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1955 Nikos Kazantzakis with his wife Eleni and Albert Schweitzer
Culture . Tradition

Nikos Kazantzakis – I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free.

Kapetan Michalis was his father

Nikos Kazantzakis was born on a Friday, the holy ‘day of souls’. “…The old midwife clutched me in her hands, brought me close to the light, and looked at me with great care. She seemed to see some kind of mystic signs on me. Lifting me high, she said, ‘Mark my words, one day this child will become a bishop’.” (Report to Greco, transl. Bien, P., p.75) His father, Kapetan Michalis, inscribed the exact date of his son’s birth, February 18, 1883, on the back of an icon, a tradition he kept with the birth dates of all his children, two boys and two girls. Not all of them lived; Nikos’s brother, Giorgos (b.1890), died in infancy, sinking the family in grief.

Zorba the Greek poster 1965

The author of Zorba the Greek perhaps was meant to launch his professional life as a lawyer, and not as author or journalist. This was certainly his father’s aspiration for him. Nikos was to excel in his legal studies, and then pursue a career in the turbulent world of Greek politics.

“Educate yourself in order to help Crete gain her freedom.”

Kapetan Michalis, the man with the leonine eyes and the heavy heart, who had vowed to never smile or laugh until his homeland was free from the Ottoman yoke, had great expectations of his son’s vocation, demanding from him no less than the very liberation of Crete.

“A man – that means useful to your homeland. Too bad you were born for studies and not for arms, but unfortunately there’s nothing to be done about it. That’s your road; follow it. Understand? Educate yourself in order to help Crete gain her freedom. Let that be your goal. Otherwise, to the devil with education! I don’t want you to become a teacher, monk, or a wise Solomon. Get that clear! I’ve made up my mind, now you make up yours. If you can’t help Crete either through arms or letters, you’d do better to lie down and die.” (Report to Greco, p. 95)

During his life, Kazantzakis lived in…

…Crete, Athens, on the island of Aegina, Vienna, Verne, London, Assisi, Berlin, Paris, Russia, and, during the final years of his life, in Antibes in South France, an ancient Greek colony named Antipolis, which bore a Mediterranean-style resemblance to his native island, Crete.

During the Nazi occupation of Greece,

a time when almost 300,000 Greeks died of starvation, he was living on Aegina Island off the coast of Piraeus. He and his wife, along with the other inhabitants of the island, also suffered from starvation. As Eleni revealed: “There were days that we had nothing, absolutely nothing to eat; on some days we were lucky enough to have some edible plants which I gathered from the fields nearby.”

Nikos Kazantzakis 1928 in Athens
Nikos Kazantzakis 1928 in Athens

Nikos Kazantzakis’s exquisite mind allowed him to view the material world with sophisticated lucidity and sober insight, yet at the same time, to be able to discern the ineffable forces that move the universe so delicately enciphered in Nature’s manifold expressions.

The fervor with which this timid and kindhearted man was persecuted by both Church and State is unwarranted. Government officials intervened so that he would not be awarded the Nobel Prize he so rightfully deserved. Nobel Laureate Albert Camus, to whom Kazantzakis lost the Nobel Prize in 1957 (by one vote), wrote to Eleni expressing his deep admiration for Nikos Kazantzakis and concluded: “He deserved it [the Nobel] a hundred times more than I did”. Other government officers ensured that Nikos Kazantzakis would be denied the validation of his passport on the grounds of being a “communist”, at a time when most of his books were banned in Communist Russia for their content (Friar, p. 21).

I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.

Nikos Kazatzakis grave Heraklion

Nikos Kazantzakis died on October 26, 1957 at the University Clinic in Freiburg, on his way back to Antibes, from his journey to China and Japan. It was 10:20 pm when he left his last breath in the warm embrace of Eleni, his wife and life companion. On November 4, his body was escorted to Heraklion by his grieving widow and a few bosom friends and was then laid out in the Metropolitan Church for public viewing. On November 5, 1957 he was buried at Martinengo Bastion, on the Venetian Walls of Heraklion. On his tombstone, which today is a destination of spiritual pilgrimages from across the world, the words that he had chosen have been engraved: I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.

