Nikos Kazantzakis was a Greek writer and philosopher. Widely considered a giant of modern Greek literature, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in nine different years.
Kazantzakis’ novels included Zorba the Greek (published 1946 as Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas), Christ Recrucified (1948), Captain Michalis (1950, translated Freedom and Death), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1955). He also wrote plays, travel books, memoirs and philosophical essays such as The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises. His fame spread in the English-speaking world due to cinematic adaptations of Zorba the Greek (1964) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
He translated also a number of notable works into Modern Greek, such as the Divine Comedy, Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the Iliad.
Kazantzakis was born in 1883 in Heraklion, Crete. Starting in his youth, Kazantzakis was spiritually restless. Tortured by metaphysical and existential concerns, he sought relief in knowledge and travel, contact with a diverse set of people, in every kind of experience. The influence of Friedrich Nietzsche on his work is evident, especially Nietzsche’s atheism and sympathy for the Superman (Ubermensch) concept. However, he was also haunted by spiritual concerns. To attain a union with God, Kazantzakis entered a monastery for six months. In 1927 Kazantzakis published in Greek his “Spiritual Exercises” (Greek: “Ασκητική”), which he had composed in Berlin in 1923. The book was translated into English and published in 1960 with the title The Saviors of God.
The figure of Jesus was ever-present in his thoughts, from his youth to his last years. The Christ of The Last Temptation of Christ shares Katzantzakis’ anguished metaphysical and existential concerns, seeking answers to haunting questions and often torn between his sense of duty and mission, on one side, and his own human needs to enjoy life, to love and to be loved, and to have a family. A tragic figure who at the end sacrifices his own human hopes for a wider cause, Kazantzakis’ Christ is not an infallible, passionless deity but rather a passionate and emotional human being who has been assigned a mission, with a meaning that he is struggling to understand and that often requires him to face his conscience and his emotions, and ultimately to sacrifice his own life for its fulfillment. He is subject to doubts, fears and even guilt. In the end, he is the Son of Man, a man whose internal struggle represents that of humanity.
Many Orthodox Church clergy condemned Kazantzakis’ work and a campaign was started to excommunicate him. His reply was: “You gave me a curse, Holy fathers, I give you a blessing: may your conscience be as clear as mine and may you be as moral and religious as I” (Greek: “Μου δώσατε μια κατάρα, Άγιοι πατέρες, σας δίνω κι εγώ μια ευχή: Σας εύχομαι να’ναι η συνείδηση σας τόσο καθαρή, όσο είναι η δική μου και να’στε τόσο ηθικοί και θρήσκοι όσο είμαι εγώ”). The excommunication was rejected by the top leadership of the Orthodox Church but emblematic of persistent disapprobation from many Christian authorities for his political and religious views.
“Δεν ελπιζω τιποτα. Δε φοβουμαι τιποτα. Ειμαι λεφτερος.
I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I’m free.”
In Kazantzakis’ day, the international market for material published in modern Greek was quite small. Kazantzakis also wrote in colloquial Demotic Greek, with traces of Cretan dialect, which made his writings all the more controversial in conservative literary circles at home. Translations of his books into other European languages did not appear until his old age. Hence he found it difficult to earn a living by writing, which led him to write a great deal, including a large number of translations from French, German, and English, and curiosities such as French fiction and Greek primary school texts, mainly because he needed the money. Some of this “popular” writing was nevertheless distinguished, such as his books based on his extensive travels, which appeared in the series “Travelling” (Ταξιδεύοντας) which he founded. These books on Greece, Italy, Egypt, Sinai, Cyprus, Spain, Russia, Japan, China, and England were masterpieces of Greek travel literature.