“ The villagers had scattered, some in the square, some in the churchyard, and tongues were going full tilt…”
As I’ve written previously:
Nikos Kazantzakis was an extraordinary writer of passion and patriotism, and like a good many people I came to him through the film, Zorba the Greek, based on his novel, which was as good a way as any.
I saw the film in an open air cinema in Famagusta, Cyprus, in 1967, which drew quite a crowd, mainly locals, who sat through the film in silence, even though the film was quite funny in places. After the film, when the audience left the cinema, the Greek members of the audience looked solemn, some with tears in their eyes. It was pointed out to me just how important Kazantzakis was to the Greeks, not only as a writer but also as a saviour of their land and culture, and of their hopes.
I had to know more about this writer.
A couple of days after the film I came across a 1964 Faber & Faber copy of his novel, Christ Recrucified, in a Famagusta book shop, and found Nikos’s writing(translated from the Greek by Jonathan Griffin) totally absorbing and which Thomas Mann has described as a novel that is:
“ …without doubt a work of high artistic order formed by a tender and firm hand and built up with strong dynamic power. I have particularly admired the poetic tact in phrasing the subtle yet unmistakable allusions to the Christian passion story. They give the book its mythical background which is such a vital element in the epic form of today.”
On my return from Cyprus I became slightly obsessed with the life and works of Nikos Kazantzakis, who had been born, like my grandfather, in the 1880s, witnessing World War One, and the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire, and the conflicts between Crete and Turkey before that, the preamble to which he describes in his Report to Greco:
“ In time I saw clearly. The opponents were Crete and Turkey; Crete was battling to gain freedom, the other trampling on its breast and preventing it. After that everything around me acquired a face, the face of Crete and Turkey; in my imagination, and not only in my imagination but in my flesh as well, everything became a symbol reminding me of the terrible contest…”
I actually began to read the novel before returning to the UK, usually sitting at a table of a favourite cafe run by an old Greek with a large moustache, and a fierce dislike of Turks, all Turks.
Who the hell did I think I was, back then, showing off alarmingly, smoking Greek cigarettes, and reading their beloved Kazantzakis? But the cafe owner nodded approvingly as the empty coffee cups stacked up, as would, later, the wine glasses as I read Kazanzakis’s re-telling of the story of Christ’s Crucifixion through the prism of a passion play in a small Greek village during the latter stages of the Ottoman Empire.
The cafe was in the old part of Famagusta, away from the beach, where the old men sat, smoking the same cigarettes as me, drinking the same wine, and reminiscing with their old friends from army days, or when they worked in the fishing boats when there were fishing boats, or perhaps took up arms against the British in the days of EOKA, not so many years before.
They were the same old men who would have frequented the one cafe in the village where the passion play was held every year, and perhaps might have removed their hats, reluctantly, as the young shepherd boy passed by.
With his hands bound behind his back, his head covered with wounds and his flesh blue from the blows of the whip, Panayotaros followed him, dragging. Only his eyes were still alive. He darted glances full of hate right and left upon the villagers…
Or in their younger days when a fellow fighter’s body, or a drowned fisherman was paraded before burial, or perhaps, in the days of war, a prisoner was forced to kneel before execution, knowing full well the consequences. They had seen it as they looked at me, wondering, unsmiling, until they saw the name on the book and nodded and then looked away.
Those old men would have been familiar then of the way of life in a small Cypriot village, not so unlike the Crete village where Kazantzakis grew up, or the young shepherd boy, in the village of Lycovrissi, as he looked after his sheep in the hills where he could smell the warming winter-cleansed air.
The first of May. Summer is coming. In the still green plain the corn is already turning gold the olives are knotting and growing, the vines are adorning themselves with little acid clusters, a bitter milk flows in the green figs which will soon be all honey. The inhabitants of Lycovrissi are eating garlic to keep themselves well — the whole village reeks of it.
As did that street where the cafe was, as the old men greeted an old slow moving priest with a stick who would sit down with them, accepting a small glass of young brandy from the cafe owner, which he sipped as he spoke to the old men, who had not removed their hats. He was still one of them. They were his.
Every Sunday, after Mass, he was in the habit of addressing his flock, to restore their courage. First he would greet them, find a good word for each one, then he would begin to preach to them the word of God and his own. At the start his voice was always calm, but little by little he would warm up and his words would seem to dive from somewhere very high, the better to fall into men’s souls.
As the old priest left his friends and hobbled toward me he stopped and looked at me and shook his head, then hobbled on his way.
Old Patriarches is beginning once more to keep good cheer; he has become pot-bellied, his blood has thickened. The other morning Andonis the barber cupped him to save him from a stroke…
In that one small street I saw, and felt, and smelled the very essence of Kazantzakis, the acceptance of how things are, how they might have been, how they could still become. That street was obliterated in 1974 when the Turks invaded. The cafe owner would not have survived, he may have died along with the other old men, and the priest, as they took up arms against the Turkish paratroopers. Famagusta has remained empty since that time. It was a crucifixion of a kind.
For hours he wandered through the streets; he went into the mat-shaded market, paused in the courtyard of a mosque, crossed a donkey-back bridge, lost his way in some gardens and once more slipped in among the lanes. He looked about him but saw nothing. His boiling brain exhaled vapours which confused his sight.
Nikos Kazantzakis is a writer of fables and legends. Zorba could easily have come from Lycovrissi; eager to get away from the annual repetition of death with no true resurrection. Zorba fled, as did Nikos, to roam the world in search of something, anything, if only redemption.
Reading Christ Recrucified again has reminded me that if you, a lowly shepherd or shepherdess, are offered the part of Christ...