Sunday, December 10, 2006

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

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

[Continued from Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.]


Folk poetry never disappoints: “ ‘I took my Aunt Thodora down/ One summer evening to the town.// Your beauty's set me in a whirl./ Ah, if you were some other girl!// Child, be a man, and have your way./ I'll be your aunt again, some day.//’ ” (13.415.)

In the days between Séfakas's accident and his death, the heirs are already quarreling over the inheritance (“They were carving up the grandfather alive”, 13.416). Now I remember that a similar thing also occurs in the movie based on another Kazantzakis' novel, Zorba the Greek. There a woman was dying and her neighbors were waiting round her death-bed; and the moment she drew her final breath they fell upon her possessions like a flock of crazy harpies. Now don't get me wrong, I understand that some greed for inheritance is a natural human feeling, but these Cretans were apparently really pushing it well beyond the bounds of good taste.

A conversation between a Cretan and someone from mainland Greece (11.353): “ ‘[. . .] You've no more Turks in your land, you lucky beggars!’ [. . .] ‘We have no Turks, certainly, [. . .] but we have big land-owners, police and politicians. Don't ask me about them, old man.’ ”

Some interesting beliefs about basil: “ ‘Do you have basil there?’ she asked./ ‘No.’/ ‘It grew on the grave of Christ,’ said the old woman, and fell silent.” (12.387.) And after old Séfakas died: “Each woman also threw him a sprig of basil, that he might take it with him into Hades as the scent of the upper world.” (13.436.) Wikipedia mentions that it was “believed to have grown above the spot where St. Constantine and Helen discovered the Holy Cross”. Anyway, I am terribly fond of a bit of basil on tomato salad, and it's interesting to read what sort of superstitious beliefs such an innocent plant is involved in.

A hilarious simile from 4.131, during one of the week-long drinking sessions at Captain Michales's place: “at the next daybreak there they lay again on the floor like abortions, exhausted, saffron-yellow.” Kind of makes you wonder what Kazantzakis was doing when he wasn't writing, in order to get the opportunity to observe abortions lying on the floor... :-)

An interesting footnote about the belief in ‘Charos’: “One of the many survivals of ancient religion among the Christian Greeks. But [. . .] Charos or Charondas is greatly changed from Charon, the ferryman of the Styx. He ‘is the strong and cruel robber, who mercilessly snatches men away from their life in the light of day’ ” (6.183). Some day it would be interesting to read more about what other pre-Christian beliefs survived in Greece after its conversion to Christianity.

Some things in this novel remind one more of the middle ages than of the late 19th century. Here's a scene from the disembarkation of Turkish troops sent to quell the rebellion in Crete: “Right at the end came a swarm of clamouring Dervishes in green skirts and pointed white hats, and with daggers in their belts. They clambered on to the mole, unrolled the green flag of the Prophet in front of the Harbour Gate, and began dancing round it, slowly, clapping their hands.” (8.267.)

As can be seen from numerous examples in this novel, patriotism can be pretty heady stuff. The bishop of Megalokastro shows his friends a painting of a crucifixion scene with Christ replaced by a female personification of Crete: “ ‘Isn't that a sin, Mylord? Crete as Christ?’/ ‘It is one, it is one,’ replied the Metropolitan with a sigh. ‘But. . .’/ ‘But what?’/ ‘But she is worth it,’ murmured the Metropolitan, gazing at the crucified woman, at Crete.” (5.164.)

The suicidal last stand of Michales and his few remaining companions in the last few pages of this book reminds me somewhat of the suicide squad at the end of the Life of Brian, where a group of fighters comes to the site where Brian and the others have been crucified, and the victims' faces already begin to brighten upon seeing that they will soon be rescued, but then the fighters announce that they are the suicide squad and promptly commit suicide (“That showed 'em, huh?”). Here in the last pages of Freedom and Death the situation is scarcely less absurd. Here one of the men who initially decided to leave has changed his mind and has just returned to join in the last stand against the Turks: “ ‘What, are you Vendúsos?’ cried the captain, with his eyes gleaming. ‘Have you come back? [. . .] I take back what I said. Forgive me, brother. Come here, to me.’/ Vendúsos took a step, but a bullet hit him in the forehead and he fell to the ground.” (14.470.) A few lines below, Michales' nephew, recently returned from abroad and with a young wife to look after, decides he wants to stay and die too: “ ‘I'm not going.’/ Suddenly Captain Michales understood. His face beamed. He took Kosmas's head in both hands./ ‘Hail to you, nephew,’ he cried. ‘So you too mean to sacrifice yourself? Immortal Crete!’ ” A funny sort of immortality this, seeing as it involves the pointless suicide of the country's best people — this makes about as much sense as the above-mentioned suicide squad.

