Saturday, November 18, 2006

BOOK: Nikos Kazantzakis, "Freedom and Death" [1/4]

Nikos Kazantzakis: Freedom and Death. Translated by Jonathan Griffin. London: Faber and Faber, 1966. 057117857X. 472 pp.

Ah, Crete. Where men are men, women are scarce, and sheep are nervous. Well, scratch the latter two, there are just as many women as men in this book, and there isn't any bestiality, but the first one definitely holds — at least half the men in this book are walking talking unreconstructed textbook cases of both acute and chronic testosterone poisoning.

Before reading this book, my only encounter with Kazantzakis was the fact that I once saw the film Zorba the Greek, based on one of his novels and with Anthony Quinn in the title role. It's the movie that made sirtaki music famous. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and the last scene, with Zorbas and Basil dancing like mad on the ruins of their failed mining facility, is one of my favourite movie scenes altogether. Based on this good experience with the film, I always had a long-term intention of eventually reading some of Kazantzakis's books. Thus when I saw this copy of Freedom and Death in a bookstore at a wonderfully low price, and also saw that the blurb on the back cover seems quite promising, I bought it without much hesitation.

The story

<very mild spoiler warning>

The novel is set in Crete in the late 19th century, when it was still a part of the Turkish empire. Most of the inhabitants are Greek, although there are also some Turks (even in the countryside). At some point it is mentioned that the Turkish sultan had been required, at some earlier occasion (probably due to some uprising or some intercession by the European powers), to grant a few concessions or privileges to the Cretan Greeks, and indeed it does not seem that they are being oppressed in some particularly heinous way. They seem to be largely permitted to live according to their own principles, their freedom of religion is not interfered with; they have a school with a Cretan schoolmaster, and I guess that the education there takes place in Greek, as there is no mention of the Turkish language being used there.

Anyway, despite all this, the Cretan Greeks are rather fanatically determined to liberate themselves from Turkish rule; every now and then, they organise an uprising against the Turks, although these risings are always suppressed (2.65–6; references will be to chapter and page number because different editions probably have different pagebreaks). At the time when the novel opens, there has been an uneasy peace for several years.

Much of the novel shows very nicely how the next uprising breaks out. It isn't really some concerted, premeditated action. Rather, there is always a certain amount of violence and crime, much of it crossing the ethnic lines, and much of it motivated by the idea of taking revenge for some previous act.

One day in 1865, Captain Séfakas, a Greek, met a Turkish magnate, Hani Ali, and should have dismounted from his donkey in sign of respect, as required by the Turkish-imposed custom at the time; but he refused, and Ali therefore struck him a hefty blow with his whip. The next year, during the rising of 1866, Séfakas' eldest son Kostaros came across Ali during the course of the fighting and killed him (1.25). Ali's son, Nuri Bey, was just a child at the time, but now, more than twenty years later, he is a grown-up and ready to take revenge (2.86–7). However, Kostaros being dead by now (1.23), and Séfakas a very old man, Nuri Bey fights with Kostaros' brother Manúsakas and kills him (6.194–201).

Now, this last thing was in fact a perfectly decent duel in which Nuri had also been seriously wounded, so one would perhaps naively expect that this settles the matter, but in fact it doesn't. Manúsakas' brother Michales considers taking revenge on Nuri Bey (7.242–9), despite the fact that they had become blood-brothers in their youth (1.27–8); but he is prevented from doing this by the nature of Nuri Bey's injuries: due to an injury in the groin area, Nuri's genitalia have become useless, which from the point of view of the arch-patriarchal attitudes to which all the Cretans, both Greeks and Turks, subscribe, means that he is “ ‘no longer a man’ ” (7.243, see also 6.203), a fate for all practical purposes worse than death (“ ‘How can I take vengeance on a maimed man? What sort of vengeance is that? What does death mean for him?’ ”, 7.243). Nuri, unable to bear the shame of his injury, commits suicide (7.249).

Words of these events get around, heads grow hotter on both sides, leading to more violence (among people who have no personal involvement in the original feud but are motivated by ethnic hatred; 7.238, 8.253–5).

