Saturday, November 25, 2006

BOOK: Nikos Kazantzakis, "Freedom and Death" [2/4]

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

[Continued from last week.]

The title

The translator and/or publishers seem to have taken some freedom with the title; the original title is something more like Captain Michales, after the central character in the book; but the English translation is titled Freedom or Death (the U.S. edition) or Freedom and Death (the U.K. edition).

But I don't really disapprove of this change of title. The central subject of the book, in my opinion, is the Cretan rising against the Turks in 1889, not just the story of Captain Michales personally, and so the translator's change of title seems fairly appropriate.

“Freedom or death” was the motto used by the Greeks in their 19th-century efforts to achieve independence: first in the 1820s, in the war with which Greece broke away from the Turkish Empire; but later also in the numerous subsequent risings in Crete, which initially remained part of the Turkish empire after the rest of Greece became independent. According to the Wikipedia, “freedom or death” is still the official motto of the Greek republic.

As for the version that is used as the title of the U.K. edition, “freedom and death”, this alludes to a passage in 14.464–5, where Michales comments that “ ‘that's what I should have written on my banner. That's the true banner of every fighter: Freedom and death! Freedom and death!’ ” I think he is trying to say that a fighter won't be able to avoid death: either he himself will get killed, or his loved ones and his comrades will, and additionally he will himself deal out death, to his enemies. Well, anyway, I think that, while ‘freedom and death’ may be a reasonable motto for an individual hero, ‘freedom or death’ is much better if you are looking for the motto of a national movement as a whole, as the people as a whole are really seeking freedom rather than death.

Freedom and death, nostalgia and melancholy

All this talk about freedom or death, or freedom and death, tends to move me into a melancholy mood. It is touching to think of the innocent days of the 19th century, when it was still possible to think of patriotism as a noble ideal, and when concepts such as a nation's struggle for freedom could inspire admiration rather than merely cynical derision and disgust. Alas, after all the horrors to which the excesses and abuses of patriotism have led in the 20th century, we in the present age are denied this luxury. At least I personally find patriotism to be a regrettable thing, and one that is hard to understand.

It's true that I am reasonably fond of my native country, but that is mainly because I'm used to it; I find its climate congenial to my taste; I am fond of its language because I clearly feel (e.g. everytime I am working on one of these posts in English) that it is the only one in which I am fully functional; and I am fond of its people, of my compatriots, not because they are particularly good or likeable people but because so many of them are f**ked up in ways similar to me. But none of these things can properly be called patriotism. I doubt I would be willing to risk my life in the name of ‘freedom or death’, the way the Cretans do in this novel, if my native country were threatened by some external enemy (or by the threat of an internal dictator, for that matter). And if I shudder at the thought of how miserable I would feel if I had to leave this country at some point and move abroad, this is not due to any patriotic feeling but simply because moving would be so terribly inconvenient and because I doubt that life abroad would be any more enjoyable.

The sort of fervid patriotism that was so deep and widespread in the 19th and even the first part of the 20th century, with flag-waving, chest-beating, declamations of rousing songs and anthems, inspires in me nothing but incomprehension and a vague sense of disgust. Isn't it obvious to everyone how this sort of patriotism facilitates countless wars, persecution and other horrors? And yet it is not at all enjoyable to live with this sort of nihilistic void inside one's heart; and that is why I am touched, sometimes even a tiny bit envious, when I see how, in the innocent days of the early- and mid-19th century, it was possible for people to feel a sense of delight, perhaps even a sense of pride, due to the mere fact that they belonged to some particular ethnic group rather than a different one.

