In Greece we are about to celebrate Easter. Let me tell you, Greece is pretty messed up right now, and it has been for the past six years. It doesn’t feel like Easter, no one is feeling particularly festive and after a while you start thinking, “why bother?”. The way things are, Greece is completely de-intellectualized: literature and arts are a luxury no one wants to pay any attention to. And yet, I can only find solace in literature and poetry. For a while now I have wanted to write about some of my favourite Greek novelists and poets. Nikos Kazantzakis is one of them. Every Easter I try to revisit Kazantzakis’ work, especially The Last Temptation and Christ Recrucified.
A few artists have managed to grasp the Greek spirit in the way Nikos Kazantzakis did. His writing feels contemporary, yet he praises the lost safety of tradition. Zorba the Greek is his most famous novel (a semi-autobiographical work), thanks to the success of Michael Cacoyannis’ movie, but his other lesser-known books (Captain Michalis, The Fatricides, Report to Greco etc) are equally good. In Kazantzakis’ fiction, religion becomes a personal experience that sometimes doesn’t abide to the rules of organized worship. Kazantzakis describes the priests as corrupt and power hungry, unable and unwilling to realize the true meaning of God. It comes as no surprise that there was a campaign for his excommunication from the Church of Greece. The Last Temptation, what I’m currently reading (or, to be more precise, re-reading), is Kazantzakis’ take on how the Gospel describes Christ and his actions.
“The dual substance of Christ—the yearning, so human, so superhuman, of man to attain to God or, more exactly, to return to God and identify himself with him—has always been a deep inscrutable mystery to me, ”, he writes in the preface of the book, and that’s essentially what the book is about. The Last Temptation is a re-telling of Christ’s journey to the Cross, from his point of view. Kazantzakis creates a humanized version of Jesus Christ, not a fearless messiah. He constructs Christ as an everyday man who is not immune to doubt, temptation, and fear. The Apostles, too, are men of flaws and doubt.
I understand why The Last Temptation can be interpreted as a blasphemous book, I understand. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of the Christ caused a great controversy as well, both in Greece, but also internationally. If we put aside the religious element though, Kazantzakis tells a story of human struggle, an inner struggle between pleasure and duty, sin, and virtue. “In order to mount to the Cross, the summit of sacrifice, and to God, the summit of immateriality, Christ passed through all the stages which the man who struggles passes through”, Kazantzakis writes in the preface, reminding us that we all struggle, we all fall and we all, eventually, rise. The story of Christ is a story of hope, and I think that we all need this kind of hope, the kind of hope that comes from within.
I’ve only read the book in Greek. Kazantzakis was a distinctive writing style, he is infamous for his complicated words. It can be a true nightmare to translators. His language, however, is beautifully human and real. The Greek language has a musical flow in it, but Kazantzakis’ writing is pure lyricism and poetry. I haven’t been able to get my hands on a translated copy of any of his books, but I’m curious to see if the translated versions do his writing any justice.
Whenever I read Nikos Kazantzakis I have the same thoughts: what did we do wrong? Why aren’t we paying more attention to what he has to say? I’m not particularly religious, quite the opposite I daresay, but I’ve never felt more connected to faith and spirituality than when I read his work. Easter is not Easter without reading Nikos Kazantzakis. From the beautiful Christ Recrucified to the raw and almost violent Ascesis: The Saviors of God (Ασκητική), Nikos Kazantzakis makes me feel the true meaning of Easter: hope, hope and compassion. The story of rebirth and ascension is universal, and the hope that accompanies it much needed.