Photo © Nick Levitin
Alexis Levitin has published forty-eight books in translation, mostly poetry from Portugal, Brazil, and Ecuador. In addition to five books by Salgado Maranhão, his work includes Clarice Lispector’s Soulstorm and Eugénio de Andrade’s Forbidden Words, both from New Directions. He has served as a Fulbright Lecturer at the Universities of Oporto and Coimbra, Portugal, The Catholic University in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and the Federal University of Santa Catarina, in Brazil and has held translation residencies at the Banff Center, Canada, The European Translators Collegium in Straelen, Germany (twice), and the Rockefeller Foundation Study Center in Bellagio, Italy. He has two books coming out in the fall. The Craft of Revision: W.H. Auden at Work, a scholarly study of the revisionary practice of the great Anglo-American poet, is coming out from Lexington Books. The Last Ruy Lopez: Tales from the Royal Game, a collection of chess-related short stories, is coming out from Russell Enterprises. He loves to travel and regrets that he did not spend his life in the Greek islands.
At the beginning of this journey, he had foolishly stopped off at Aegina, eager to set foot on an island as soon as possible. It had been several years since his last visit to Greece. On Aegina, despite the small island’s unromantic aspect, he had, indeed, met a lovely young Greek creature, the right age for Nausicaa. But her name was Alexandra and she looked wildly modern, like an innocent version of Madonna, if such a thing could be imagined. He was touched by her directness, her lack of guile, her unawareness of her own childlike beauty. Her father owned the restaurant where they met and Jim happily stayed to eat a fine dinner of skewered lamb, rice, a feta salad, and honey-covered baklava, accompanied by the usual retsina. But the next day, since she was not Nausicaa, he said good-bye and continued on his way.
The ferry stopped at Milos, but he couldn’t bear the thought of spending time on that unfortunate island, whose entire male population had been slaughtered in a punitive raid by Athens when they refused, quite reasonably, to take sides in the war between that noble beacon of democracy and Sparta. A moral low point from which the Athenian Polis never recovered. After another two or three stops, the ferry came to Folegandros, and there he alighted to try his luck.
He had searched the island far and wide without success. But in an ordinary white-washed restaurant in a square at the heart of the Chora, he had, in fact, come upon a green-eyed beauty deeply absorbed in a movie magazine and nibbling on olives and dolmades. He had had his doubts, of course, but had dared to strike up an awkward conversation, just to make sure. A bit impatient at being torn away from her celebrities and their woes, she did, at least, reveal her name. “Angeliki” she said, impatient to return to the glorious lives of others. Lovely to look upon, but far from a Nausicaa, as he had surmised from the first. He ordered two ouzos, clinked glasses with her, said yassou, and gulped his down. Then, with a half-hearted smile, he took his leave. Still sipping her ouzo, she looked rather relieved that he was moving on. In fact, they were both relieved. And so he boarded the lumbering ferry to make his way to yet another island. Another hope.
Of course, he had combed the length of Amorgos, before coming to Naxos. The island was long, relatively untouched by tourism, with no spectacular beaches, but with many whitewashed mountain villages scattered along the island’s spine. So undisturbed was Amorgos that had Nausicaa wished to remain incognito forever, that would have been a sly and clever choice. On the other hand, would any Nausicaa, even today, armed with Netflix, C-Span, and an I-phone, tolerate living at such a far remove from the nearest beach? Quite unlikely. He was not surprised, then, to find no trace of her in those quiet, unassuming clusters of houses, etched sharp beneath the Mediterranean sun, like scattered handfuls of brilliant cubes of sugar.
His general practice remained the same. Whatever island he disembarked upon, he would quickly rent a scooter, buy the best map available, and putter along to the most distant outposts, the furthest promontories of land. His habit was always to follow the least traveled road or pathway to its end. Sometimes a path would peter out in the middle of nowhere, degenerating into a narrow goat path, wending its way through the thistles, and he would simply return the way he had come. Sometimes a path would lead him to a small, deserted beach. There he might stop, take a swim, carefully avoiding the pink jellyfish that had somehow discovered paradise, lie in the warm sun for an hour or so, then return to his search. But nowhere had he ever met Nausicaa, not on any of the countless islands he had visited.
