Gillian Bouras
An Australian
Writer
Living in Greece

October 2014

The world is in such a complete mess at present that all we ordinary powerless mortals can do is enjoy the moment. Carpe diem is definitely the way to go. With that philosophy in mind, I am pleased to report that idyllic autumn is upon us here in the Peloponnese, and it can never last long enough, at least not for me. The weather will break in ten days or so, however, but will then mend itself in the Little Summer of St Dimitrios, which is a run of sunny days that occurs near the Feast Day of said Saint: October the 26th. Here and now the bougainvillea is still blazing, the pomegranates are bursting on the trees, and the miniature cyclamens are peeping in mauve clusters from cracks of rock.

I have been back from Crete for more than a month, but somehow it never quite leaves me, or I never quite leave it. Just before I left (at least physically) I managed to revisit Nikos Kazantzakis’s ancestral village: The village is now called Myrtia (Myrtles), whereas before, in Kazantzakis’s time, its name was Varvaroi (Barbarians). I know which I prefer.

Leaves were already starting to fall and drift, crackling underfoot, along the quiet streets: there were few people about. This time I had family with me. We went to the eponymous museum, and I was pleased to see that my grandsons, now aged eight and six, sat quietly for the duration of the film about Kazantzakis’s life. Brainwashing is not my thing, but I hope they learned something about the great Cretan writer, and that they will retain what they learned. Thus think old warhorses of teachers.

The Museum is situated close to the site of the Kazantzakis family home,  where Nikos spent his childhood summers, travelling up from his family’s main house in the city of Heraklion. The Museum contains a record of his multi-faceted life as complete, I think, as it can be. There are the old exercise books, the travel books, and even a bowl of nuts, for Nikos nibbled walnuts and almonds while writing. He also smoked a pipe. His varied passports are on display as well, for he was an inveterate traveller: when he died, he had been away from Greece for eleven years.

Then there is the matter of The Odyssey, the work that he hoped would last forever, the one based on Homer’s original. (And who knows how original that was, and who really wrote it or sang it? And was Homer just one person? So the questioning goes on.) The Odyssey endeavour consumed the greater part of Kazantzakis’s intellectual life for years on end. He started the writing of it in Heraklion in 1925 and finished in on the island of Aegina in 1938. There are 33,000 verses of it, and he saw the project as his greatest attempt to save his soul. And was very fearful the while: if it did not succeed, he wrote, ‘my life will go to waste.’  He need not have worried.

I don’t know if I have mentioned the photographs of Nikos before. These, and there are many of them, show a great restlessness of spirit, and I sometimes wonder whether he had a relaxed moment in all his life. He was photographed many times, by both admirers and enemies, I don’t doubt. He made enemies: that was inevitable. Most people do not appreciate the questing spirit; those people who lack passion do not understand it in others. And Nikos was a passionate man, a forceful personality.

What you notice about the photographs is his eyes. Burning eyes: there is no other word but burning to describe them. I have a number of his works in Greek, naturally, and there is always a photograph as a frontispiece to the weighty volumes, each with its brown mock-leather cover. One shows Nikos becoming old: his face is beginning to be puffy and is already sagging under the chin. But he still retains a good head of hair, and fiercely bushy eyebrows. His moustache is tinged with grey, though. And he is looking away from the camera: those eyes are just inky black sockets in this picture.

The other photo of Nikos may have been the one that his widow Eleni liked best, for she seems to have controlled the publication of his work from the time of his death almost until the time of her own.  It shows him, this picture, in his prime. The year was 1928, which makes him forty-five. The eyes are unflinching, gazing at the camera. At you: this is what the observer feels, and also feels that there is no escape. This reader does, anyway. A slight dimple in the chin, a slight pursing of the mouth Neat ears, set close beside his head. A straight nose and just two marks of a frown between the black brows.  Nikos was convinced that he had more than a drop of North African blood, and was proud of what he assumed to be a fact; it might help explain that brooding intensity.

His head and his left hand: there is only black space in-between. The hand, slender and elegant, with a ring on the middle finger, is slightly splayed in a very Greek gesture of interrogation: the index finger is lowered and forms a V with the thumb, while the other three fingers are slightly raised. A sliver of white cuff borders his wrist.

There are photographs in the Museum, of course, and other tributes outside. While wandering around, I noticed something I had not noticed during my previous visit. The street slopes upward, so that you have to see the sign that commemorates Nikos’s most famous and popular work: Alexis Zorbas Street.

 

 

 

Gillian Bouras

 

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