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Passion for the Christ
by Asa Butcher
Issue 4
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Christ Recrucified
Nikos Kazantzakis (Translation by Jonathan Griffin)
Faber and Faber, 1954
A few hours ago I completed my first Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel and a few minutes ago, while researching some details for this review, I started reading it again. This novel marked a number of other firsts for me, I had never read any Greek literature, I have never read a book with ‘Christ’ in the title and never have I felt sympathy for so many characters in one book.

Unwittingly, Kazantzakis had first come to my attention via the film versions of his books Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ, but I had not realized they were by him until researching for this review. He is arguably the most important Greek writer and philosopher of the 20th century and he is the most translated contemporary Greek author.

When my friend Thanos gave me Christ Recrucified to read he told me that it was his favourite book, so some of my initial doubts faded away. One problem when it comes to reading translated literature is the skill of the translator himself. The reputation of the author is in his hands and there is a danger that they miss some of the cultural references, well, Jonathan Griffin does an excellent job.

Kazantzakis was born in a small town still under Turkish rule, but under intense revolutionary fever, following the continuous uprisings of the Greek population to achieve independence from the Ottoman Empire and to unite with Greece. Christ Recrucified is based in a very similar village called Lycovrissi (Wolf’s Fountain), which is under the watchful eye of the Turkish Agha and his young companion Youssoufaki.

The peasants of Lycovrissi plan to enact the life of Christ in a play, so they assign members of their community the roles that they are to portray. Manolios, a shepherd due to marry his master’s bastard daughter, is given the role of Christ, Michelis, the son of one of the town’s notables, is James, Yannakos, a trader and postman, is Peter, Kostandis the café owner is John and ‘saddler Panayotaros with his devil’s beard’ is given the role of Judas.

The development of each character as he adjusts to the role he has been given is calculated and always drives the story forward. Manolios is at the centre of the novel, but he is not the only hero. Each of the disciples and other villagers play a significant part in the story, sometimes the unexpected happens and one dies, while those you wish would die never fulfil your wish.

Even though the story is set in a Greek village ruled by the Turks, the foundations of the story have a universal appeal in religion and the abuse of power by those ordained by God. Christ Recrucified is a work of literature that has triggered debate and controversy regarding the church, religion and theology in general.

Pope Grigoris, the village’s priest, is never short of olives, raki, oil or bread, he is described a strutting cock, who gluts his paunch chock-full. Throughout the novel, the pope’s dominance over the frightened villagers allows him to commit atrocities against mankind and Christianity, before assuring the doubtful congregation that the Lord is with them.

The true face of Grigoris’ religious beliefs is revealed surface when a group of refugees, fleeing from the ruins of their plundered homes, reach Lycovrissi hoping for sanctuary. The group are led by pope Fotis, who is the type of religious leader we would hope for in the world, he believes in the Bible and is genuinely concerned with the destiny of his fellow man, which is a sharp contrast to Grigoris’ avarice.

It is said that Kazantzakis was tortured by metaphysical and existential concerns. Jesus is a common component in his stories, but despite Christ Recrucified being overtly critical of the church (in fact, he was excommunicated) you do get the sense that he loved religion deeply.

Religion aside, this novel explores the conflict between your sense of duty to your family’s well-being and helping those less fortunate. The novel tackles the question that we still ask today, especially following the Indian Earthquake in December: how much can one man give before his motives are questioned?

The Greek Passion (1948) was published in Great Britain as Christ Recrucified.

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