Nikos Kazantzakis

England through the eyes and the pen of Nikos Kazantzakis

One name: Nikos Kazantzakis. One date: 1927. One book: Travelling. According to scholars of our literature this is the starting point of Greek travel literature; the moment, the fact, the book by which the travelling impression was consciously trans-mutated into pure literature. He himself would say it in another way, his own way, even more clearly: “Travel and confession (and creation is the noblest and truest form of confession) have been the two greatest joys of my life.”
N. K. knows very well the journeys of Ulysses, he knows the European writers, pilgrims of the one time Roman Empire and the Levante in the 18th and mainly the 19th century; he feels the home-sickness (“nostos”), seeking at the same time the ceaseless departure, the escape – better – “Crete is good, but only to take a run-up, he wrote. He has the dream and the supreme ambition to become a big author; he takes a run-up precisely from his travels in order to catch the dream. Pantelis Prevelakis will write later that “Travelling, Russia” will establish him as an author.
Kazantzakis travels continuously and particularly in the 20’ies and 30’ies of the 20th century systematically as correspondent of big newspapers of Athens: “Neon Asty”, “Eleftheros Logos”, “Eleftheros Typos”, “Ermis” (Hermes; a newspaper from Alexandria, Egypt), “Kathimerini”, “Proia”, “Akropolis”; magazines: “Anagennisis”, “Neoellinika Grammata”, “Neolea”, “Nea Estia”. The renowned Giorgos Katsibalis records 317 travelling texts from October 1907 to January 1946. Kazantzakis distinguishes himself from dozens of of colleagues of travelling literature, being on the top of the “trinity” together with I.M.Panayotopoulos and Costas Ouranis – travelling literature having a significant tradition in our part of the world, the same as short stories do. Kazantzakis himself formulates this as follows:
“(…) to see, to touch as yet unknown earth, to swim in unknown seas, to travel all over the earth, to see…new lands…, and peoples and ideas”. It is not enough for him, that is, to describe places, he is not interested in placing landscapes as heroes; he wants to immerse into the anxiety of his time, since travelling constitutes an urgent inner need of him; he wants to answer the tormenting questions “where do we go?”, “where do we come from?”, “what is the destiny of this or that county?” And how about the World? How about Europe? His need to interpret the so many different forms of life he encounters during his journeys in the crucial years of the first half of the 20th century – isn’ t this the hallmark of any true literary text?
As the war planes cross the sky, July to November 1939, on the eve of the Big Carnage (that ‘s how he calls the Second World War) he is in England upon invitation of the British Council. Hence the last volume of his travel texts – published in 1941 by the Pyrsos publishing house in Athens. And sitting in Hyde Park, observing the passers-by in a free country he will mentally pass through the British history.
Waves came from the north and the south, first the Iberian who left their huge standing – cyclopean – stones; then came the Celts who brought their legends and their descendants Arthur and Tristan; the Romans brought aqueducts and water supply reservoirs and of course Londinium, where the long and straight roads meet all along the place, London. The Vikings of Denmark sail along the Thames to protect the peasants and here comes feudalism. And as we reach the 11th century and the Normans do not have enough space in France on the opposite coast, they cross, ironclad, the Channel with William as their leader. Conquerors and conquered, they fight for centuries, they compromise, mingle in love and create Great Britain each time with new blood in its veins – to reach vigorous its colonial peak. Kazantzakis writes accurately: “The history of England, the commerce, politics, art, its glory, all dripping seawater”.
His tour starts from the workers’ cities: Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield. Factories, warehouses, shops, coal dust “sooty blackness on the walls”, the face of industrial civilization. He calls them “blotted”, depressing, while the faces of the workers cause him “a strange emotion, an unexpected tenderness”.
And from there, the absolute reversal: Eton, Oxford, Cambridge! Or, otherwise, typography, centuries before, the translation of the Bible and the restriction of the power of the Papal Church, the awakening of the middle class, the machines, the famous industrial revolution and the need of educated political and economic leadership. See here! The famous English schools, better even what Wellington said: “The battle of Waterloo was won at the terrains of Eton”.
