(1883-1957) Greek novelist, poet and playwright, who also served twice in the Greek government, as Director General of the Ministry of Public Welfare in 1919 and as Minister of National Education in 1946. In his spiritual autobiography, Anafora Ston Greko (1961; trans P A Bien as Report to Greco 1965 US), NK describes his life as a Quest inspired at various times by Christ, Marx, Nietzsche, Buddha, Odysseus and Ghiorgios Zorbas.
It was Odysseus who set the themes, preoccupations and mythic underpinnings of NK's work in O Odyssey (1938; trans Kimon Friar as The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel 1958 US), the huge epic poem that was NK's masterpiece. This sequel to Homer stands comparison with James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) for both its formal and linguistic experimentation (it was written in 24 books, one for each letter of the Greek alphabet, and of exactly 33,333 lines) and for the way it revitalizes the ancient Legend. Odysseus is unable to settle in Ithaca and sets out on his voyages once more. The fantastic incidents which marked Homer's original are echoed on this journey, which takes Odysseus first to Egypt, then to the source of the Nile, and eventually to the South Pole. Along the way there are encounters with phantasms and strange beings, though most tellingly the journey becomes a spiritual contest with Death and God.
This notion of life as a spiritual contest is central to all NK's novels, as in his most famous work, Zorba the Greek (1946; trans Carl Wildman 1952 US), in which his partner in an ill-fated mining project in NK's native Crete becomes the embodiment of the zest for life which is the abiding feature of all NK's work. NK barely escaped excommunication for Christ Recrucified (1949; trans Jonathan Griffin 1954 UK; vt The Greek Passion US), set in a remote Greek village under Turkish occupation, where the villagers put on a Passion Play and find themselves taking their roles on into their everyday lives.
Fantasy rarely intrudes directly into NK's novels, though where it does – as in The Last Temptation (1953; trans P A Bien 1961 US; vt The Last Temptation of Christ) – it is used to emphasize the primacy of the zest for life. In this novel Christ is a Nietzschean superman who achieves spiritual salvation through force of will after being tempted by visions of the life he could have if he descended from the cross. NK presents a vivid portrait of Christ leading a normal, happy family life – the most subtle and telling temptation. Christ must succumb to these temptations in order truly to triumph over them. Both the novel and the movie version, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), though profoundly religious, generated bitter condemnation.
These novels, which infuse their depictions of reality with the shape and tenor of myth, established Kazantzakis as one of the foremost writers of his era. [PK]
further reading: Nikos Kazantzakis (1968) by Helen Kazantzakis.