And now Jim had come to Naxos, where the results of his search, at least so far, were no different from the results encountered on all the other islands. But he simply kept on. He loved the harsh sound of the cicadas in the noonday heat and he loved the smell of oregano and thyme coming from the desiccated dusty brush. The road he was following today had not shrunk into a path, as so often happened. It had maintained its dimensions and was lined with bits of plastic caught on the spiny underbrush on either side, with occasional slabs of cardboard littering the roadway. How untidy the inhabitants of paradise could be, he mused.
When he saw plumes of smoke ahead, he wondered if he was coming to a village, though none was noted on his map. The road kept climbing, then he found himself rolling round a curve. Suddenly, his way was blocked. There in the middle of the track stood three healthy goats, staring at him through imperturbable, opaque yellow eyes. The biggest, armed with a baronial spread of horns, wore an impeccable burnt sienna coat and a long, wispy beard. He looked like a scientist or a Buddhist monk, inscrutable. His gaze was both stern and distant, as if the interloper on a scooter, though clothed in substance, was a figure of no importance in the universe. The others also stared at him, but then, satisfied of his insignificance, returned to snuffing and browsing amongst the debris lining the roadside.
Wheeling carefully between them, he came to the end of the road, and there his destination revealed itself. There was no mountain village harboring, in the gentle shade beneath trellised bougainvillea, the Nausicaa of his dreams. Instead, there lay before him a huge pit, as if at the end of the world. And it was filled with mounds of construction debris, broken drywall, shattered glass, trash bags filled with discarded school assignments and last week’s bureaucratic paperwork, and everywhere odorous piles of everyone’s daily garbage. It was the island dump, unmarked on any map, with crows and seagulls wrangling for the choicest items. Everywhere lay fragments of chaos and decay, everywhere blue and white plastic bags floating aimless on dispirited puffs of air, then caught on the dry twigs and spines of the surrounding undergrowth, to flap back and forth like lost Tibetan prayer flags. And everywhere a pall, a stench of decaying matter and of slowly smoldering fires, heavy and acrid on the discouraged, drooping breeze, so far from the freshness of the sea.
He gazed at the world before him and suddenly remembered that this was the last year of the millennium. It was a depressing thought. He knew it meant nothing, of course, to the three goats, the implacably indifferent guardians of the realm to which he had come. But to him it underscored another day without Nausicaa. He knew now he would not find her. Not today. Not tomorrow. The millennium was coming to an end. And then another millennium would begin. But he suspected that there, too, no Nausicaa would be awaiting him.
Jim had always admired Odysseus for his nobility in rejecting the almost miraculous vision of Nausicaa and a new life. He knew that Nausicaa was the greatest test of that great man of strategies. To survive Circe and retrieve his men from the pigs they had become was fine. To steer through the twin female horrors of Scylla and Charybdis was brutal, but well-done. To listen to the Sirens and survive was clever and daring. To say no to Calypso with her offer of immortality and eternal sexual delight (after sampling it for seven years) was impressive. But turning down Nausicaa was his truest act of heroism. Nausicaa, after all, was Penelope, but twenty years younger. Nausicaa offered Odysseus the chance to cancel the Trojan War and his twenty-year absence from home by giving him a new start, with a new kingdom and a new bride. She offered what twentieth century businessmen sought in their pliant secretaries, an escape from time, from aging, from the shadow of death. And Odysseus turned it down for Penelope and home. He turned it all down and chose instead to embrace reality. For Jim it was that that made him a hero. Jim knew that he himself would not have resisted the temptation.
He turned the scooter around, gazed balefully at the three goats nibbling contentedly amid the trash and thistles, then started on the long and winding road back to Engares and on to the Chora.
For other contributions by Alexis Levitin, please follow the links below:
Text in this post: © Alexis Levitin
Published with the permission of Alexis Levitin