includes pearls of wisdom such as don’t give importance to anything. Remain impassive and forget yourself as much as you can. It is the best way to survive. Men do not deserve much.
In the garden Glaukos searches for a cheap wooden cross he buried there but declines to dig it up. His walks take him into what is almost a fantastic landscape where he meets absolutely nobody. Pigui warns him not to fall asleep under a fig tree. Her son did so and was taken away by a nymph, his body being found in the river. Not surprisingly, Glaukos does fall asleep under a fig tree and does meet a nymph.
Things change somewhat when the Pitsila family appear. They have a horse-drawn carriage so can get around fairly easily. The father is a doctor and has remained in the city but does put in a brief appearance on Saint John’s Day. Mrs Pitsila looks after the two children. Dodos is about Glaukos’ age and Fani a year older. Dodos clearly looks up to Glaukos, the way he looks up to his friend, while Fani is clearly attracted to him but her attraction is not reciprocated.
The third family is the Marha family, known as the colonel’s family. They had had a tragedy when the mother died and the colonel is now bringing up four girls and a boy, the youngest and, of course, the apple of his father’s eye. Since the death of his wife, the colonel has kept the family totally isolated. It is Dr Pitsila who persuades him that it is not healthy for the children. However just as the Pitsilas are getting to know them, Glaukos has something of a falling out with them and falls ill. When he finally meets them, he recognises Danai, the oldest daughter.
While Fani is attracted to Glaukos, Glaukos and Dodos are attracted to Danai. This book moves slowly but gradually as we see Glaukos and Danai getting closer. They share a love for astronomy. Glaukos may love Vega but Danai prefers Hesperus and they sit and watch the star and the planet together. But, gradually, things seem to take a turn for the worse. We and Glaukos learn that the Marha family seem to be cursed, both in the sense that things go wrong for them, particularly as regards both physical and mental health but also as regards their effect on those they come in contact with.
Things get even worse when Glaukos’ schoolfriend seems to be going off the rails and Danai may not be all she seems to be. And how is she connected with other of the characters?
Love gone wrong is not an uncommon theme in literature and, in this book , a few people have clearly made poor choices, while blinded by love/lust. While this is key to this book, it does not really come to the fore till near the end. What makes this book fascinating is, firstly,that the main characters seem to lead an essentially cloistered life. Glaukos, for example, was solitary till he met his friend and while the two remain friends, they seem to have virtually no contact with anyone else at the school. In Greece, Glaukos spends much of his time alone in what can best be described as a strange, almost otherworldly landscape. While he does meet the others a few times, there are often gaps between their meetings. As a result we get his musings, his exchange of letters with his friend and his experiences when out walking. As mentioned, it moves slowly but we gradually see that things are not quite right.
Terzakis is barely known in the English-speaking world. Only three of his works have been translated into English – a two non-fiction works and The Violet City, a novel published by an Australian publisher and very difficult to find. Though there are books of his available in other West European languages they are still very limited. Accordingly Terzakis does not have a reputation in the English-speaking word, which is a pity. Though not a great book, I did enjoy this work and it is well worth reading if you can read Spanish.
First published in 1946 by Archaios Ekdotikos Oikos
First published in Spanish as Viaje con Venus in 2008 by Rey Lear
Translated by Francesc Passani