Sunday, December 03, 2006

BOOK: Nikos Kazantzakis, "Freedom and Death" [3/4]

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

[Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.]

Non-macho Cretans

To the author's credit, not all Cretans are grim macho warriors. Particularly in the first half of the book, when most of the story is taking place in the principal town of Crete, Megalokastro, he shows us a number of very diverse minor characters and their little subplots.

“ ‘[W]hy do you let your wife slash you to ribbons? You never raise a hand to lick her into shape. You're making all us men look fools. Aren't you ashamed of yourself?’ [. . .] ‘I am ashamed, Captain Polyxigis, I am ashamed, but I enj-j-joy it.’ “ (2.76.)

“First of all, the wife of Mastrapas untied her husband, that holy man, from the bedposts, to which she tied him fast every evening out of jealousy, to prevent him from going secretly downstairs and finding the fat maid, Anesina, with her cow breasts, in the kitchen below.” (2.51.)

Then there's the complaint of poor Mr. Demetrós, who is unable to keep his wife happy: “ ‘What the Devil does she want from me now? Isn't the night enough? Where does she get the energy, the shameless woman? Has someone put petroleum in her buttocks?’ ” (2.59.) The wife is rather ironically named Penelope. On the next page, observing a group of children, she says: “ ‘Ah! if only the lot were mine. And not all by Demetrós, God forgive me!’ ” (2.60.)

“Once only, when he was ill, he called his wife. ‘Ah, wife, in God's name [. . .] tell me the truth. Are the children we've got mine?’ But his wife said nothing. ‘Tell me the truth, wife. You can see I'm dying. What are you afraid of?’ ‘And suppose you don't die?’ ” (2.61.)

Then there's the kooky Mr. Idomeneas, always pathetically writing ridiculous letters to all manner of European potentates, insisting that they do something about the situation in Crete (6.187, 7.226, 9.280–1). “[T]o-day it was as though Konstantinos Palaiologos [last Byzantine emperor] [. . .] were himself turning to address Victoria, Queen of England:/ My dear cousin Victoria, / Four hundred and thirty-six years have now gone by since I was killed. [. . .]” (7.226.)

Then there's the physician who had studied in France and got married there. His wife is now thoroughly unhappy with her life in Crete: “ ‘Where's the railway you said ran past our house?’ the Frenchwoman had wailed during the first weeks. ‘That's what you said in Paris.’ And the fat doctor laughed. ‘In Megalokastro we call the donkeys our railway,’ he answered.” (2.53.)

Then there's the door-to-door seller of drinks: “Because of the great heat Barba Jannis had ordered three ass-loads of snow from Psilorítis, and went running up and down with his bronze can to bring the agas refreshing coolness.” (9.277.) I of course realize that ‘ass’ means ‘donkey’, but I nevertheless cannot help snickering at “three ass-loads of snow”. Tubgirl comes to mind...

Then there's the amateur archaeologist, whom almost everyone else considers crazy: he “had in his time travelled into the land of the Franks to become a doctor, and had come back with his head turned. His madness consisted in paying workmen to dig up the earth for him in places where there were ruins”, etc. (5.159).

On self-torment

Then there's the crazy Efendina, a Turk who has taken it into his head to become a saint and has embarked on a curious love/hate relationship with his sins and indeed with himself (3.98–100). He participates in the drinking sessions at Michales's and obsessively piles sin upon sin, stuffing himself with pork and wine, and then subsequently takes a pathological kind of joy in grieving over what he has done, in hurling abuse at himself, crawling about and loudly proclaiming how ashamed he is.

‘By my faith, Captain Michales, threaten me,’ he used to say to him, ‘hold a knife to my throat! Shout at me: “Guzzle pig's flesh, swill wine, or I'll kill you!” Force me, Captain Michales, so I shan't be sinning.’” (3.99.) “Sins only began to bring real satisfaction when one was well and truly up to the neck in them. Then one began to enjoy them, and then one began to have something to repent of.” (4.132.) “ ‘I have defiled myself,’ he screamed, ‘eaten pork, drunk wine, uttered wicked words. Men and women, forgive me! May God also have mercy and forgive me! [. . .]’ ” (4.144.)

I sympathize with his position a great deal. Although I personally don't have any religious feelings myself, I'd say that his problem is simply an extreme case of guilty pleasures, and guilty pleasures are something with which I'm very familiar too. They arise when the set of things that you enjoy and the set of things that you think one ought to enjoy don't match. Unfortunately, as it turns out, most of my pleasures are of the guilty sort. For some reason (I don't know why this is the case, though I deeply regret that it is the case) I enjoy all the wrong things.

One ought to enjoy high art, but I actually only enjoy pop and kitsch. One ought to enjoy belles lettres, but I enjoy pulp fiction much more (though I force myself to avoid it most of the time). One ought to enjoy boring, pretentious arthouse films, but I enjoy Hollywood blockbusters much more (though I force myself not to go to the movies more than once a year or so). One ought to enjoy sublime dishes in small portions on huge plates, but I enjoy simple and unhealthy things with a high fat and calorie content, the larger the serving the better. One ought to enjoy bitter chocolate with 70% or 85% cocoa content, but I don't like it at all; I enjoy plain simple milk chocolate, the sweeter the better. One ought to enjoy classical music, but I enjoy fado more, and pop music even more.