You read segments from Nikos Kazantzakis Publications, which was created with reliable and substantiated information, utilizing as its main sources his two principal biographers: Eleni N. Kazantzakis, his devoted wife and life companion, and Pandelis Prevelakis, his compatriot and fraternal friend, whose biographical timeline offers the most detailed and accurate biographical chronicle up to date.

Brief chronology of Nikos Kazantzakis’ life

(source: Historical Museum of Crete)

1883: Nikos Kazantzakis born in Heraklion, Crete

1902 – 1906: Kazantzakis studies Law in Athens

1907 – 1909: Studies in Paris, where he is influenced by his tutor Henri Bergson

1914: Meets Angelos Sikelianos, with whom he travels to Mount Athos and elsewhere in Greece

1918 – 1919: Travels to Switzerland and Russia as a senior civil servant, assisting in the repatriation of Greeks from the Caucasus

1922: Lives in Vienna and Berlin

1924: Returns to Greece and to Crete

1925 – 1929: Makes three journeys to Russia

1932 – 1933: Travels to Spain for several months

1935: Travels to China and Japan

1936: Reports on the Spanish Civil War as a foreign correspondent for “Kathimerini” newspaper

1939: Is invited by the British Council to England, where he spends the first few months of World War Two

1940: Returns to Greece and lives on Aegina for the duration of the War and the German occupation

1946: Leaves Greece for England, staying temporarily in Cambridge. In September 1946 Kazantzakis settles in Paris, where he works for a short time as a literary advisor to UNESCO

1948: Settles in Antibes in the South of France. While continuing to write, he takes a keen interest in the numerous translations and publications of his works around the world

1957: Travels to China, where he falls ill. Returns to Europe (Copenhagen) and is subsequently transferred to Freiburg University Hospital, where he dies on 26th October 1957

Excerpt from Pierre Sipriot’s interview with Nikos Kazantzakis

French Radio (Paris), 6th May 1955

Nikos Kazantzakis words about himselfNikos Kazantzakis talks about Crete

“I don’t see Crete as picturesque, smiling place. Its form is austere. Furrowed by struggles and pain. Situated as it is between Europe, Asia and Africa, the island was destined by its geographical position to become the bridge between those three continents. That’s why Crete was the first land in Europe to receive the dawn of cvilisation which came from the East. Two thousand years before the Greek miracle, that mysterious, so-called Aegean civilisation was in full bloom on Crete – still dumb, full of life, reeling with colours, finesse and taste which surprise and provoke awe. It is in vain that we defy the traces of the past. I believe there is an effulgence, a magic effulgence radiating out of ancient lands which have struggled and suffered a great deal. As if something remains after the disappearance of the peoples who have struggled, cried and loved on a patch of land. This radiation from past times is particularly intense on Crete. It penetrates you the moment you set foot on Cretan soil. Then you are overcome by another, more concrete emotion. Anyone who knows the tragic history of the last centuries of the island is transfixed when he reflects on the frenzied struggle on that land between men fighting for their freedom and oppressors raving to crush them. These Cretans have grown so familiar with death that they no longer fear it. For centuries they suffered so much, proved so often that death itself could not overcome them, that they came to the conclusion that death is required in the triumph of their ideal, that salvation begins at the peak of despair. Yes, the truth is hard to swallow. But the Cretans, toughened by their struggle and greedy for life, gulp it down it like a glass of cold water.

“What was life like for you, grandfather?” I asked an old Cretan one day. He was a hundred years old, scarred by old wounds and blind. He was warming himself in the sun, huddled in the doorway of his hut. He was ‘”proud of ear” as we say on Crete. He couldn’t hear well. I repeated my question to him, “What was your long life like, grandfather, your hundred years?”

Like a glass of cold water,” he replied.

“And are you still thirsty?”

He raised his hand abruptly. “Damn those who are thirsty no more,” he shouted.

That’s the Cretans for you. How could I not make a symbol of them? ”

(source: Historical Museum of Crete)[/penci_text_block]

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