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By Nikos Kazantzakis
Translated from the Greek by Athena Gianakas Dallas
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964
254 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2015

The novel is set in the late 1940s Civil War between Greek communists with support from neighboring communist governments (to which Kazantzakis was sympathetic) and the Greek government (supported by Britain and the U.S.). The places named within the novel for immediate action appeal to be fictional village names. However, the region is the far northwest corner of Greece quite close to Albania.

Fr. Yanaros, the central character, is a Greek Orthodox Christian priest. After having lived a portion of his priestly life in a monastery, he found that life unsatisfactory and decided to become a parish priest and settled down.

The village of Castello is embroiled in the civil war. The “Reds” (Bolshivics) are in the mountains above the village and make periodic raids into the village. The “Blacks” were, villagers, wanting the “old” ways of Greek life to continue on.

It would seem that Kazantzakis’ designation of the Greek government as “Fascists” may be a bit too strong even though it was conservative.

The novel reads like a collection of moral fables set in the reality of the poverty, war, devastation and the hopelessness of the time. However, in the process of living through this war Father Janaros begins to doubt that any better world will come from the war, but just more misery. Humans can’t deal with justice, only mercy has a chance.

The war has been relatively low intensity in their village of Castello with occasional raids from the Reds on the village and occasional counter-attacks by the Blacks on the mountain.

There is a crisis moment for Fr. Yanaros when the severely wounded priest, Father Nicodemus comes to see him. Nicodemus has been seeking knowledge in secular literature. He wanted justice so he joined the rebels, the communists. They were, on his view, opposed to the oppression of Greece’s government and thus better for the people. This view presents a terrible dilemma for Fr. Yanaros. Nicodemus tells him:

“. . . I went with the guerrillas; true, a world without God has no foundations. But a world without justice cannot be governed . . .”

He goes on to tell Fr. Yanaros that the real savior has come: and he is Lenin. Yanaros is simply stunned. Nicodemus explains, that so were his communist brethren. Nonetheless, Nicodemus now embraces the fact that religion, at least how it is currently practiced in Greece, is the problem: “Religion – the opium of the people.” The ultimate aim of life for Nicodemus is love.

However, this view is simply too much for Fr. Yanaros. He sees the central aim of life to be freedom, even including freedom from love when necessary, and he sticks vigorously to the tradition of the Greek church.

What is fascinating about the mass of people in both the rebel camp and in the village is that they are not at all learned and most are even illiterate. They have heard “leaders” preach their messages and their plans for a better future. The Greek church offers heaven after a life of basic misery on earth. The communists promise a utopia of a peoples’ government and the sharing of all material goods. However, all of them have extremely idealistic versions of their own theories and their own picture of hope for the future. The trust of each of the Christians is for the heavenly world and that of the of the Communists for the new utopia on earth are extremely naďve. In each case authorities enforce the beliefs with fear. In the communist case it is with indoctrination and force, with the Christian church it is the fear of hell and promises of the utopia of heaven.

However, the level of the peoples’ understanding of these ideologies is pathetic and the masses of each “side” are like young children being excited by a fairy tale of the utopia to come. The novel, when focusing on either the reds or the blacks reads like a collection of moral fables set in the reality of the poverty, war, devastation and the hopelessness of the time. Neither the mass of the blacks or the reds have any serious idea of why they are fighting.

Fr. Yanaros even begins to doubt a paradise is coming, just more misery. Humans don’t seem able to deal with justice, so only mercy has a chance. Most of the fighters have no idea why they are fighting. One of the Red soldiers is trying to think these things out as he reasons:

“Is it possible that I am fighting to support lies and injustice, to enslave Greece, to save the dishonorable? Is it possible that we are the traitors, the ones who are selling Greece, and can the so-called traitors in the hills be the armed mountaineers and the rebels of 1821? How can I tell justice from injustice, and decide with whom to go, and to which side I should give my life? There is no greater torment, to a fighter, than this doubt.”

This is the situation of many of the fighters on both sides.

The novel focuses on both the seeming hopelessness of the struggle on either side, the seeming impossibility of bringing the fighting to an end, and the revealing of the utter lack of understanding of either ideology – the communist or the Christian – that is supposed to bring a decent life to the people.

Rather, we find a mass of people, some devoted to the Christian message and cause and relying blindly on heaven as their only hope, and the Communists, who, on their unlearned view, rely on the hopes and promises of Lenin that they are about to create a utopia on earth. It’s a very dark and sad picture of the human struggle.

This battle in ignorance is seen on the Christian side of the people in their having nearly absolute reliance on the fairly unlearned Fr. Yanaros to bring truth to them, and on the other side the statement of one of the Reds when one of his buddies, after hearing him spout the future according to Karl Marx asks him:

“Have you read Marx? And he replied, “no, why should I, Lenin read him.”

There seems to be some ground for the relative hopelessness. Fr. Yanaros is finding freedom simply too much of a burden. He speaks to five mothers of dead soldiers. He tells them there are three options:

  1. Choose God – but He’s out of this fight.
  2. Choose the Greek leaders, but each wants it his own way.
  3. Choose the people themselves.

However, none of those three seem to him to work either, so eventually he makes a decision, a choice, the takes a huge risk, not only for himself, but for the whole village: He leaves the village goes up the mountain to the communist camp and argues with the leader of the rebels to stop the war. The village will peacefully submit, but the war must stop. After long arguments the commander agrees and the chosen events of the novel are over for Fr. Yanaros. Now it is to see how this “deal” will work out, and on Easter Sunday, a symbol of a new beginning, Fr. Yanaros returns to the village to explain to the people that he has acted, the has made a deal and they must submit.

Fr. Yanaros’ work is done. He lived his life with his own set of beliefs, tried desperately to convince his simply villagers of this life of his particular faith, and now he has turned over the power over the village to others.

Kazantzakis’ startling conclusion leaves the reader with some understanding of his view of the human species. We live our lives, we do what we do, and the world does what it will do in return. We can do nothing other, and we are left with the world that follows our actions, which is not always what we thought we were choosing.

Bob Corbett


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