There are, both among the Turks and among the Greeks, some people that try to calm things down, and others that try to incite yet more violence. Eventually, massacres begin to occur (8.271, 9.279–286) and the situation escalates to such a degree that a number of Greek captains meet and decide that a full-scale uprising is the most reasonable thing to do at this point (9.297–304); so the Greeks dig up their hidden stores of weapons (most of which had already served them well in countless earlier uprisings and are by now rather hilariously antiquated, 9.304) and take to the mountains. The Turks, for their part, send a few shiploads of soldiers from mainland Turkey to help quell the uprising (8.267).

The rest of the uprising consists of some fighting and a hefty amount of senseless violence against civilians, especially the Greeks in the countryside; it seems to be a matter of course that their villages will be burnt, and many of the inhabitants killed if they do not hide in time from the Turkish soldiers. Anyway, little by little the Greeks realize that the Turkish army is too strong for them, and news reach them that they cannot expect any concrete support from mainland Greece, nor from the Great Powers (not even Russia, to which some of them look with so much hope).

The Turks are also interested in ending the uprising quickly, preferrably with the Greeks laying down their arms voluntarily rather than only after a complete and utter massacre, because the latter might attract unwelcome attention and interference from the Great Powers (cf. the aftermath of the 1875 rebellion in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which led to a war with Russia and then to the Berlin congress of 1878); 14.464. So most of the Greek captains and their warriors accept the offers of amnesty, bury their weapons again and return to the same uneasy peace that had been broken a few months earlier.

Set against this backdrop, the novel presents a number of little strands of story as we encounter numerous characters several times in the book and thus get the chance to observe their path through the tumultous events. The novel gives us many interesting glimpses into the life of a Cretan town in the late 19th century. However, the person who gets the most attention in the novel is one Captain Michales.

Initially one has the impression that Michales is just a very ardent patriot, somewhat more fanatical than the majority perhaps, but little by little we come to realize that his obsessiveness transcends any sane definition of patriotism; he often gives us the impression of a person possessed by demons, and he reminded me somewhat of the sort of romantic heroes that one encounters in Byron or Lermontov.

He seems to pretty much wilfully deny himself any joy or pleasure in life, any lighthearted fun, as if this somehow hurt the cause that the lives for, i.e. Cretan independence from the Turks (3.92). He is rather cold towards his wife (see e.g. 1.42), and as for his daughter: “From the day when she had completed her twelfth year and her bosom was becoming full, her father had forbidden her to come into his sight. For three years he had not seen her.” (1.39. The consequences of this policy can be seen in 6.189: “ ‘Who's that nice girl?’ he asked her [i.e. his wife] and indicated Renió [his daughter] with a glance. ‘I've seen her somewhere. But where?’/ Katerina sighed:/ ‘She's your daughter.’/ Captain Michales bent his head and made no sound after that.” — Curiously, the daughter seems to have internalized all this patriarchal oppression to the point where she is actually quite fond of him despite all this: “She was afraid of her father, but she loved him and was proud of him. What he did seemed to her right, and if she had been a man she would have done the same. She too would have wanted to see only her son—the girls could just creep away as soon as they heard the door open and him coming.” 1.39; and see also 1.45, 3.112, 4.134.)

Every few months Michales invites a few acquaintances to a feast lasting a whole week, during which he forces them (as well as himself) to drink almost without interruption; but the drink doesn't seem to affect him, and he merely sits glumly and enjoys a kind of dark sense of contempt at the sight of the antics and carousings of his drunken companions (3.111–2, 4.126–32).

<spoiler warning>

He similarly feels contempt for his fellow Cretan patriot Captain Polyxigis, with whom they fought together in a previous uprising. Michales respects him as a fighter and fellow patriot, but despises his cheerful disposition and his fondness for women (4.135). To Michales' disgust, Polyxigis even begins an affair with Eminé (3.109–10, 5.174–5), the wife and later the widow of Nuri Bey, the same Turkish aga whom we encountered earlier in this synopsis. Nor is Michales assuaged by the fact that Eminé is getting ready to convert to christianity and get married to Polyxigis (6.189, 7.220).

