Posts Tagged ‘Nikos Kazantzakis’

On religion

December 30, 2016

It’s not a very easy subject for fiction, really: too many toes to tread on, too many people to offend. But anything should be open to a writer, and there are some that have tackled the subject, in a number of original and interesting novels.

I remember finding Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge very liberating as a teenager, when I was wrestling with religion myself, prior to giving it up and trying to leave it behind for twenty years or more… That is another story, but the novel was about a young man’s quest to find himself, and something to really believe in and bring some meaning to his life, and that struck a chord with me at the time. I suppose it introduced me to the idea of a personal spiritual journey, something that I’ve now realised I’ve been engaged in all my life and will only reach the end of at the end. The hero eventually makes his way to India – a place that loomed large in the consciousness of many in the late sixties and early seventies – and explores Eastern religions and beliefs.

Later I came across Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha is a short novel, enigmatic, imagining the life and spiritual development of the Buddha. When I first came across it, I didn’t really understand it; more recently I’ve listened to it a couple of times in an excellent librivox recording and it’s made me think much more deeply. As a student, though, it was Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund that really moved me and had a powerful effect on me, through its exploration of the contrasting secular and spiritual journeys of its two protagonists and the ways in which they were so deeply interconnected.

Novelists who have encompassed Christianity in fiction are rather harder to recall. There was Nikos KazantzakisThe Last Temptation, which scandalised many when it was filmed, and the disturbing Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh, which looks at the attitudes of inquisitors as they go about their work. I’ve come across – though can only vaguely recall – a couple of interesting science fiction stories which imagine God sending his Son Jesus to other worlds, to alien intelligences, and what might have happened to him on those planets: sacrilege to some, but legitimate speculation for others. I have yet to read Philip Pullman’s novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ; I don’t know why I have managed to avoid it for so many years.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s astonishing The Master and Margarita takes in the story of the trial, condemnation and execution of Christ, from the perspective of Pilate and his wife. It’s only one strand of the novel, but is skilfully woven in, and makes one think, as a good writer will.

A final mention, not of a novelist but of one of my all-time favourite travel writers, Ella Maillart, who, after years of travelling and exploring the East, was drawn to India and its religions on her own spiritual journey as she strove to make sense of a world which had descended into the Second World War; her account of some of her search can be found in her book Ti-Puss, which I really enjoyed: her years of motion and restlessness brought her to calm fixedness in India for a number of years, and seemingly allowed her to make some sense of her life in her later years.

Nikos Kazantzakis: The Last Temptation

August 13, 2014

41gbnhkP74L._AA160_There’s a single, interesting idea to this novel. If Jesus Christ was the son of God and born as a man, how, exactly, did he grow up and into the role? How might he have wrestled with the gradual realisation that there were other expectations of him that just normal human life? Might he have resisted, not wanted this role which was being urged on him? If a man, presumably he enjoyed ‘free will’ and had the right, therefore, to say ‘no’ to his dual role?

This is a question not dealt with by any gospel narrative, which starts from the fait accompli – he does what was expected of him, according to prophecy/ myth/ whatever you choose to call it. Kazantzakis explores the man who would like a quiet life, with a home, wife and family in Nazareth where he was born, but isn’t allowed to have this, in the apocalyptic times in which he lives, and with a voice constantly buzzing in his head to tell him that he has a special role to fulfil… and if it’s God who’s that voice, then guess who is going to win.

In the closing chapter of the novel, as he fulfils his destiny at the crucifixion – and Kazantzakis also explores the role of Judas’ betrayal as both necessary and understood and willingly undertaken – Jesus is faced with a final temptation where he is rescued from death and goes on to live the life he wished for: a peaceful life, wives, children and home. As the Romans destroy Jerusalem in 79CE his past catches up with him, he resists the temptation and the fantasised account of Matthew‘s gospel – which the author also incorporates – takes over.

It’s all a dream, a fantasy; Kazantzakis was a believing Christian, and yet his book caused a great stir when first published, and again when it was filmed. If one is a traditional Christian, I can imagine one might be enraged or offended, one might find it blasphemous, though heretical goes a bit far, as it’s only a novel. But one does not have to read it. One can also step back from it, and accept it as just another piece of speculative fiction, an alternative imagining of a time in the past. Other writers have engaged with the same material: Dorothy L Sayers in the celebrated radio drama of the 1940s, The Man Born To Be King, Mikhail Bulgakov from Pilate‘s point of view in The Master and Margarita, for example. And one can say that it’s ultimately irrelevant, I suppose: Jesus Christ was/ has been a very influential thinker and teacher whose ideas, like those of Buddha, Muhammad (peace be unto him), Confucius and others, have survived for centuries and influenced humans, who have done both good and evil in his name.

An interesting read, but I won’t be going back to it.

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