by Constantine Santas

The Agony of Survival is the first of a trilogy by Spyros Vrettos, a Greek scholar, intellectual, and novelist, who has planned a series of novels with related themes—the necessity of humanity to be inspired by a common goal: the salvation of humanity from multiple impending dangers brought on by centuries of technological progress, the neglect of nature and exploitation of the earth’s resources. His multiple themes also include blindness to historical goals, wars, and the pollution of the environment by reckless abandonment of enlightened and measured control. But Vrettos, who describes these common problems with relentless realism, is not a doomsayer. His penetrating intellect seeks avenues of rapprochement among the various rifts that modern society has let itself fall into, and he encourages re-thinking and reevaluating the present and the future. He is a philosopher who challenges us and a poet—for his prose is poetic—who stirs both our emotions and intellect (κατά φρένας και κατά θυμόν,[1] to use Homer’s words) channeling those through the straits of a wisest course. For human society still has a choice. In his second (already out) and third novels of a trilogy, this dialectic will continue, but within the vivid dramatic conflicts, as his characters’ struggles to escape everyday perils, to choose among impending hazardous paths, and to survive. Survival is not of the fittest—the most egregiously fittest—but of those equipped with the fitness of intellect, bodily grace, imagination, love of nature, moral aim, and creativity. The conflict is not between the haves and have-nots (for both of those will perish), but between the blind and the seeing. The end of the world is near, Vrettos says, but it can ultimately be avoided.

This may seem like a heavy subject for a novel, but the narrative of The Agony of Survival is told as a vivid and engaging tale of four people—two couples—who seek peace, creativity and love among nature and the locals in a remote village, in western Greece. They are aware that nature around them is withering and that many people suffer from incurable diseases, but they endure with courage, enjoying life and love, despite the ominous signs that gradually reach them. The first to arrive, Aris and Danae, are lovers. Aris, a wealthy investor, has built a compound that includes luxurious, but simple, living quarters, and a round architectural structure, a marvel of communications center, a “library-workshop.” He is to direct his world-wide investments from there, while his companion, Danae, a beautiful and graceful painter, is with him to explore her creative nature and to enjoy life with her lover. Those who arrive a bit later, Thomas, a young and talented economist, who is to join Aris in his ambitious enterprises, while his girlfriend Eleanor, is in search of a renewal of life experience. Both couples gradually become aware of a menacing reality that threatens to interrupt a blissful existence.

The break comes when Aris invites them to watch a show in his workshop, as film made by a friend of his, now deceased, an episode that occupies one third of the book, the middle. This is a sort of documentary/fantasy, describing a voyage by two well known literary figures—Dante and Virgil—who fly over the entire planet on a small craft, surveying the earth’s destruction. A narrator frequently interrupts the show, commenting, sometimes cryptically, about what is happening and the causes that produced the disasters. Centuries have gone by since the present era—we are not told how many—and the world, having ignored numerous warnings, is seen at its last stages. The flight reveals extensive horrors that plague the planet earth at this point: disasters like civil war, people running away from ruined cities, overcrowded hospitals, mass executions, poisoned air, and countless deaths from diseases—mostly cancer. Advanced technology is mostly to blame for these disasters: nuclear tests, insecticides like DDT, destruction of enzymes that have caused liver cancer, degenerative mutations, toxic metals, and so forth. There are places where people live in abundance and luxury, ignoring the horrors around them, and other places that offer euthanasia to those who desire an early death as an escape.

The most striking event is the arrival of Dante and Virgil, who rarely make comments themselves, at an “enormous, decorous building on the slope of a gray hill,” at the Great Chamber of the Conference of Hell. Dante himself could not have described the scenes that unfold there more vividly. Hell is the center of this action, for it is the only place where it could happen; visitors from Paradise “could move freely” everywhere, but, as Dante himself has told us in The Inferno, the denizens of Hell cannot exit from there. This is an assemblage of some of the greatest figures in history: philosophers from antiquity, like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle; from the Age of Enlightenment, Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau, rhetoricians like Demosthenes and Isocrates, Romans like Cicero and Virgil, from the East authors of the Vedas, philosophers and poets from China, Japan, and from Persia, and also Christian theologians. And from modern times Marx and Engels, and notorious criminals like Hitler and Stalin. A journalist brings them to order, and calls for speakers to speak on the great subject: the imminent disaster of the planet.

Here, we hear the repetition of the best known philosophical dogmas that great men—and villains—have ever uttered. Can their ideas save us, the author asks, or are they passing chimeras? Einstein, one of the first to be called, interestingly, refuses to say a word, perhaps disgraced by the failure of his theory of relativity—for since the impending death of the planet is an absolute? Or did he not want to commit himself to another statement that would be contradicted by the facts? Wisely, the author gives him a pass. Plato speaks his well-known dictum, that “unless political leaders also are philosophers, evil in the cities and the nations will not be eradicated.” Oh, one wonders, why has this not happened? Blame democracy? Dante interferes to say that wars and economies will not permit such a thing. The narrator makes no comments, but the reader is free to draw his/her own conclusions from this and other orations. Aristotle speaks of “a new movement and purpose,” and Marx, assisted by Engels, enunciates his well-known principle—material progress will bring the “advancement of humankind from the world of necessity to the world of freedom.” Heraclitus speaks of the “reconciliation of opposites” and “invisible harmony” that will eventually unite the world.

The most stirring speech came from Isocrates, the great rhetoric teacher of Athens, who proposed some his well-known teachings, “freedom, democracy, education for all.” But his noble speech is repudiated by someone in the crowd (unnamed) who said that his proposal was “completely unrealistic.” Of the villains, Hitler stepped on the podium and raved as usual, refusing to assign any responsibility to himself; and Nero roared that he had a right to be present in the earthly holocaust, then he is seen imploring Cicero and Seneca (the latter one of his victims) to save him. Both refused. The Conference in Hell failed to produce any visible results, but one of the lines written in a computer read: “Prometheus finally stole Zeus’s political craft and was chained forever by the people.”

Following this lengthy show, the four protagonists return to their everyday habits, but now aware that the end is imminent. Regardless, they live their last days as enjoyably as they can. Vigor still remains in them, but one, Aris, the most vigorous soon feels that his strength is about to abandon him. This is where the agony of survival is seen at its most tragic and most joyous moments. In a mountain trip—winter is approaching—they enjoy the warmth of a hearth, and the beauty of nature. They are aware that life is too beautiful to miss, yearnings and desires continue to possess them, yet the beauty of life itself—as expressed, for instance, in Danae’s paintings—is too dear to leave behind. Their existence is no longer theirs; but their eternal yearnings to live and to enjoy life remain to the end. Frictions arise, but they are part of life. Some comfort is derived, when Aris meets an old man, afflicted with cancer but bearing his affliction with stoic patience, and whose wife has died of the disease, and Aris is reassured that loving life is a great gift than abhorring death. The end, both tragic and heart-warming, offers a catharsis of “pity and fear,” and the hope in the immortality of the planet, despite all doubts and the ominous messages coming from the computers. Perhaps it is not too late to save the earth. That is the message one might derive from this inspired work by Spyros Vrettos.

[1] “The mind and the heart,” literally—a phrase common in Homer.