Although much of the book is permeated by really fervid Cretan patriotism, the author also acknowledges the humanity of the Turks: “And between the two Christian ranks the Turkish soldiers also were burying their dead, caring for their wounded and thinking, as they stared silently into their camp fires, of their wives and children in far-off Anatolia. Who would plough the fields over there, prune the vines, and earn bread for the family? They too were human beings and not, as the Christians called them, dogs.” (10.324.)

There's also an interesting passage in 14.448 where Efendina (a Turk) and Barba Jannis (a Greek), both rather drunk and at least one of them, possibly both, not really quite right in the head, come to a realization that is, given the circumstances, no less than amazing: that there's no reason in principle why the Greeks and Turks shouldn't be able to get along just fine. “ ‘[. . .] Well then, listen: you're a Turk, I'm a Christian. D'you want to kill me? [. . .] There! I don't want to slaughter you either. Shouldn't all Turks and Christians be like us two? Live like brothers? Haven't you seen how sometimes a bitch will give suck to a kitten among her puppies? Well, that's how it is with Crete. [. . .]’ ”

The two town idiots, who have thus proven to be saner and more reasonable than the vast majority of the testosterone-addled heroes who have been busy knifing and shooting each other for most of the novel, then proceed to the Pasha and describe their radical idea that Turks and Greeks should live in peace. The Pasha laughs, but, to his credit, also understands that they have a point: “ ‘that man's no fool! Who would believe it? The two of them have more sense, by my faith, than the Metropolitan and me. Give them a raki and something nice to eat as well.’ ” (14.451.) But, of course, neither the Pasha nor anyone else acts on this idea, and nothing comes of it.

Anyway, I think this passage is interesting because it illustrates the diversity of characters and subjects touched upon in this book — there really is a wealth of things in this novel, and the author never lets you forget that reality is a very diverse thing and that there are many facets to every story, many opinions to every issue.

(At the same time, one must of course admit that not every conflict can be resolved by a simple ‘let's just get along’. Sometimes there are genuine grievances. It's difficult for me to say to what extent this is the case here in 1889 Crete; this is one thing where I wished that the author had provided more background information. For example, to what extent are the Greeks in Crete being oppressed? Most of them seem to be small-scale farmers or craftsmen and merchants; the Turkish state doesn't seem to be interfering in their life very actively. Nor does it seem to be making any efforts to erase their national identity. On the other hand, the novel clearly shows that there exists in Crete a class of big Turkish landowners; perhaps the Greeks are being oppressed by them, e.g. having to pay rents, though this isn't explicitly stated in the novel. I remember reading, quite some time ago, a novel also set in the Turkish empire in the late 19th century, but in Macedonia rather than in Crete. There it seemed that the Turkish landowners can oppress the population in all manner of barbaric ways which, if you wanted to find similar things happening in the rest of Europe, you would have to travel one if not two centuries farther back in time, deep into the age of feudalism. If the situation in Crete is similar, this would be a good motivation for the uprising; but it isn't clear from the novel if the situation in Crete really is so bad.)

I was often surprised to read of the sort of clothing the Cretans typically wore — nowadays if one travels as a tourist to the Greek islands, one remembers them chiefly for the sweltering heat (2.46) in which any sane person naturally wishes to wear as few, and as light, garments as possible. But here we often encounter the Cretans wearing clothes one would expect in a much colder climate, e.g. “full breeches of thick wool” (11.363). But it's true that in the colder part of the year it can get fairly cold, especially in the mountainous areas; even snow begins to fall in the last pages of the book (14.471).

