Second-hand: “Report to Greco”, Nikos Kazantzakis

Chris Townsend
December 18, 2016
© Touchstone Books

‘Second-Hand’ is a series of  alternative book reviews. Traditional reviews, with their emphasis on the latest and greatest novels, risk leaving the reader behind. This column offers a breathing space, by focusing each week on a single second-hand book.

The focus of this column is on chance encounters, revisionary  readings of classic novels, and on the margins of the literary canon. It is  a celebration of the book as physical object, in an age that  prioritises digital publication. This column embraces the physical  conditions of a text as part of the experience of reading.

‘Report to Greco’ is, as the cover promises, an  ‘autobiographical novel’. It was simply filed under ‘Fiction’ in the  bookshop of its discovery. Nevertheless, its fictionalized events do  closely follow the contours of the real life of Nikos Kazantzakis —  celebrated author of ‘Zorba the Greek’ and ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’.  Both of those works were made into successful films, and the latter,  adapted for the screen by Martin Scorcese, provoked outcry with its  depictions of Jesus Christ as a sexual being. I therefore know a little  of what to expect from this book.

We begin, and the authorial voice is dying. But before he can die, he  must narrate the events of his life: ‘Extending my hand, I grasp  earth’s latch to open the door and leave, but hesitate on the luminous  threshold a while longer’. The conceit does not rest fully in fiction;  Kazantzakis died in 1957, and ‘Report to Greco’ wouldn’t appear  until 1961 — he wrote it in his final year on earth. This copy,  translated for Faber by P. A. Bien, was printed in 1965, a half-century  ago.

From this view at the threshold of life and death, Kazantzakis  conveys us back to the Crete of his childhood in the late 1800s, before  it was taken in by Greece. Greece is a constellation of highlights in  the Aegean, and Crete shines brightest at its southern edge, as a  barrier between the Hellenic world and the world at large. Kazantzakis’s  father is the sort of man from whom the phrase “You did not disgrace  Greece” is the highest of compliments. His mother, by distinction, is  his caring and loving complement. Thus, in the tradition of the Bildungsroman, we follow the growing Kazantzakis as he leaves behind Ottoman rule, and embarks upon extensive travels across the globe.

And, oh, how he travels. The book serves as a veritable map of Greek  geography and culture, but it also follows Kazantzakis through desert  wastes to the top of Mount Sinai, down rain-soaked Paris streets, into  the miserable “frigid winds” of Berlin, and on to the colds of Russia.  These journeys last years. When he finally arrives home again, he  recounts the composition of his great works, including ‘Zorba the Greek’ as well as his ‘modern sequel’ to Homer’s ‘Odyssey’  — a thirty-three thousand-line epic poem that defies belief. He  describes, too, the sense of sickness that, for him, follows  publication:

“I found it impossible to see anyone. The slightest noise made my  entire body quake; it was as though Apollo had flayed me and my exposed  nerves were being wounded by mere contact with the air”.

As documented in the chapter ‘Paris. Nietzsche the Great Martyr’,  Kazantzakis wrote his doctoral thesis on the philosopher Friedrich  Nietzsche, and Nietzsche’s thought surges through the book like blood  through a vein. There are themes of becoming and self-overcoming, along  with mountainous metaphors of ascension, and the very prose in such  passages strikes a Nietzschean tone:

“During my entire life one word always  tormented and scourged me, the word ascent. Here, mixing truth with  fancy, I should like to represent this ascent, together with the red  footprints I left as I mounted. I am anxious to finish quickly, before I  don the ‘black helmet’ and return to dust, because this bloody track  will be the only trace left by my passage on earth”.

The Paris chapter itself begins with a single word — “Dawn” — which  rings with significance for anyone familiar with Nietzsche’s ‘Daybreak’,  and his metaphor of dawn as personal enlightenment. Kazantzakis uses  the medium of his own life as a way of relating the story of one man’s  self-transcendence, of the ascent of the human spirit on the path  towards wisdom and creativity — much as he had done with Jesus in ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, much as Nietzsche himself had done with the prophet Zarathustra.

Crucially, it is one man’s self-transcendence, with the  emphasis on ‘man’. Kazantzakis’s prose is sprightly, exuberant  overflowing — but it always feels hyper-masculine. It is fair warning to  say that themes of violence, bawdiness, and manly swagger are the  driving forces behind Kazantzakis’s self-fiction. It is therefore  pleasing that his wife, Helen, should have both the first word — within  the introductory space of this Faber edition — and the last word  temporally, as she writes after his death. She offers her own ‘report’,  on the character of the author as he lay dying: “He was honest, without  guile, innocent, infinitely sweet towards others, fierce only towards  himself […] Charon came — curse him! — and mowed Nikos down”.

Kazantzakis’s title, ‘Report to Greco’, suggests a  correspondence with his home nation of Greece, but also with another  famous Cretan, El Greco. Despite El Greco’s having died over a hundred  and fifty years prior to the birth of Kazantzakis, the epilogue of the  book is an apostrophe to the painter (as ‘Grandfather’), and the two men  appear, magically, on the same time line — walking through El Greco’s  painting ‘View of Toledo’, with “voices blending” as they drink together  and discuss the nature of Cretan identity. Kazantzakis ends with his  own imagined death, and he greets El Greco: “Grandfather, hello!”.

Despite the appearance of El Greco in the closing passages of the  work, I did not immediately realise that it was one of his paintings  that had been chosen for the cover of this copy. I had wondered who it  could have been — it looks nothing like Kazantzakis, but it appeared  fittingly like a melange of Christ and some sallow-faced, Dostoevskian  anti-hero. Perhaps it related to ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’? But no: El Greco explained it. And, having made that link, the briefest of detective work told me it was a detail of ‘St. Bartholomew’.

Bartholomew, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, was alleged to  have been skinned alive. He is often shown in artworks holding his own  skin, but El Greco chose to portray him in more tranquil light: looking  out of frame, poised with quill, and with a monkey restrained on a  chain. How to read this? If the monkey is an aspect of Bartholomew  himself, then it might represent self-discipline, self-mastery,  self-control. He is ready, with pen, to document his life and himself.  And Bartholomew, who, after the ascension of Christ, is supposed to have  travelled extensively as a missionary in Europe and Asia, looks beyond  our gaze, to whatever might come next. Read this way, it could well be a  portrait of Kazantzakis; the cover suddenly seems richer, more fitting  as the clothing for such a work. “Was that life?”, wrote Kazantzakis’s  hero Nietzsche, in ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra; “Very well! Once more!”.


All by
Chris Townsend