Critical Evaluation

Two world figures as dissimilar as Thomas Mann and Albert Schweitzer spoke up in public praise of Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek novelist introduced to U.S. readers by Zorba the Greek in 1952. One wonders, however, whether their admiration sprang from his earlier picaresque novel, the lively account of a pantheistic and pagan spirit adrift in the modern world, or from the quite different story of savage emotions and primitive religious feeling that he told in The Greek Passion, which was also published in 1954 as Christ Recrucified. These two novels make it clear that Kazantzakis is capable of widely varied effects in his fiction, although each creates a haunting, poetic atmosphere and a depth of serious insight into human necessities and motives.

After Greece was liberated from the Turks in 1919, Kazantzakis was appointed director general of the ministry of public welfare. His task was to rescue the Greek minorities of the Caucasus and Transcaucasus from persecution by Kurds and Bolsheviks, who replaced Turks in massacring Greeks. During one year of his tenure, Kazantzakis rescued more than 100,000 Greeks. This experience provided material for The Greek Passion. Between 1942 and 1951, he was absorbed with Jesus as a literary subject. The Greek Passion was written in two months in 1948.

The story is simple and traditional. One who knows the New Testament can follow the plot easily. On the level of symbolism, Kazantzakis has kept fairly close to the spirit, if not the actual events, of the New Testament story. His one great departure is the scene of violence that gives the novel its grim climax. Perhaps the author is implying that in a disordered world, there is no place for a Christ of compassion and love.

The Passion Play is one of the most colorful and spiritually uplifting events of each year in Lycovrissi. Before, during, and after the Passion Play, there is always mass catharsis. Many miracles take place and many sinners repent. The selection process is straightforward. The characters of the biblical personages usually match those of the respective actors. The widow Katerina, a kindhearted prostitute, plays the role of Mary Magdalene. Panayotaros, a bearded, gorillalike man spotted from smallpox, is selected to play Judas. Manolios, the handsome shepherd, is chosen to play Christ.

Dreams play a vital role in The Greek Passion, as they do in most of Kazantzakis’s major works. Fantasy, dream, and reality become interchangeable. Christianity as an elaborate dream motif runs throughout the novel. Reality and dream become fluid.

The boy Youssoufaki sings the agha’s favorite “Amane,” a melancholy song. He sings, “World and dream are but one, aman, aman.” The agha, bloated by rich food and raki, secure in his inherited position, surrounded by servants and pretty boys, has difficulty distinguishing “dream” from “world.” The agonizing truth about his beloved Youssoufaki, who is butchered in his bed, gives him but a glimmer of a nightmare, the agonizing vision of reality.

Once the suffering is over, the agha goes back to the good...

(The entire section is 1297 words.)