Nikos Kazantzakis (Greek Νίκος Καζαντζάκης February 18, 1883, Heraklion, Crete - October 26, 1957, Freiburg, Germany) was a Greek novelist, poet, playwright and thinker. Arguably the most important Greek writer and philosopher of the 20th century, he acquired wide fame after Michael Cacoyannis made his novel Zorba the Greek (Βίος και Πολιτεία του Αλέξη Ζορμπά) into a film in 1964. He is the most translated contemporary Greek author.
Kazantzakis was born in Heraklion in 1883, at that time a small town still under Turkish rule, but under intense revolutionary fever, following the continuous uprisings of the Greek population to achieve independence from the Ottoman empire and to unite with Greece.
Back in Greece, he started translating works of philosophy and in 1914 he got acquainted with Angelos Sikelianos. Together they travelled for two years in places where Greek Christian culture flourished, largely influenced by the enthusiastic nationalism of Sikelianos.
In 1919, as Director General of the Ministry of Social Relief, he transferred Greek populations from the Caucasus region to Greece in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. For Kazantzakis, this was the beginning of a odyssey across the world. Until his death in 1957, he sojourned in Paris and Berlin (from 1922 to 1924), Italy, Russia (in 1925), Spain (in 1932), and then Cyprus, Aegina, Egypt, Mount Sinai, Czechoslovakia, Nice, China, and Japan.
During his stay in Berlin, where a critical and explosive situation ruled, Kazantzakis was introduced to communism and became an admirer of Lenin, but he never became a consistent communist. Yet, since that time, his nationalistic beliefs were replaced by a more universal ideology.
In 1957 he started a new trip to China and Japan. This, however, was his last. He became ill and was transferred to Freiburg, Germany, where he died. He was buried at Heraklion. His epitaph read "I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free." (Δεν ελπίζω τίποτε. Δεν φοβάμαι τίποτε. Είμαι λεύτερος)
His first work was the narrative Serpent and Lily (Όφις και Κρίνο), 1906, which he signed with the pen-name Karma Nirvami. After his studies in Paris, he authored the tragedy "The Master Builder" (Ο Πρωτομάστορας), based on a popular Greek folklore myth (1910).
His numerous trips all over the world inspired him to start the series "Travelling" (Ταξιδεύοντας), which became known as masterpieces of Greek travel literature. This series included Italy, Egypt, Sinai, Japan, China, England.
Kazantzakis himself considered The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel 1924-1938 to be his most important work. He wrote it seven times before publishing it in 1938. According to another important Greek author, Pantelis Prevelakis, "it has been a superhuman effort to record his immense spiritual experience". Following the structure of Homer's Odyssey, it is divided in 24 rhapsodies and consists of 33,333 verses.
His best and most famous novels include Zorba the Greek (1946); The Greek Passion (1948), published in Great Britain as Christ Recrucified; Freedom or Death (1950) published in Great Britain as Freedom and Death; The Last Temptation of Christ (1951); and Saint Francis (1956), published in Great Britain as God's Pauper: St. Francis of Assisi. Report to Greco (1961) contains both autobiographical and fictional elements.
The spirit of Kazantzakis, even since his youth, was restless. He was tortured by metaphysical and existential concerns. He sought relief in knowledge, in travelling, in contact with other people, in every kind of experience. The influence of Friedrich Nietzsche on his work is evident, especially by his atheism and the presence of the superman (Übermensch) concept. However, religious concerns also haunted him.
The figure of Jesus is ever present in his thoughts, from his youth to his last years. But as presented in The Last Temptation of Christ it is a Christ tortured by the same metaphysical and existential concerns, seeking answers to haunting questions and often torn between his sense of duty and cause on one side and his own human needs to enjoy life, to love and to be loved, 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 fulfilment. 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 conservative religious figures in Greece tend to condemn his work. Religious oganisations banned the Last Temptation movie from Greek theatres.
- The Cretan Glance, The World and Art of Nikos Kazantzakis, Morton P. Levitt, Ohio State University Press, Columbus, OH, 1980.
- Kazantzakis: The Politics of Salvation, James F. Lea, foreward by Helen Kazantzakis, University of Alabama Press, 1979.
- Creative Destruction: Nikos Kazantzakis and the Literature of Responsibility, Lewis Owens, Mercer University Press, 2003