There is another way in which the thought of ‘freedom or death’ fills me with melancholy, although this may be stretching the meaning of the phrase somewhat. ‘Freedom’ can mean many different things, of course; from the way the Greeks used it in their wars of independence, it seems that ‘freedom’ in the phrase ‘freedom or death’ refers chiefly to national freedom, to independence from foreign rule (i.e. Turkish rule in the case of the Greeks). But the other meaning of ‘freedom’ could be personal freedom, the freedom to do as one pleases. (Now of course in some sense the Greeks were also fighting for this; undoubtedly they weren't fighting their war of independence with a view to replacing the rule of a Turkish tyrant with that of a domestic one, but with a view to replacing it by a more democratic system in which the state is prevented from excessively oppresing its people.)

Well, when I think of the phrase ‘freedom or death’ from the point of view of personal freedom, it's sad to think how hollow this phrase rings today. Nowadays, most people have so little freedom as is scarcely worth speaking about. Laws hem us in from all sides; hardly anything one could conceivably wish to do is permitted. In most cases, ‘freedom to do X’ basically means ‘freedom to do X, as long as you don't mind starving, going to prison, or suffering some other sort of heinous consequence’. The vast majority of people are basically slaving their lives away for the benefit of a small handful of the rich. Freedom is beyond our reach, and as for death, we are too cowardly to choose it, either for ourselves (through suicide), or for others (through murder or revolution); and so we are left without both. A thoroughly pointless and miserable life, this.

The Cretans

These passages speak for themselves.

“There are peoples and human beings who call to God with prayers and tears or a disciplined, reasonable self-control—or even curse Him. The Cretans called to him with guns. They stood before God's door and let off rifle shots to make Him hear. ‘Insurrection!’ bellowed the Sultan, when he first heard the shooting, and in raving fury sent Pachas, soldiers and gangs. ‘Insolence!’ cried the Franks, and let loose their warships against the tiny barks that fought, braving death, between Europe, Asia and Africa. ‘Be patient, be reasonable, don't drag me into bloodshed!’ wailed Hellas, the beggar-mother, shuddering. ‘Freedom or death!’ answered the Cretans, and made a din before God's door.” (2.65–6.)

“Bertódulos [. . .] was the first man in Megalokastro [. . .] to have shaved off his moustache. At first the Cretans had supposed that smooth skin natural and were not angry. But as they realised that he shaved, they became furious. That is not possible! He is destroying the order of things! He is mixing up women and men.” (3.96.)

Bertódulos, who is not from Crete originally, finds himself present at one of Michales's week-long drinking sessions: “The eggs had already been eaten, shells and all. Now Captain Michales with a blow from his fist, smashed the pottery egg-cups and distributed them to his guests to eat. [. . .] There are three sorts of men, Bertódulos slowly explained to himself: those who eat eggs without the shells; those who eat eggs with the shells; and those who gobble them up with the shells and the egg-cups as well. Those of the third kind are called Cretans.” (4.128. Although some of us wonder if a change of the last vowel there might not be called for.)

After the ceremony in which Captain Michales and Nuri Bey become blood-brothers: “The two men wiped their knives in their hair and hid them once more in their belts.” (1.28. This is just a step away from this joke...)

Near the end of the book, just before his final stand against the Turks: “He let out a curse, picked up a stone and clasped it till the blood dripped from his hand.” (14.464.)

“Hard of approach, rebellious, harsh was this land. She allowed not a moment of comfort, of gentleness, of repose. Crete had something inhuman about her. One could not tell whether she loved her children or hated them. One thing was certain: she scourged them till the blood flowed.” (13.415. Yup, Crete's a bitch, just see 14.448 :-)) “ ‘What strength is there, what souls! For thousands of years they have struggled in this wilderness of rocks, with hunger, thirst, discord and death. And they don't bow down. They don't even complain. In the deepest hopelessness the Cretan finds redemption.’ ” (13.416.) This last passage seems somewhat inspired by Nietzsche's idea ‘what doesn't kill me, makes me stronger’, which I guess is reasonable as the wikipedia does say that Nietzsche influenced Kazantzakis' work.

