Book review / Magical mystery tour

A Bottle in the Shade by Peter Levi, Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 17.99
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The Independent Culture
Thirty years after he first discovered Greece as a young man high on poetry and ouzo, the author set out to confront old gods and old age. Armed with a magical grant from the Society of Authors (to enable elderly authors to renew acquaintance with their colleagues abroad) and travelling by the most uncomfortable means of boats and trains, he and the Greek poet Georgis Parlopoulis "stagger along like the four ill-assorted legs of a pantomime donkey" to explore the sites of the Western Peloponnese. Their journey is part homage to the dead poet Nikos Gatsos, and partly - and most poignantly - an old boys' outing.

Earthquakes and the EC have defiled the old Greece. Favourite hotels and even villages have vanished. Transport has speeded up so that you can no longer pick lemons out of train windows. He finds the farmers sullenly in protest because they want government help with their taxes, to augment their Eurogrants: "Men with moustaches like the caves of haystacks were setting fire to tyres for the cameras." The mountain-top temple at Bassai huddles inside a tent. It was erected to protect it from the weather but it leaks and concentrates the deluge upon the 5th-century facade. "The tatters of a midsummer night's dream," says Levi, but the two poets are moved to rapture by the sight of a field of spring flowers.

As the gods topple, his idols are hoisted on to pedestals. Giorgis Parlopoulis, who had been poor and obscure, is now lauded by a new Greek literary establishment composed of lawyers, consultant academics and school inspectors. Levi enjoys hearing two newly-travelled old poets marvelling at their voyage in a space-flight simulator at Disneyworld, Florida, though he regrets the passing of a more innocent time when the poet Takis Sinopoulis blew the entire profits from a published volume on a glass of beer for a friend.

He is a skilled and entertaining journalist, lacing ravishing descriptions of landscape, seas, sunsets, festivals and stars with snippets of literary gossip. He tells how Bruce Chatwin's widow accused him of writing lies in her husband's obituary, but the questionable items had all been the fantasist Chatwin's first-hand traveller's tales. Levi even serves up a fine line in blasphemics from the island of Zakynthos ("I ... the mosquito net of the holy Veronica"). But the travels make a thinnish meal which he has bulked out with his own epic Greek peroration.

The title of the book comes from a line of verse, although it might equally refer to the number of bottles sunk by the voyagers (he had better luck with Greek wine than I ever had). It might alternatively have been titled Twilight with Gods, for the journey is not merely a revisiting of old sites but a tentative exploration of old age. At 63 it has to be a simulator voyage, but his travels are interspersed with many snoozes and he borrows an old man's self-indulgence for his sometimes brilliant and sometimes confusing forays into poetry, legend, architecture, archaeology and philosophy. But Levi is always forgivable. Writing about his wife, Deirdre, he confesses: "Now that I am old I feel almost alarmed to be so in love for fear it may be an imposition."

One of his most delightful digressions is prompted by a starry night at Kardamyli, which sets him wondering if Shakespeare's lovely speech for Portia, on "the floor of heaven thickly sewn with patines of bright gold", was inspired by the bard's cronies, the Digges, whose family invented the astronomic telescope fifty years before Galileo in 1570 and who wrote about the stars: "This orbe of stares fixed infinitely with perpetuall shininge glorious lightes innumerable."

The climax of his odyssey is a hunt for the Falls of the river Styx. Using as map the conflicting clues from Homer, Virgil, Herodotus, Frazer, Pausanias and Mr W M Leake, he finally tracks down, near the snowy slopes of Kalavryta, a convincing set of directions. But it is late in the day, the journey involves a five-mile walk and their driver invites them to a wedding. "We all agreed that having got so far we must now give up the Falls of the Styx and that we should go home now," he says in great relief.

This is not a travel book, for it contains no map. It is not a work of literary reference, but it has a lengthy index. Essentially, it is a mystical work. What he seeks are not sites but visions, not solutions but mysteries. Again and again he pounces in triumph on mysteries and puzzles such as the recent discovery of a graveyard of miniature elephants on the island of Tilos. No one knows how they got there. "They remain a mystery," Levi pronounces with pleasure. Pondering an architectural anomaly in a church in Skloulikado he concludes with satisfaction: "One never gets to the end of anything but time."