/ 27 December 2023

A microcosm of life and death

Full Moon In Athens
Classics: The Temple of Poseidon at Sounio features in The Fratricides by Nikos Kazantzakis, popularly best known for Zorba the Greek. Picture: Getty Images

It is the novel that gave the world a character who inspired countless joyous, life-invigorating dances. Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis was published in 1946, when the author was in his sixty-third year. 

It is not Zorba, however, who is the subject here. Nor is it the title character of Kazantzakis’ Christ Recrucified or The Last Temptation (Christ again). Neither is it St Francis of Assisi, whose fictional biography Kazantzakis presented as God’s Pauper

Captain Michales then, the protagonist-hero of Freedom and Death, Kazantzakis’ novel about the Cretans’ struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire? No, not him either.

Enter instead Father Yánaros, the priest in The Fratricides, set in the village of Castello in Epirus, Greece, at the time of the civil war. In six weeks from December 1944 to January 1945, communist rebels tried to wrest control of Greece from the established order. Aided by the perfidious British, the royal government prevailed. 

But the bitter internecine struggle was not to end there. In 1946 the communists rose again, with the help of neighbouring Yugoslavia. This time, the US propped up the king in Athens, intervening in 1947. 

The following year, fatally for the Reds, the Yugoslavs withdrew assistance and the communist cause was lost.

It’s against this fraternal bloodletting that The Fratricides plays out. In drawing an intimate picture of life and death in one Greek village, Kazantzakis represents the panoply of one of history’s most bitter civil strifes.

This is a war not only of ideologies, but equally so of profound beliefs. It pitches respective saviours against each other — Lenin on the one hand, God on the other. Dialectical materialism faces off against Christian doctrine and faith; socialist conviction opposes profound belief.

As always with Kazantzakis, the novel’s characters embody their principles. Just as in Zorba the Greek, there are no dry debates that are the province only of the pointy-headed academy. Ideas are made flesh and blood, emerge not merely in conversation and rumination but in vividly lived life and, perhaps most movingly, in the diary kept by the young Leonidas. 

“How long are you going on chewing paper and covering yourself with ink?” Zorba asks the unnamed narrator in that novel. 

Through interaction with Zorba, and by absorbing some of his dynamism and ability to live every moment and discern and seize potential, the narrator becomes a more active participant in the life of the world instead of solely that of the mind and the book. (Among Zorba’s affectionate epithets for the narrator are “bookworm”, “Boss” and “Mr Capitalist”.) 

In the beautifully tender and youthful accounts of fighting the rebels, and pondering the future with Maria, his beloved, Leonidas becomes the fully formed version of the bookworm boss in Zorba. (An alternative, and arguably more intriguing, title for which is The Life and Times of Alexis Zorba.) 

Here are some samples:

“February 1: Do you remember a year ago today? When I first met you? We went on an outing to Sounio to see the Temple of Poseidon; we took bread and oranges, and Homer, with us … How old I’ve grown since then! There was no killing in my life; now the bodies lie in heaps, and I sit on them and my heart has become stone. Remember of how we spoke of Homer, and how we were swept up like waves by those immortal verses! What happiness we had: Homer — that sacred text — the Old Testament of our people had suddenly come to life within us.”

A mere 11 days later, Leonidas recounts the terrible carrying out of an order to clear a village of its inhabitants and place them in a miniature concentration camp.

“An order was issued to take hostage all those who had relatives with the rebels — parents, brothers, sisters, wives — and herd them into a deep pit surrounded with barbed wire, on the outskirts of the village.”

The villagers resist. Leonidas describes their anguished cries and how “they grabbed on to the doors, the windows, the rims of the wells, and would not let go — they refused to be moved”. 

The soldiers beat the villagers with rifle butts, rip their clothing and pry them loose, lining them up in a queue of battered and bleeding people.

“But slowly, gradually — how strange is this dangerous, dirty animal we call man — slowly I grew ugly. In making the angry gestures, I became angry, too. I beat their hands as they clutched the doors; I grabbed women by the hair and trampled the children with my boots.”

It is in this landscape of brutalised people that Father Yánaros attempts to heal the body and succour the soul of all: redhood (rebel) or blackhood (soldier), communist or royalist, believer or sceptic or unbeliever. 

He comes to Castello after years of wandering and wondering, set off by a brutal upheaval, the “population transfer” of Greeks in Turkey to their original homeland and of Turks in the opposite direction.

Father Yánaros and his community are content in a prosperous village on the Black Sea, where “the earth was fertile, wheat and cornstalks grew high, olive trees were overladen with the blessed fruit, heaps of melons lay in the fields”.

Suddenly, a world and all life in it is changed. 

“One morning a heart-rending cry came from the square: ‘Uproot yourselves! The strong of the earth command. Go! The Greeks to Greece, the Turks to Turkey! Take your children, your wives, your icons, and get out! You have ten days!’” 

Weeks later the villagers, led by the older Father Damianos and Father Yánaros, reach a village vacated by its Turkish residents. Renaming it St Constantine, they settle in but because it is too small for two priests, the younger Father Yánaros sets out, a priest in search of a community (“parish” in the Anglophone sense).

On his vigorous striding, hopeful and always contemplative, he comes across the monastic communities of Mount Athos. 

Here, over years and in different settlements, he learns and questions before finally journeying on the hard roads once more, searching again for a people to serve. 

One day, he enters Castello, a harsh and stony place, austere in its treelessness, lack of song birds, flowerpots, laughter and good years. 

“And the souls who lived within these stones were hard and inhospitable. Mountains, houses, people —they were all granite.” 

There is only one thing for Father Yánaros to do — stay. This world unfolds in the remaining four-fifths of the book (only one-fifth of which the synopsis above describes). It is a time and place of the essential, of life and death, freedom and death, freedom or death. 

At the quiet centre of the storm is Father Yánaros, siding only with God and never against any men and women, communist rebels and government loyalists, Leninists and royalists, believers and atheists. 

It is the grandest of canvases, on which Kazantzakis paints his own profound philosophy and engages readers in the deepest matters of heart, mind and soul. 

It was not for nothing that Kazantzakis was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature nine times. 

When Albert Camus won, by a single vote, that French novelist, philosopher and rebel said candidly that Kazantzakis should have done so instead.

For his neutrality, Father Yánaros is excoriated from both sides, the Reds calling him “Tramp! Fascist! Scoundrel!” and the Blacks jeering “Bulgar! Traitor! Bolshevik!” at him.

In response, Father Yánaros speculates that, if Christ came down to earth, “would He, too, stand in the middle, with arms outstretched, shouting, ‘Brothers, unite! Brothers, unite!’” 

Of all Kazantzakis’ musings here, perhaps the following is the most startling, and an apt coda to any consideration of his masterpiece. 

“‘I found the Comforter among the guerillas,’ the monk replied quietly, ‘but they don’t know who sent him and they call him Lenin. They don’t even know why he was sent; they think that he came to create a new world, a more just world. 

“‘But he did not come to create. He came to destroy! To destroy the old world and prepare the way for the One who is coming.’”