In 1964, or thereabouts, I went to see a film called Zorba the Greek. It was nominated for seven Academy awards, and won three of them. The movie was, indeed, very impressive, Anthony Quinn being particularly memorable in this rôle, a performance for which I forgive him a great many unimpressive appearances. For an ethnic Mexican Irishman, he plays a great Greek. At the time, I knew it as a great and important movie, but the music, by Mikis Theodorakis, was also a fascinating attraction, and this was also my first brush with Nikos Kazantzakis, the writer of the original book.
I wasn’t able to get the book of Zorba immediately, but I managed to obtain a copy of Christ Recrucified (also known, in the USA, as “A Greek Passion”) at my local library, and promptly lost it on the Tube (London Underground) when I was just a few pages in. Not only was I bereft of my reading matter, but I had to pay Hampstead Public Library for the lost book, while they failed to replace it on their shelves, adding injury to insult.
In short order, I succeeded in obtaining a second-hand copy. This one. It was yet another financial sacrifice. Sharp eyes will perceive on the attached image the then very expensive price of six shillings and threepence (£0.31 in today’s money), exactly half of its list price of twelve shillings and sixpence. In those days, a new Penguin book would typically cost two shillings and sixpence, and I was earning just £37 a month at the time. It was well worth the price. Although Zorba the Greek is Kazantzakis’ most famous book, Christ Recrucified is, in my opinion, his best.
Christ Recrucified is set in a Greek community that is ruled over by a Turkish Agha – a sort of District Commissioner. Life and society is somewhat primitive, and you might imagine at first that the book is set in a past century, but it gradually emerges that the action takes place in Anatolia, near Smyrna, some time in the mid 1920s, after Turkey recaptured the region subsequent to the First World War. The villager are preparing to perform their passion play, an event that occurs every seven years.
The style is a little like that of a fairy tale. You are told what the characters do and say, but not a great deal about what they are thinking.
The Church comes out of it rather badly. I first read this book when I was twenty or so, and it may have influenced my view of the Christian message ever since. Less shocking than “The Last Tempation”, which got Kazantzakis excommunicated, it is nevertheless an indictment of organised religion (relieved partly by a “good” priest) in contrast to the basic Christian message.
I am reluctant, as ever, to write any spoilers. I recommend Christ Recrucified unreservedly. This is a towering work, unmistakably a masterpiece, and rewards a read. Perhaps happily, only a couple of attempts have been made to bring Christ Recrucified to the screen. One, a miniseries, has barely seen the light of day. The other, a French film, appeared at Cannes in 1957, entitled Celui qui doit mourir.
Nikos Kazantzakis was born in 1883 and died in 1957. He lived a very cosmopolitan life, spending relatively little time in Greece, though all his important work was written in modern Greek. His views on religion and politics led him into trouble from time to time. He was briefly a member of the Greek government in 1945. Kazantzakis was evidently a complex character and I’m prepared to guess he was as fiery in person as some of his fictional characters.
When I bought Zorba the Greek (some time after 1972) I had just seen the movie again, and I was impressed how well the movie stuck to the plot and spirit of the story, a rare attribute these days. Nevertheless, the book conveys so much more of the irrepressible Zorba, more acutely because he is viewed through the eyes of a young intellectual.
In addition to Christ Recrucified and Zorba the Greek, my library also contains the earlier work – Freedom or Death (originally Captain Michales, a more suitable title). Captain Michales is as unsympathetic a character as it has been my displeasure to read about for many a year. The narrative is heart-breaking. The novel as a whole concerns a short-lived rising of Cretans against their Turkish rulers in the late 19th century. The insurrection is just one of a number of bloody and unsuccessful Cretan insurrections that happened through the 19th century. Michales is represented as a sort of wild animal. His relationship with his wife and daughter could only be described as disfunctional. His stern, unmoving stance at all levels of his life attract admiration from his fellow Greeks, and grudging respect from the Turks. The whole novel is set against the life of Megalokastro (now Heraklion), with its characters a riot of contrasts and individualism, like a sort of Greek “Under Milk Wood”.
Finally, I should remark that Kazantzakis spent over a decade writing The Odyssey – a Modern Sequel. I have a copy of that somewhere, too, in a translation by Kimon Friar. I see that it is rather expensive these days. It picks up after Odysseus has dealt with Penelope’s suitors. Here are the first lines:
And when in his wide courtyards Odysseus had cut down
the insolent youths, he hung on high his sated bow
and strode to the warm bath to cleanse his bloodstained body.
Two slaves prepared his bath, but when they saw their lord
they shrieked with terror, for his loins and belly steamed
and thick black blood dripped down from both his murderous palms;
their copper jugs rolled clanging on the marble tiles.
The wandering man smiled gently in his thorny beard
and with his eyebrows signed the frightened girls to go.
For hours he washed himself in the warm water, his veins
spread out like rivers in his body, his loins cooled,
and his great mind was in the waters cleansed and calmed.
Then softly sweet with aromatic oils he smoothed
his long coarse hair, his body hardened by black brine,
till youthfulness awoke his wintry flesh with flowers.
On golden-studded nails in fragrant shadows flashed
row upon row the robes his faithful wife had woven,
adorned with hurrying winds and gods and swift triremes,
and stretching out a sunburnt hand, he quickly chose
the one most flaming, flung it flat across his back,
and steaming still, shot back the bolt and crossed the threshold.