Another example of this is Michales's attitude towards the lepers (2.88): “Captain Michales turned his face away. He hated to see illness. ‘Only healthy people ought to live,’ he thought. ‘What use are these?’ “

Michales' relationship with god is about as sullen as you would expect from such a character. “Always when he thought of Crete, abandoned by all, he disputed with God. A violent blasphemy pressed forward to the tip of his tongue. He did not lament before God, he was angry with Him. He asked for no sympathy, he asked for justice. [. . .] ‘But I can't fight it out with Thee, my God,’ he growled between his teeth. ‘So I shall fight it out with men.’ ” (4.147.) Religion seems to be even farther from his mind in the last pages of the book, when just before the final stand against the Turks he looks “up at the uninhabited sky high above” (14.465; this is the same passage in which he comments memorably that for fighters like him it is freedom and death rather than freedom or death).

A related take on god, this time by Michales's father, Séfakas: “ ‘Thou art a Cretan and thou shalt be tried,’ murmured the old man, and closed his eyes. [. . .] How many risings had he lived through? How often had the houses been burned, trees felled, women dishonoured, men killed! And always God had refused to turn His eyes upon Crete./ ‘Is there, anywhere in the world, justice and pity—a God?’ he cried, and struck the slate with his fist. ‘Or is He deaf and merciless?’ ” (11.341.) This passage also illustrates how patriotism in this novel sometimes takes on a nearly quasi-religious, messianic garb. Of course, if somebody said such things now, it would be hilariously funny; but in the context of the novel it works fine because the reader remembers that the story is taking place in the nineteenth century when it was still possible to take patriotism seriously. I suspect the author himself took it seriously, at least to some extent.

Séfakas continues on 11.345: “ ‘We Cretans are not like other people. We have twice as much work to do. In the rest of the world you're a shepherd. You think of nothing but the sheep. [. . .] But a Cretan thinks of Crete as well. And Crete is a great plague! It takes all you have and is always right! It demands of you even your life, and you give it, and are glad to. A great plague it is, you mark my words!’ ”

Michales on other people: “ ‘I'm beginning to think,’ he muttered, ‘that I can only be friends with horses. Yes, if Crete had wolves and boars. . . . Human beings seem to me to be nothing but pitiful idiots.’ ” (4.129.)

Michales to the Pasha's messenger, offering amnesty for him and his men if they give up their insurrection: “ ‘Let all Crete submit if it will, I am not submitting. I sh— on the beard of your Prophet!’ ” (12.379.)

Old Séfakas

Another imposing character illustrating many of the characteristics and attitudes that we saw above ascribed to Cretans generally is the old Captain Séfakas, Michales's father, a grizzled near-centenarian and the veteran of countless uprisings from 1821 onwards. “ ‘[. . .] on his wedding night, so I've heard tell, he broke three beds. Don't laugh, master, I'm telling you the truth.’ ” (13.409.) By the time our novel takes place in 1889, he is of course too old to fight, but he asks one of his grandsons to teach him the capital letters, and then proceeds to paint ‘Freedom or death’ all over his village (11.371, 12.377, 12.398–9).

I found this quite touching — nowadays that everyone is taught to read and write at a very early age, the idea of writing seems somehow obvious and commonplace to us. We hardly ever pause to think what a remarkable and wonderful invention it really is. Séfakas, who learnt to read with no small effort at the age of one hundred, was in a much better position to appreciate it: “After each letter he put his head back and admired his work. His mind could not grasp the mystery of how one could put together little strokes and curves and raise up out of them a voice—a choir of voices. How could those signs speak? Great art Thou, O Lord!/ [. . .] Wherever he found a flat, clean wall or a large door, he stopped and painted on it the magic signs. And a wall, which before had stood dumb and forlorn, now loudly announced its longing, palikare-like.” (12.377. Palikare is glossed by the translator as ‘young warrior’, 1.27.)

