At the very beginning of Labyrinthine Ways, the novelist Aurelia entreats the inspirational “Muses” that their stories “must start with Manoussos…and end with him as well.” The “Muses” so oblige; however, the Manoussos fulcrum is not necessarily to be regarded the key to the novel’s main plot. Manoussos is certainly the novel’s main character; however, there is no readily discernible traditional main plot. Instead, the novel crafts a richly-hued narrative tapestry from the lives and life materials of certain key characters and sets that against the backdrop of a vibrant Cretan life within which the intriguing legend of the Twelve Archontopoula is especially riveted in the collective consciousness of many. The novel is an exciting, immersive reading experience, on the surface more labyrinthine structurally than linear, and the reading rewards well outweigh the few occasional derailments of taste and sensibility.
The novel’s core germinates out of the life materials of essentially seven key characters: Manoussos, mayor of his Cretan village and a highly esteemed woodturner and cheesemaker, his children, Akela (an apprentice woodturner) and Manolis (a university student in the Classics) Emily and Matt, two very dear friends and Londoners with a shared passion for Greece and for Crete in particular, Ollie, an Australian university student haunted by the irrepressible desire to travel to Crete to follow in the footsteps of his much-admired and world renowned Cretan pilgrim, Nikos Kazantzakis, and Antonio, a transplanted Italian master chef and polylingual especially gifted in the preparation of Cretan cuisine. While the life of each of these characters obviously unfolds from a unique personal perspective and commensurately travels along a distinctly personal trajectory, the novelist manages to weave these distinct lives together into a beautiful narrative tapestry. The subtlety and skill with which this is done are impressive.
That the seven characters each have their respective ties and affiliations to Greece and to Crete in particular, and so are already commonly bonded, is of course obvious from the above. Less obvious, however, and more skillfully mingled in is the thread which runs through their lives, and which thereby unites them in a much more vital common bond in different forms and at different levels. That thread is the eternal human quest for the “everlasting beautiful,” (be it “peace” or “love” or “final self realization” or the “soul” or “becoming one”), and its ever-present, mysterious companion, Serendipity, together framing a motif no doubt inspired by the Cretan Nobel Laureate, Kazantzakis. The final union in a genuine traditional Cretan marriage of Manoussos and Emily, and the eventual lover’s union of Akela and Ollie are especially compelling examples of this more vital bonding. The case of Manolis and his father, near the end of the novel, sharing bread made by Emily, “bread made from the heart,” and reciprocally re-discovering a very tender love, paternal and filial, that of Antonio and his kafenio, already a well-established and very well-patronized restaurant, becoming in addition a virtual center for the discussion and promulgation of Greek and Cretan political and cultural history and self identity, and that of Matt and his “female Zorba,” Elena, reunited in London and coming to realize that they now belonged to two different worlds are additional noteworthy examples of that more vital common bond, varying in form and level, the last one to be read as an oblique demonstration of that by negation.
The novel’s invigorating descriptions, some of them lyrically beautiful, of the Cretan terrain and its opportunistic commentary on the daily goings-on of Cretan village life paint a compelling picture of the prodigality and agreeability of indigenous life. A few poignant illustrations include: the description of Manoussos’ and Emily’s enchanting evening at Tavri where, bedded within the all-embracing and all-nurturing passivity of the land, they “become one,” Emily’s cooking outdoor apprenticeship under the tutelage of some Cretan women during which she becomes profoundly aware of the vital symbiosis between the Cretan land and its people and affectionately muses that “From Field to Table” would be a very apt title for her cookbook, and Manoussos’ simply brilliant resolution of the case of the donkey ownership problem, intuitively guided by his instinctive, indigenous good sense that “The sheep knows the shepherd, and the shepherd the sheep.” He was indeed a shepherd in his very early life.
Apart from the obvious tactical use of symbolic language to encapsulate the kernel of the novel’s sequential episodes and to also facilitate flow and continuity, there are some other hints of symbolism and symbolic images not all of which are readily decipherable or readily integrated into the novel’s primary focal objective. The two white horses for the genuinely traditional Cretan marriage of Manoussos and Emily, Ollie’s bastouni, “shepherd’s crock,”for his walking pilgrimage through Crete, and the watch of Bernard the tourist almost whimsically invoked to dissolve his claim to being Cretan pose little interpretive and integrative problem. The same applies to the invocation of the mythic Sisyphus finally triumphing over his burden as an analog for illustrating Manoussos’ final and complete liberation of his personal demons and his longed-for finding of inner peace at the novel’s end. However, Ollie’s eventual epiphanic realization to “come apart like Christ,” and Akela’s washing and drying her father’s tired and sore feet, near the very end of the novel, while “strands of her hair and her tears fall down on them,” an image that overreaches and strains this reader’s taste and sensibility, leave a somewhat disconcerting wonderment as to how these pieces fit the whole. And the jar of honey gift to Manolis from his special friend Amarylis so as to “sweeten” their love rings superficial and leaves something to be desired.
Though largely fictional, Labyrinthine Ways brings into sharp focus one of the most elemental motives that drives human beingness, the haunting quest for the “everlasting beautiful” however the seeker so construes it. Additionally, through its compelling depiction of the prodigality and agreeability of indigenous life, it offers some sobering counsel regarding the redemptive lure of a grateful stewardship of the land and the vitalizing spirit of ecological community. These two salient features give legs to the novel making of it a reading adventure and leisurely meditation out of which many a good find may emerge for a wide reading audience gregarious or otherwise.
By a Professor of Linguistics who chooses to remain anonymous