And as he writes about the eminent figures of the more recent English history, while he talks about the English novel and while he weaves the praise of the meaning of “gentleman”, suddenly a strange leap, you would think, brings him to Friedrich Nietzsche. He puts on stage in writing a meeting with the shadow of Nietzsche at the bank of the Thames under a chestnut tree, converses with Nietzsche’ s Superman about moral principles, the war, the will to rule. And when he rises from the bench he was sitting on, 13 pages further on in the book, a bomber plane passes growling over London. Here is the dialogue: (…) “ Superman has arrived…”, I murmured to him. “Is this what you wanted? ” (…) “This! (…)” – “You sowed and now see the harvest. Do you like it?” – “I like it.” The calendar writes August 25, 1939, the anniversary of Nietzsche’ s death; Hitler’ s ironclad army is already marching in the streets of Europe. It is difficult, believe me, to find a more accurate and profound commentary on what happened. History will encounter him in front of number 10 Downing Street, the declaration of war, and some of the nicest pages of the book concern the preparation of London for the war: the first day when sirens sound alarm for the impending bombardment, September 3rd, his descent to a shelter, the pastor, the newly-wed couple, the policeman, the youngsters wearing masks, the plump lady eating her apple, an old Tiperery song coming out of the mouths of everybody in the shelter and the slip of paper with the name of each one in his pocket, ticket to death and to life. The faces, the pain, the fear, the endurance, but also the organization of the wily fox, as he calls England. The value of travel literature, anyway, and of that of Kazantzakis lies ALSO here: his literature is ALSO a testimony.
And now comes the time to talk about the great bard, Shakespeare. Now, here, at the beginning of the war, great Art is a support, strength; creation as hope and spell in the dark side of man. If this is precisely the order of the journey or not, Kazantzakis passes from war to the Spirit, the Art, the civilization – these are what remain from wars.
In Stratford upon Avon in front of him, he is at last at the birth place of Shakespeare, the apples shining like a girl’ s breasts, the pears sweet as honey, the road to Shakespere’ s house, the house of his big brother. He will be sleeping in the house of Shakespeare’ s daughter Susanne, roam about the same places as He did, converse with him in the night. And he becomes affectionate,captivating lyrical, praising and at the same time reflective, fair and just, faithful worshipper of Macbeth and Othello, of Hamlet and King Lear, he does not turn his face away from the diabolical Richard the Third, he falls in love with Desdemona, Juliette, Ophelia; and he connects intelligently cause and effect: Shakespeare did not fall from the sky; the era he lives and creates is the era when Galileo “moves” the Earth, books are printed, ideas travel, the souls, excited, are mirrored in the great creators and the citizens throng in improvised stages, often in the mud, in order to see and hear men’ s passions, their own passions. He manages here as well to give us pages of a clearly essay character in a simple, intelligible, imaginative way. Because travel literature has to be also an essay.
He leaves London behind, the heart of colonialism, in the third month of the war, November. The city has acquired the nobleness of a city sunken in the mist, like a thick dream; he has spent hours and days in the British Museum and the City. His gaze, accurate and often caustic: “….But one day I fell into another nightmare – a modern and vivid one – in the City; in the labyrinthine, self-interested, gold -filled veins of London. Narrow, winding back streets, congestive overstrain, the big temples of contemporary religion – the Stock Exchange, the Bank of England, the Town Hall. And close by, at the banks of the river, (…) warehouses, where the goods of the whole earth are amassed. (…) The five continents carry their gifts to the master: Canada and Russia the grain, the Scandinavian countries the wood, Australia the wool and fruits, Egypt, the Indies, China the cotton, the rice, the tea, Africa the sugar, coffee, tobacco. (…) And the various European countries their kings: Normandy, France, Holland and Hannover. And Greece, tobacco, raisins, sponges and its marble gods…
In the whole book Kazantzakis does not conceal his admiration and esteem for the country but he is not afraid to express frankly his thoughts. Accurate his critical historical and political observations, they are based each time on the knowledge of history, without underestimating his own sense of things. Years later, in September 1954, the Cyprus problem in its peak, he publishes in Nea Estia an article without mincing his words, an article hard about the British politics of the time. This precisely is the addendum to the book.
We all know how Kazantzakis died: August 1957, the plane flies over the North Pole returning from China. His last trip. How was it up there in the sky? Who visited him through the clouds and the snow, who did he greet and to who he bid farewell to in the bright atmosphere of the Pole – this he never put down in writing for us. Sick from the trip he will very soon die. If we may say: travel gave him life, travel took it away.
Niki Troullinoú, 2017
Translation: Mihail Koukakis