I don’t know how many people remember Nikos Kazantzakis nowadays. He’s known mainly for two novels that became acclaimed and controversial movies: Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ. When I was a young man obsessed with becoming a writer, I read Zorba the Greek more than once. It was a germinal book for me. I identified with the withdrawn, cautious, timid writer who had to be lured out of his shell by the robust, tempestuous Zorba. I wanted to step out and live life so I could write about it, but it took a lot of effort to get me started. I read The Last Temptation of Christ too, but it didn’t make the same strong impression on me. I couldn’t figure what the fuss was all about. Maybe it was because I was already so fed up with the church at that point.
I hadn’t thought about Kazantzakis in decades, and then Report to Greco popped up on a table at a Seattle Public Library used book sale and I grabbed it on a whim. It’s purportedly his autobiography, but in reality it’s only his autobiography in the way that Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy are the autobiographical works of Henry Miller. In other words, kind of but not really. In fact, Henry Miller immediately came to mind as I began to read. Both Miller and Kazantzakis write from the gut and from the emotions. Both use extremely flamboyant and flowery language. Both are blunt in their honesty, and both suddenly go off on intellectual tangents, describing dreams, visions, and other emotional intricacies without warning. Their styles are similar, but there’s one big difference between them: Miller reacts to poverty and hard times with joy, dancing, and sexual liberality. Kazantzakis reacts with angst, despair, and celibacy. Personally, I’ll take Miller any day. I simply couldn’t understand what Kazantzakis was up to sometimes, and why he reacted the way he did.
The book begins with Kazantzakis’s childhood in Crete, goes through his teen years, his studies, and his travels on the Greek mainland and in Italy, Jerusalem, Mount Sinai, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and Moscow. His main concern is his spiritual odyssey, though, not the countries he is visiting. First he has a long love/hate relationship with the God Jehovah of the Old Testament and with Jesus. When he goes to Paris, he has a torrid infatuation with Nietzsche; he speaks about his discovery of the man’s philosophy as if he has fallen in love and is having an affair. He goes on and on, page after page, describing his feelings and sensations upon abandoning Christ and taking up Nietzsche. To be honest, this got extremely boring after awhile. I kept reading because I wanted to find out if he would eventually describe his beginnings as a writer. And he does, sort of, at the very end of the book when he recounts meeting the character who inspired Zorba. In Vienna, he leaps from Nietzsche to Buddha. In Berlin, he leaps from Buddha to Lenin. Again, it’s hard to understand his frame of mind in embracing Lenin’s dogmas so thoroughly, even though he spends many pages attempting to describe his reasoning. In the end, after numerous adventures, he returns to Crete, holes up alone in a cottage by the sea, and writes.
I don’t quite know how to react to this book. At one point, Kazantzakis is telling anecdotes of his encounters with common people that are so touching they move me to tears. At other points, he goes off into philosophical rants that are irrelevant and annoying. When I took up the book, I supposed that Kazantzakis was like Zorba, full of life and zest and enthusiasm, but as I read I realized that he was actually like the writer who meets Zorba: fearful and isolated and insecure. He writes a lot about fear, especially when he describes himself as a youth, but also on into adulthood. Only the translator does not merely use the word “fear.” The word “terror” comes up over and over, as if practically everything in life terrified Kazantzakis.
The translation, by the way, is a good one as far as I can tell. To really know for sure I’d have to compare it with the original Greek, but I’m not capable of that. I think that Kazantzakis’s mind and spirit come across as he intended.
As I said, I can’t really decide if I should recommend this book or not. It would be a much stronger read if the passages on Nietzsche and Lenin were omitted, but then of course it wouldn’t be complete in describing the writer’s individual journey. In the end, it is what it is, and all I can say is that parts are sublime and parts are very slow. It’s a mixed bag.