At some point during all this painting, he falls off a ladder (12.398–9) and dies a few days later as a result. There are many impressive and even touching passages in the pages dealing with his last days. He keeps his good humour, e.g. he jokes with the carpenter who comes to take the measurements for his coffin (13.418–9: “ ‘I want it of good timber! Have you got walnut?’/ ‘Of course, captain.’/ The old man turned to Thrásaki [his grandson]:/ ‘Can you tell walnut-wood, Thrásaki?’/ ‘That I can, grandad!’/ ‘Good! Well, make sure that Stavrulios doesn't swindle us. I want it made of walnut. Go!’ ”).

Before dying, he also invites three old comrades of his, all veterans of 1821 and the later uprisings, now in their nineties, for one last discussion about the meaning and purpose of life (13.424–35). The first one, Captain Mándakas, briefly recalls the story of his life and concludes that, while there was much fighting and killing, he was doing it for freedom (13.429). The second one, Captain Katsirmas, then recounts his life, which was mostly dedicated to bloodthirsty piracy and which he freely admits had no meaning beyond the simple Hobbesian homo homini lupus. The third one says nothing, but plays for a long time on his fiddle, during which time the old man peacefully expires. I don't pretend to be able to make any heads or tails of all these proceedings, but it was all quite moving to read.

Incidentally, during Mándakas' tale there's a handy list of most if not all the Cretan revolts up to that point: 1829, '34, '41, '54, '78 (13.428). Mándakas keeps the ears of all the enemies he'd killed in battle, preserved in a jar of alcohol. At some point he sat in a Turkish coffeehouse and ordered some charcoal for his pipe, then ran to to the mansion of a Turkish bey and killed him: “ ‘And so I got back to the coffee-house just as the waiter was bringing me the charcoal. [. . .] No one had noticed my absence’ ” (13.426), thereby providing him with a perfect alibi. I wonder if this passage is meant to be a joke at the expense of Turkish waiters, but then I doubt if the Greeks are much speedier.

One thing has to be said for that bloodthirsty corsair, Katsirmas: he is an equal-opportunity misanthrope. “ ‘I've seen millions of black men, millions of yellow men—my eyes brimmed over with them! At first I thought they all stank. I said: ‘Only Cretans smell good. And of the Cretans only the Christians.’ But slowly, slowly, I got used to their stink. I found—I found that we all smell good and stink in the same way. Curse us all!’ ” (13.430–1.)

Another touching scene involving old Séfakas occurs on 11.354–5, where he remembers some events from a previous uprising. His narrative is interspersed by an endless stream of “God rest his soul!” and similar remarks as nearly all the people involved are already dead. This is of course unsurprising, as he's nearly a hundred years old. But I find it somewhat horrible to think how it must feel if one lives to such an advanced age that all the people one used to know in one's younger years are long dead, and the events in which one has been personally involved are regarded by most people as distant history. This begins to show itself even at eighty, I guess, but at a hundred it must be really pronounced.

When he learns that his grandson got married to a Jewish woman, Séfakas turns out to be remarkably tolerant: “ ‘They say you've chosen a Jewess.’/ ‘Yes,’ said Kosmas, looking hesitantly at the old man./ ‘Nothing wrong with that, you fool. They too have souls. One God made us all. You did right. [. . .]’ ” (13.421.)

Another scene where he leaves a very positive impression is on 11.344–5, where, unlike many old people, he doesn't feel that everything is worse than it used to be in the days of his youth: “ ‘[. . .] You'll be even better than your father. Why are you goggling at me? That's what's wanted. Woe to us, if the son doesn't do better than his sire! The world would go to pieces.’ ”

All in all, I think that including a character such as Séfakas was a great idea. The patriotic fervor, to which his demon-obsessed son Michales had succumbed beyond all reasonable proportions, is present in Séfakas but in a saner amount, and his old age and experience impart to his character a mellowness and a humanity which Michales and most of the other hot-blooded heroes of fighting age in this novel sorely lack.

[To be continued in a few days.]


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