Heck, I even enjoy listening to Britney Spears; that, and watching her videos, and I genuinely think she's gorgeous. And not just her, but also a gazillion other recent pop stars that all look and sound pretty much alike. Everyone I've ever heard of agrees that they are completely vapid and that they aren't even all that good looking — everyone, apparently, but me! Can there be greater shame than that? Of course there can be: I enjoyed Stars are Blind, both the song and the video, and I even think that Paris looks quite pretty in it (though I admit that those who describe her face as somewhat equine do have a point).

But wait, I have more: I even enjoy this abomination. There are as of this writing 19 comments on that post, and not one of them has got anything good to say about either the song, the lyrics, the video, or the singer. And yet I have just listened to the song some ten times in a row, and enjoy it immensely. Of course the lyrics are inane and their English is atrocious, so that even I cringed the first few times, but little by little I got used to it. And I unreservedly enjoy the song, the music, the video, her whiny voice, and I think the singer is genuinely pretty.

Why, o why must this sort of shame always fall upon me? Why, whenever twenty people agree that something is an abomination, why must I always be the one who enjoys it? Why must all my aesthetic preferences run exactly in the wrong direction? How can I live with this shame?

This feeling of self-loathing reminds me somewhat of that described at the end of Baudelaire's wonderful poem, Heautontimoroumenos (‘I am the vampire of my own heart’, etc.).

From zeros to heroes

There are several interesting side-stories which, taken as a whole, show how all sorts of people slowly become caught up in the patriotic fervor of the insurrection; one could even say (if one were given to vague and pompous pronouncements, which I'm not) that they find their realization in it, their meaning, that they are much improved by the experience.

Thus we find Vendúsos, one of the regular if only semi-willing participants in Michales's morose week-long drinking bouts, initially sent away by Michales some time before his suicidal last stand as the captain knows he is not much of a hero (“ ‘You're Vendúsos, I don't ask anything of you, behave like a Vendúsos if you wish!’ ”, 14.442); but just hours before the last battle itself, Vendúsos decides to return and promptly gets himself killed minutes before Michales himself (14.470). As Vendúsos himself explains on 14.446, before he returns: “ ‘I wasn't a palikare, ever, schoolmaster. But how can I help it? I've become one. Who sits with a blind man soon squints. Captain Michales is the cause.’ ” (But the idea that blindness is somehow infectious is profoundly ridiculous.)

As another example, there's Michales's younger brother, Tityros the schoolmaster. Teaching is not exactly a respected profession among the Cretans, and their contempt is only strengthened by the fact that he wears glasses and modern clothes and that he is not physically strong. He gets married to a 35-year old woman who not only hasn't got much to recommend herself, but is actually more fond of her spendthrifty and indolent brother than of the man she had just married (4.137–42, 6.187–8). (Incidentally, I wonder what to make of this relationship between her and her brother. There don't seem to be any hints of incest between them, at least not that I could find although I read those parts of the book with some care.)

He finally gets fed up with this and poisons his brother-in-law, whereupon his wife commits suicide (8.259–62). But this act, although it is considered a cowardly and unmanly way of killing a person, is Tityros's last shameful act and actually seems to set him on the course to become a proper Cretan man (9.307–8). He becomes involved in the uprising, takes up traditional Cretan costume again and even gets engaged to be married again quite soon (11.362–5). His new-found patriotic ardour also informs his educational work: “ ‘Whole chains of Cretan children are hanging round my neck. I'm awakening Crete in them, to the best of my power.’ ” (14.446.)

And then there's Michales's nephew Kosmas, who had studied abroad for many years, got married to a Jewish woman in Russia and now returned to Crete together with his pregnant wife, whom he loves very much (12.391–5). By the time of his return most of the uprising is largely over, except for Michales's suicidal last stand; Kosmas visits him, intending to try to persuade him one last time to give up, but once Kosmas gets there, he himself decides to join Michales and promptly (and uselessly) gets himself killed by the Turks.

Whatever foreign ideas he might have had, they evaporated instantly in those heady moments and gave way to an atavistic bloodlust: “Smeared with powder and blood, he was listening now to his heart, which had gone wild. In his breast his father, the terrible leader in battle, had awakened, and his grandfather, and Crete. This was not his first battle: for a thousand times already he had been fighting, a thousand times he had been killed and had risen again. His blood stormed.” (14.469.) “He thought of nothing any more. All Frankish, intellectual ideas had vanished, together with his mother, wife and son. Nothing remained standing, except this single, ancient duty.” (14.471.)

Incidentally, his wife seems to be haunted by the ghost of his late father (12.396, 12.406–7, 13.438), which causes her to have a spontaneous abortion (14.456–8); this is curious, but I really can't make much sense of that little subplot.

[To be continued in a few days.]


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