I picked up Francois Augieras’s Journey to Mount Athos because of its Greek monastic location and luxurious writing. And also it’s purple cover.
A man awakens, dead, and though a woman in a Greek forest offers to “make him a child” (reincarnate him), he decides to take the boat to the Land of Souls, the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos. He is allowed, by writ, to live on the mountain forever, and he can hardly believe his luck. He journeys from monastery to monastery, enjoying whatever hospitality the monks spare him, being nibbled on and willingly sexually used by voracious monks, finding more sexual experiences with young lovers from his previous lives, and eventually trying to attain a Nirvana, an AWAKENING (in annoyingly emphatic capital letters), with a second death.
I was disappointed. I found that, though the writing was sensuous and ornate, it felt repetitive, vague, and frustratingly double-minded. I lost count of how many times the narrator mentions the aromas of “resin,” the faerie-like moonlight, the magic of the sea. Too many bulls, snakes, mad monks. Too much about soft and supple hips. Long paragraphs about trying to achieve the AWAKENING by playing instruments in the polar moonlight.
I was interested in Orthodox theology and was hoping there’d be more of that. It ended up being a muddled combination of DIY Christianity and Zen. The ecstatic writing seemed less like the earthly affirmations I’ve come to appreciate about Orthodoxy, and emphasized a body-soul split, seeking the ultimate escape from the world.
The narrator was a man who longed to escape to the mountain of men, where there are no women, is in fact a paradise where a man can be his own woman. He was frustratingly passive in his acceptance of being, of claiming identity, and of experiencing rape. For all of his eating others’ food, drinking others’ raki and coffee, and laying in their beds, it seemed like he rarely found or extended his own hospitality. He despises the common hermits in their caves and leaves them to uncertain futures. His own calling – to his master, to the peak – is more important.
I am indignant to know that it is still impossible for me as a woman to visit Mount Athos, which has not housed women for a thousand years – save refugees during the Second World War – and will still not permit female visitors. This reminds me of my own bar to conversion to the Eastern Orthodox Christian faith, the inability for women to become priests.
I suppose much of my censure of A Journey to Mount Athos is ideological, and I’m sure that is bad criticism. But I found his writing, however lovely, waffle-y and without much substance.
I look forward to reading a different take on Greek monasteries and will look into Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Silence.