Freedom and Death by Nikos Kazantzakis

Based on this and Zorba, Kazantzakis was a bit like D.H. Lawrence: the first highly educated member of a working family, and suffering a crisis of masculinity as a result. But with Cretan shepherds instead of Nottinghamshire miners.

This book in particular, which is about a rebellion against the Turks, exhibits a glamorous, nostalgic view of the macho culture of Crete; manly men who sweat and fight and drink and feud and hold to the kind of code of honour that largely involves killing people at the smallest perceived slight. And who despise book-learning.

I don’t want to be unfair; the book is more nuanced than that account might suggest, and I don’t think Kazantzakis is whole-heartedly endorsing the palikari warrior culture he portrays. But considering the way his characters behave, he manages to seem a lot more admiring of them than I would be.

It’s also worth pointing out that the main Turkish character in the book is just as much of a palikari as any of the Greeks, so it’s not completely one-sided in that respect.

Anyway, leaving nationalism, gender politics and Kazantzakis’s internal class struggle aside for a minute, I enjoyed it. It’s a big dramatic novel full of striking characters and action, and if it edges into melodrama and stereotype, well, it’s that kind of book.

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

This is rather less heavily drenched in the smell of male sweat than Freedom and Death, but it has rather similar themes of the relationship between education, thought, action and masculinity. Again I’m reminded of D.H. Lawrence, and the Buddhism in this one brought Herman Hesse to mind; you could draw a parallel with Steppenwolf, for example.

The narrator is an intellectual, working on a book about Buddha, who buys a lignite mine, and develops a friendship with the man he has employed to run it—Zorba. There’s a very clear dynamic set up between the narrator’s intellectualism on the one hand and Zorba’s spontaneity and openness on the other. The bookish man learns all sorts of lessons from the enthusiasm for life of the man of action, as well as his untutored philosophy.

It would be very easy to make into the most awful kind of Hollywood movie* because of the rather obvious nature of that relationship, but the novel is better than the summary would suggest. Mainly because Kazantzakis writes good characters, dramatic situations and generally has the storytelling virtues that one associates with the great C19th novelists. And the details are interesting and unexpected enough to lift it above the obvious.

*I haven’t seen the movie version, so this isn’t a comment on that one way or the other.