book cover, Kazantzakis

Unorthodox Literature

It’s National Book Lovers Day here in the United States, so I thought I’d take a look at look at one of modern Greece’s most famous and foremost writer of books, Nikos Kazantzakis. In keeping with the theme of some of my other posts this week, Kazantzakis technically wasn’t born a Greek—when he was born in Iraklio during the year 1883, Crete was still a part of the Ottoman Empire, despite Greece’s status as independent since the 1830s.

Kazantzakis was a world traveler, studying in France (and later spending a good part of his adult life there) and spending much of his adult life exploring the European and Mediterranean world. Yet he was always distinctly Greek, beyond his name and nationality. He was a scholar who studied and was influenced by the brands of philosophy, mythology, and lifestyle that he witnessed throughout his travels, which he frequently interpreted in his literature through the frame of Greek politics, tradition, folklore and allegory. Moreover, he was intimately concerned with the plight of the common Greek. Crete in particular during the late 19th and early 20th century centuries was rife with social and political turmoil, a theme that would have a major presence in some of his most famous works. In his time, he was particularly noted for his use of the colloquial Greek (Demotic) spoken by the peasant or working class people he frequently modeled his characters and narratives on, rather than the diplomatic, literary dialect (Katharevousa) usually used by writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This was actually a pretty big deal at the time, and one of the reasons Kazantzakis is now hailed as a pioneer.

As with all great writers and thinkers, though, his career was far from free of controversy. Several of his books are written as Christian allegories, and his use of Christian themes and imagery was often hotly debated and unpopular with the Greek religious establishment, to the point that there was actually a campaign to officially excommunicate him from the Orthodox Church (though contrary to popular belief, it turns out they never quite followed through with it). Like most Greeks of the time, Kazantzakis was raised as an Orthodox Christian, and his work was an outlet through which he dealt with a struggle of faith that no doubt many of his countrymen could sympathize with. That being said, it didn’t stop the frank and explicit way with which he dealt with religion and morality from offending the sensibilities of a society that was still, after all, very religious, and the poor guy was more or less exiled from his homeland for the last few decades of his life. As is often the case with things, though, public opinion began to sway after he died in Germany in 1957, and he has since been re-interred in his homeland, and he is generally appreciated as the literary giant that he was. He never won, sadly, but he was nominated for nine (!!!) Nobel Prizes in Literature, so if you’re looking for something appropriately Greek to read in you downtime when you visit (or in preparation for your visit), I can’t think of anyone more fitting than Nikos Kazantzakis.

Zorba, book cover, Kazantzakis

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