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Nikos Kazantzakis (1883 – 1957)

(updated August 4, 2007)

Nikos Kazantzakis (Crete's Prodigal Son) was one of the most important Greek writers, philosophers and poets. He was born on February 30, 1883 in Heraklion. He is best known for the work 'Zorba the Greek', which he wrote at the end of his life. In his work Kazantzakis was influenced by big philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche.

The childhood of Kazantzakis is mainly influenced by the run-up to the revolution in his homeland. On his birth Greece still is part of the Ottoman (Turkish) empire. During the revolution, which brakes out in 1897, the Greeks separate themselves from the Turks. For his own safety Kazantzakis departs to the island of Naxos during the revolution, around 1897. A place that Kazantzakis calls 'the great sweetness'. On Naxos Kazantzakis goes to a school that is headed by French monks.

In Heraklion Kazantzakis finishes his secondary school. He then leaves to Athens to study law at the university. In 1907 he moved to Paris to do a Ph.D. in philosophy. At that moment, when 24-year-old, Kazantzakis is already famous in his own country. He is known by the play 'Day is breaking' that he wrote in 1906. In Paris Kazantzakis writes both journalistic pieces as serious literature. On his more serious work, he initially is mainly influenced by his teacher and leading French philosopher Henri Bergson-Louis. In Paris he also gets in contact with the works of Nietzsche. About him Kazantzakis wrote his thesis in 1909.

After his stay in Paris Kazantzakis turns back to Crete in 1910. He lives together with Galatea Alexiou, whom he married in 1911. Alexiou is a very learned woman and writer. During this period Kazantzakis earns his money with translating books from major European languages into Modern Greek. Together with his wife he also writes children's books.

In 1914 Kazantzakis travels to the island Athos along with poet Angelos Sikelianos. They stay lasts for a total of 40 days in which they sleep in 20 different monasteries. Here they first come in contact with the works of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri. Kazantzakis sees him as one of his greatest models.

During the First World War, Kazantzakis goes to the Peloponnese to be a miner in a lignite mine. There he meets fellow-worker George Zorbas. The experience that he witnesses he later used in the famous novel 'Zorba the Greek'.

Prime-minister Venizelos appointed Kazantzakis to Director General of the Ministry of Welfare of Greece in 1919. He gets the special task to ensure the repatriation of the 150,000 Greeks who are being held by the Bolsheviks in the Caucasus. In the French of Versailles he participated in the peace talks to end the First World War. In 1920 the murder on Ion Dragoumis takes place. It's difficult for Kazantzakis to stomach this. When the party of Venizelos loses the next election, Kazantzakis decides to give up his function in the Ministry of Welfare.

In the subsequent years will Kazantzakis travel a lot. He visits different cities and countries, including Vienna, Berlin, the German Naumburg (The birthplace of Nietzsche), Italy, the Soviet Union, Palestine, Cyprus, Spain, Egypt, Czechoslovakia and France. During these years, the number of works is tremendous. He comes into contact with the works of Sigmund Freud and develops a great interest in Buddhism.

Kazantzakis leaves his Greek nationalistic feelings behind and gets great sympathy for communism. In 1925 he was appointed to the Soviet Union in order to work as a correspondent for an Athens newspaper. Later he again visits the Soviet Union, this time at the invitation of the Russian parliament. Along with the Romanian Panait Istrati he travels around at the Caucasus. Together they seek after the communist ideal. They also visit cities such as Murmansk and Leningrad (Saint Petersburg). Kazantzakis and Istrati grow increasingly further apart. From 1929 he therefore travels alone further through the Soviet Union. At that moment, he has been separated from Alexiou for some time.

In 1930 Kazantzakis returned to France. At that moment he could not return to Greece, because Greece wants to bring him to justice because of Atheism. Later he returned anyway. He settled on the island of Aegina in the Sardonian gulf. He is trying to build a career in Spain, but did not succeed. In Greece he earns money by translating books. In 1935, Kazantzakis travels to China and Japan to be able to publish more about traveling. He still hopes to pursue a career outside Greece. That is why he writes novels in the French language. He goes to Spain to work as a correspondent, where he interviews, among others, Francisco Franco.

In 1940, Greece became occupied by the troops of Mussolini. Kazantzakis can not detract from Aegina. Despite the limitations imposed by the occupiers he begins to write a lot. During that time he writes novels including the famous 'Zorba the Greek' and 'Last temptation of Christ'. When the occupiers leave Kazantzakis goes to Athens. He becomes leader of a small socialist party and becomes minister without portfolio. He also marries Eleni Samiou. A year later he hits the post of minister again. In celebration of the independence of the country, the play 'Capodistria' of his hand, has its premiere. This causes great disturbances in the country. Right wing nationalists threaten to fire in the theater. Kazantzakis wants to leave the country for a short-term leave, but will never return to Greece alive. The Ministerial Council of Great Britain offers him a room in Cambridge. Later he leaves to Paris at the invitation of the French government. The political situation in Greece makes it impossible for him to return to his homeland.

In 1947 Kazantzakis accepts a job with UNESCO. He must translate classical works to build bridges between different cultures. In 1948 he quits this work. He starts translating plays written by him into French language. His works become increasingly popular in several countries, such as Great Britain, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, New York and the Netherlands.

The health of Kazatzakis is getting worse. He takes a long time to recover from a fungus on his face. For an infection to his right eye, he was treated in a Dutch hospital. In France, he was treated again. Ultimately, it's no longer possible to be treated and the eye is removed. Later, in Mannheim, they find out that he has acute lymphocytic leukemia.

In 1954 the Pope Pius the 7th places the novel 'Last temptation of Christ' on the list of books banned by the Catholic Church. Kazantzakis is now in the autumn of his life. In 1955 he met the German philosopher and psychologist Dr. Albert Schweitzer and on June 28, 1956, he received the international peace award in Vienna.

Text above the tomb of Kazantzakis I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.

In 1957 Kazantzakis and his wife Eleni travel to China at the invitation of the government of this country. On the way back, the arm of Kazantzakis, at the place where he was vaccinated, is affected by gangrene. He is treated for this in German Freiburg. There, he is hit by the Asian fever. His condition rapidly deteriorates. Kazantzakis died on the 26th October 1957 in Freiburg. Because the government doesn't want his body in Athens it is sent to Crete. There he was laid in state in the cathedral of Heraklion. He was buried in the Venetian walls (Martinego) of the city. At the tomb stone the following text is written: "I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.". Kazantzakis died at the age of 74.