Nikos Kazantzakis, the Giant of Modern Greek Literature


In the Footsteps of the Authentic Free-Spirited Cretan, the Author of the Novel "Zorba the Greek"

 Surrounding the historic center of Heraklion, the defensive walls of the old medieval fortress have become, for several years, a beautiful promenade area with alleys, green spaces and sports facilities, dedicated to both locals and visitors. If you take a walk through the city of Heraklion and reach the area of ​​the Martinengo Bastion, the highest point of the Venetian fortifications, you will discover, near a park and a stadium, an austere funerary monument with a wooden cross and a plaque inscribed with the following epitaph, in Greek: “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free."


 Here, above the restless streets of the city, overlooking the mountains and the sea of ​​Crete, an illustrious personality which the island of Crete offered to Greek and universal culture rests forever in solitude: Nikos Kazantzakis (February 18, 1883 - October 26, 1957). Unique and difficult to fit into the categories of literary theory, arguably the most important and translated contemporary Greek writer and philosopher, with over 500 works translated into 40 languages, Kazantzakis is often compared to the classical giants of realism Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, or with the great modern European novelists.

 
 Nikos Kazantzakis was born in 1883, at a very turbulent time in Greek history, in the village of Kryoneri of Mylopotamos, close to the Candia city (the name of Heraklion under Ottoman occupation, until the union of Crete with the modern Greek state in 1913). From a young age, he showed his rebellious spirit and spiritual effervescence, his writing desires, and his passion for the French language. After graduating from high school in his hometown, Kazantzakis studied law in Athens between 1902-1906 and continued with a two years doctorate in philosophy at the Sorbonne, under the guidance of Henri Bergson (1859–1941), one of the most famous and influential French philosophers of the early twentieth century.


The prolific writer, the active politician and restless spiritual researcher

 A prolific master of modern prose and one of the most ardent consciences of his time, Kazantzakis is best known for the novels "Zorba the Greek" (1946), "Christ Recrucified" (1954), and "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1955) - his masterpiece, works that have had over time numerous theater adaptations and remarkable screenings, which have strengthened his fame. Paradoxically, Kazantzakis became known worldwide after the release in 1964 of the movie "Zorba the Greek" based on his novel. Directed by Michael Cacoyannis and starring the brilliant Anthony Quinn in the lead role, the movie was multi-nominated and won three Oscar prizes in 1965. 

 Equally valuable to the Cretans are the autobiographical novel "Report to El Greco" (published posthumously in 1960) and ”Captain Michalis” also known as "Freedom and Death" (1953), a novel whose narrative depicts Heraklion during the struggle against Ottoman oppression and a tribute to his father memory, an ardent revolutionary patriot. His extensive work also includes poems, philosophical essays, plays, travel books, encyclopedic, academic and journalistic articles, dictionaries and manuals, as well as Greek translations of classics such as Dante's Divine Comedy and Faust by J.W. von Goethe. The 33,333 verses epic version "OdĂ­ssa” (Odyssey) completed in 1938, after ten years of work, is a great continuation of the Homeric epic that expresses the entire philosophical vision of Kazantzákis. 


 In 1946, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, lost to Albert Camus by only one vote. Camus later said that Kazantzakis deserved the honor “a hundred times more” than himself. In total, Kazantzakis was nominated in nine different years, as the Nobel Prize Archive reveals.

 Kazantzakis had two marriages, one with Galatea Alexiou and the other with Eleni Samiou - his great love and life companion - but he had no children. Restless spiritual explorer, preoccupied with metaphysics and existential problems and haunted by religious turmoil on the border between Christianity, Buddhism and Nietzsche's atheistic existentialism, Kazantzakis' life seems a tumultuous experience during which he sought to quench his thirst for knowledge and self-expression through continuous research, political and literary activism and multicultural experiences gathered through his travels to three continents. 

 As he himself confessed, the journey and the creative process were the greatest joys of his life. For few decades, starting in 1910, he traveled around Greece, much of Europe, northern Africa, and to several countries in Asia. The countries he visited include Germany, Italy, France, The Netherlands, Romania, Egypt, Russia, Spain, Cyprus, Egypt, Palestine, Czechoslovakia, Japan, and China, among others. 