A charming, if slightly grisly, passage from 4.122, in which the Pasha of Crete muses on his own old age and weakness, and compares it with that of the Turkish empire: “ ‘[. . .] What's to be expected of life, when you can't misbehave any more, when you can't do away with a man when you want to, or kiss any woman you want to? What sort of a Pacha am I? This damned growing old! Ah, what at time I had in other Greek places, when I used to send my executioner along with an apple wrapped in a cloth for the bride and a bullet for the bridegroom. I had them told that they must choose. How could they be expected to choose the bullet? They always chose the apple, and that same evening the bride would come, all tear-stained and dolled up, and would struggle as I like women to do, and then sit on my knee. But now I've grown old. The State, too, has grown old. And it's the fault of this damned Crete!’ ” Is this another example of Nietszchean influences on the writer? The pasha here made a decent effort at living like a superman, above the principles and constraints that affect mere mortals. But anyway, regardless of that, I always find it somewhat sad and touching to read how someone in old age remembers the days of his youth that is now gone for ever, even in a case like this when the youth in question was actually filled to the brim with horrible crimes. Truly, those whom the gods love die young.

It's interesting how both the Greeks and the Turks refer to more or less the whole of Western Europe as ‘Franks’, and to everything that has something to do with the modern world as ‘Frankish’. I always thought that this usage arose in the Arab world somewhere at the time of the crusades; it is quite current among the 19th-century Arabs in Karl May's novels; but I didn't expect the christian Greeks to use it. Perhaps they adopted it under Turkish influence? Or maybe the Greeks, like the Arabs, also used it as early as the middle ages, in the Byzantine times?

This particular edition that I've read is riddled with spelling and typographical errors — I don't remember the last time I've seen so many errors in a single book. There are also some inconsistencies in the transliteration of Greek names, e.g. we have Sifakas in the early chapters of the book but Séfakas thereafter. Apart from this, I have no complaints; the translation is pleasant to read.


I heartily recommend this novel. It's a great read, with lots and lots of interesting things in it, numerous and diverse characters and subplots, it explores a lot of interesting subjects, and it gives you a glimpse into a great patriotic uprising in the nineteenth-century style, the sort of which our jaded and cynical world can only say ‘they don't make them like that anymore’. And it's not a bad thing that they don't, but despite that it's charming to read what this sort of event looked like.


I have a long-term hope to read several other works by Kazantzakis:

  • Zorba the Greek, on which the noted film was based and which brought the author international fame.
  • The Last Temptation, about which I know little else than that the 1988 Martin Scorcese film based on it was considered somewhat notorious in some circles at the time.
  • He also wrote quite a bit of travel writing, which might also be interesting to read, particularly about his travels in Greece.

Like most books, Freedom and Death is printed in black on white; besides this, it's full of heady, blood-soaked, macho stuff, and it ends on a somewhat somber note. All this taken together may leave the impression that Crete is a rather grim place. So after reading this novel one might find oneself wishing for something frivolous and lighthearted to restore one's faith in life and to remind one that Crete can after all also be a very nice place. Therefore I also recommend Hans Silvester's coffee-table books, Cats of the Greek Islands and The Complete Cats in the Sun, both of which are full of gloriously vivid photographs of cats in the beautiful villages and towns of the Greek islands. The cute fuzzy cats, the simple but charming architecture, the bright white masonry, and the deep blue skies will surely go some way towards helping you restore your sense that not everything is dark and gloomy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is quite difficult for a Frankish (Westener) to understand the Greek Turkish struggle. It was not one of ideology, but more of domination.
You have a good point where you ask, "To what extend the Greeks were oppressed by the Turks?" According to a few Greek scholars/historians, the Greeks had a Golden Age under the Turkish Rule. At least they united...

Wednesday, June 22, 2011 2:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A ''Golden Age'' under Turkish rule?? And you wonder to what extend the Greeks were opressed by the Turks?
I'm surprised to read such questions! I won't get into details of why this is insulting for all Greeks..If you read what the Pacha in the novel was doing and that doesn't affect you, nothing will..I'll give only 1 example more..Do you have any idea what happened to the poor island of Chios when they finally rebelled against the Turks? They were all slaughtered (more than 20.000 people killed by a huge Turkish army. The order the Turkish had was to kill all babies, children, women and the men who wouldn't convert to Islam.Delacrois made a painting of this, you can check it.
Turkish and Greek can live in peace but not when either of the two wants to enslave the other.Even though honestly there isn't anywhere documented that Greeks massacred Turks and especially Turkish unarmed population and especially in such a brutal extent the Sultan ordered (the Chios Massacre, source Wikipedia)

Wednesday, November 09, 2011 8:51:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home