Anyway, during the course of the uprising, which both Michales and Polyxigis of course join, Eminé is at some point kidnapped by Turkish soldiers. Michales decides to try to capture her back, but in order to do this, he has to temporarily withdraw himself and some of his fighters from the defence of a besieged Greek monastery (10.327) which later falls to the Turks before Michales and his men have the time to return (10.328–9).

Michales therefore feels responsible for the fall of the monastery and the death of its abbot (although it isn't obvious to me that the presence of him and his handful of people would have made so much of a difference), he is also criticised by others for having left his post, and he is probably acutely ashamed of having done all that on account of a mere woman (10.333–8). He concludes that “ ‘she's the one to blame, she, the shameful woman!’ ” (10.338) and proceeds to murder her in her sleep (10.340), which, if you ask me, is surely a thousand times more shameful than anything she had ever done in her life.

(Another explanation for the murder is that he did it out of jealousy, 11.349, 351, but I'm not sure how likely this is as he didn't seem to show much interest in her at any earlier point; and it isn't for want of interest from her side, for she has a fixation that a man has to be a hero in order to be worthy of her, and she would no doubt prefer Michales to Polyxigis if the former had shown interest in her; cf. 7.222–5. Another explanation, which is what Michales tells to Polyxigis after admitting the murder, is that she stood in the way of their efforts to liberate Crete, 11.373, and also that “ ‘I had to kill her or you’ ”, 11.375. He may have simply regarded her as an unwelcome temptation and distraction, cf. 4.131.)

It seems to be chiefly with a view to washing away his shame at having left his post during the defense of the monastery that he later decides to continue fighting even when there is no hope left and all the other leaders of the revolt accept the fact that it's better to end the fighting and wait again for the next opportunity (11.369, 12.374–5).

Eventually he and his men are besieged on a mountaintop, surrounded by a much stronger Turkish army; in the morning before the final assault, he tells his men that there is no dishonour in leaving at this point, and most of them leave (by a hidden trail unknown to the besieging Turks), but he and some five others fight to the end (14.464–5) and get killed by the Turks in the process.

The last few pages of the novel are delightfully cathartic, a glorious bloodbath, like a movie scene in slow-motion, and in the background you can almost hear the sort of pompous choral music that would typically accompany such a scene on a movie soundtrack. I suppose that a more experienced reader than me would probably say that these are merely old tricks of the genre, but I was almost truly touched by that scene. At the very end, Michales is just in the act of shouting the motto one last time, but he has the time to say just “Freedom or . . .” at which point a Turkish bullet runs through his head and thus death comes by itself rather than just as a word (14.472).

I had a curious feeling while reading these last scenes of the story; rationally I know what utter madness and insanity such a suicidal struggle is (and it seems to me that Michales knew this as well), but at the same time I can almost feel my feet being lifted off solid ground and transported into some sort of atavistic fog in which blood spurts all round and a pointless and suicidal fight to the bitter end is somehow glorious, splendid and commendable.

</spoiler warning>

[To be continued in a few days.]


Anonymous aleks said...

Freedom and Death is also translated into Slovenian under the title Kapitan Mihalis (the main character in the book is reportedly based on Kazantzakis’ own father...). So is Zorba the Greek (Grk Zorba), a true hymn of Crete, a wonderful book (and a wonderful movie as well, I agree).
Probably the most notorious Kazantzakis' book is The Last Temptation of Christ (translated into Slovenian as well - Zadnja Kristusova skušnjava) famous also as a film adaptation by Martin Scorsese.
My favorite is Zorba the Greek, definitely :)).


Saturday, November 18, 2006 11:16:00 PM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Damn, once again I wade through an English translation without having bothered to check whether a Slovenian one is also available. First The Name of the Rose, and now this. It's nice to see that our translator was more faithful to the original title, although the English translator's decision to use Freedom and Death instead also has its merits (I'll have more to say on the title next week in Part 2 of this post). Anyway, thanks for your comment -- I'll try to avoid buying any further books by Kazantzakis, seeing that they can be had for free at local libraries...

Sunday, November 19, 2006 3:59:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home