 Among his closest men of letters were Angelos Sikelianos, a great lyric poet and playwright, whom he met in 1914 in Athens and whom he would share not only a spiritual companionship but also a deep friendship of 40 years, the Romanian writer Panait Istrati - journalist and novelist, nicknamed "Maxim Gorky of the Balkans" (whose father was of Greek descent) and the Cretan Pandelis Prevelakis, who became his friend and devoted disciple, later one of the great Greek prose writers of the interwar period.

 Involved in politics, he also held several public positions. In 1919, he was appointed Director-General of the Ministry of Social Welfare, and after the end of World War II, he became the leader of a small non-communist left-wing party. He was briefly Minister in the Government of Greece (1945), a position he resigned, then elected President of the Greek Writers' Association. Between 1947–1948, in Paris, he worked for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Although initially a supporter of Lenin, he never became a devoted communist, and after the emergence of Joseph Stalin and Soviet-style communism, he gradually replaced his nationalist beliefs with a more universalist ideology.

 Sick with leukemia, his health deteriorated on his return from a trip to China and Japan. He was hospitalized in Copenhagen, Denmark and Freiburg, Germany, where he finally died on October 26, 1957, at the age of 74. 


Banned by the Church, but saved in the immortal memory of humanity

 For all his existential questions, although he remained close to Christian doctrine, Kazantzakis was rather an ideologue of freedom of the spirit. Addressing the themes of human salvation and divine revelation, his novels ”Christ Recrucified” and ”The Last Temptation of Christ” represent a monumental fictional vision of the Gospels. The author's audacity to propose a personal - albeit artistic - understanding of Christian issues and a reinterpretation of the life of Jesus-Human was strongly condemned by the Church, both Orthodox and Catholic, and created an important ideological and aesthetic dispute. For his works, considered sacrilege and blasphemy at that time, Kazantzakis received the reproach of many high theologians of the Greek Church, being very close to get excommunicated.

 At his death, his body was repatriated to Athens and from there, transported to Heraklion by plane provided by the famous Greek shipowner Aristotle Onassis, who in the same year founded Olympic Airways (today Olympic Airlines, the national company). The press of the time suggests that the Greek Orthodox Church forbade priests to officiate the funeral ceremony, as well as offering a place of burial in a cemetery, a fact which has not been officially confirmed. However, the Archbishop of Crete and the statesman George Papandreou, an anti-Ottoman resistance activist and future prime minister, were present in the Cathedral of Agios Minas, where the coffin was laid before being buried on the walls of Heraklion.


 Fifteen kilometers south of Heraklion, in the central square of the historic village of Varvari, now known as Myrtia, his father's home village, is the Nikos Kazantzakis Memorial Museum (one of the first personal literary museums in Greece), dedicated to the life and work of the great Cretan intellectual. Founded in 1983 by the Anemoyannis family, related to Kazantzakis' father with the considerable help of Elena Kazantzakis, his second wife (who passed away in 2004 at the age of 101), the museum is a true cultural center and place of pilgrimage, receiving hundreds of visitors from around the world every day. Also, the Museum of Cretan History in Heraklion has an entire section dedicated, in which the workroom was reconstructed and personal objects are exhibited, recovered from Antibes, France, where the author spent the last years of his life in self-exile (1948-1957).


 Today, in honor of  Nikos Kazantzakis's great personality and contribution to modern Greek and universal culture, Heraklion International Airport, the second-largest after the one in Athens, bears his name. Cretans love him and do not miss the opportunity to show their admiration and respect for his memory. In addition to his busts, you can admire on the streets of Crete huge graffiti drawings with his face or his famous quotes, such as: "A man needs a little madness, or else... he never dares cut the rope and be free."; “God changes his appearance every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises.”; "Love responsibility. Say: It is my duty, and mine alone, to save the earth. If it is not saved, then I alone am to blame.”


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