The strange story of Alexander Wills begins breathtakingly with the oneiric description of a storm shaking the captain’s cabin on board some pre-steam vessel. The entire book is presented as the account that Wills started writing on 15 August 2003. Thus, the reader knows that the main character survived the tempest or awoke from his dream. A bachelor in contemporary London, and a classical scholar by formation, Wills became an IT engineer to make ends meet. Mystery enters his life one morning at the office when he finds himself incapable of hearing what his colleagues utter, while Gregorian chant plays in his memory instead. Wills is led to realise that his professional routine and the urban horizon have distracted him from his original calling, namely, to seek the truth about existence as propounded in the writings of Greek philosophers and early Christian thinkers.
Providentially, a mysterious duke summons him to a meeting at his Oxfordshire mansion. The imposing but affable Duke of Kirkwell is to Wills a little what Gandalf is to Frodo in Lord of the Rings, sending him onto a dangerous but rewarding quest. His Grace of Kirkwell had once hired Wills’ late grandfather as his librarian. The two men had identified a philosophical path laid out by the wisdom of Plato, whose partly lost dialogue Critias has become their “holy grail.” The lost manuscript supposedly describes the demise of Atlantis, an ancient civilization sunk under the waves through some cosmic catastrophe. Finding Plato’s warning could teach modern men how to avoid a similar fate. Consequently, the duke sends Wills to his family island in the middle of the Atlantic, where his extensive library should furnish him with the clues needed to find the Critias or Atlantis.
Most of the novel takes place on the small, and desert, island. Wills successively visits a mansion, his grandfather’s cabin, a shipyard, an observatory, some ruins, a chapel and a subterranean passage to the inside of the island’s volcano. A useful map is drawn halfway through the book (page 112 out of 213) for the reader’s orientation. The solitary wanderings of Wills across his small island and his attempt to visit a nearby islet make him look like some Robinson Crusoe stranded upon a giant chessboard. For every step on the beach hints at a strategy, every building erected has a philosophical meaning, the reader gradually realises. This “island of the Nameless One” is loaded with references to the works of Greek philosophers, and Wills’ exploratory strolls echo the odysseys of antiquity as if, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom wandered across some totally deserted Dublin.
Readers untrained in classics may miss many hints, but they will still perceive that the lost wisdom of Greek antiquity is the key to Will’s presence and success on the island. In fact, the novel entails very few scholarly quotes, if any. Conquistadores and Christian rulers are referred to more often than Aristotle. Nor is the average reader to fear lengthy philosophical considerations. Instead, one simply follows the hero in his physical exploration of the territory. It is enjoyable enough and not without excitement, as when Wills is caught in a typhoon! Unlike on Crusoe’s island, no fellow human, “Friday” or other, is to be found until the Duke himself re-appears and Wills’ quest ends, or expands.
The scarcity of characters enhances the impression of busy solitude, stressing the importance of the hero’s quest, as if the entire world had been blocked out. Thus, the duke is the only one who interacts with Wills in the beginning, and towards the end; Wills’ work colleagues are nameless and soon vanished; his old host couple from the visit in Oxfordshire never reappears; and late Grandfather Paolo Paltini is given no direct speech but is only reminisced at times.
This novel is meant as a dream or a parable, perhaps a philosophical myth after those of Plato himself. The story does not claim to describe a real-life situation. With friendly respect for the imaginative work of my fellow-novelist Robert Lazu Kmita, I venture that such an oneiric convention is needed to exonerate his plot from a succession of occurrences otherwise implausible in a novel. Such are: ready-made and eatable food at hand in cupboards despite no Tesco supermarket in sight; a motorboat already fuelled with petrol; power from a handy generator bringing instantaneous light into bulbs that never burn out; no snakes or ferocious beasts to dread other than placid iguanas and indifferent seagulls; fresh water running at will through rust-free pipes despite no caretaker or plumber waiting in that part of the ocean; old-style deep-sea diving suit and helmet safely put on and used as if Wills had trained under James Bond; and various letters planted by the duke conveniently found by our hero in his random exploration. A third-millennium Indiana Jones, classical scholar Alexander Wills goes unaccompanied through jungle, typhoon, shipwreck, archaeological exploration, and deep-sea diving with barely a scratch.
Let me conclude favourably. The novel is short enough for untrained readers to sustain its parabolic logic. The level of English is high and the translator must be commended on his elegant rendition. Lovers of the environment will find poetically refreshing the descriptions of the wild nature on the desert island with its changeable sea and sky. Non-Christian readers will encounter relatively few allusions to Catholic liturgy and dogma. Such discretion may attract a modern audience and dispose our agnostic, atheistic and politically-correct brethren to consider seriously what seems the main purpose of the tale. And what is that, you may wonder? Couched in pagan Greek concepts, the fate of Atlantis is the warning of almighty Zeus to our times of technological hybris and moral arrogance. To quote the novel’s crucial revelation: “Let those be punished who have betrayed the religion of their ancestors, by which was preserved the delicate bond between things seen and unseen.”
Fr Armand de Malleray, FSSP holds a master’s degree in modern literature from the Sorbonne and is the author of the novel Vermeer’s Angel, Arouca Press, 2023.