I realized I know next to nothing about Greek literature after the ultra-classics of Plato and the other men made into white statues. I went to the local second hand English bookstore to get some books for my challenge, and they had been nice enough to set aside books from countries with not so many books available in English. I was quite surprised to see a Greek book in the pile, but then I realized, yes, indeed, if I want to read something else than one of the old classics, it’s not that easy to find one. This is how I ended up with Freedom or Death by Nikos Kazantzakis.
Lately I’ve grown a bit tired of the most typical subjects when it comes to book; genocide, war, hate between groups of people (or religions), and long love stories. I am to blame, not the books, but I simply think I’ve read too many of these books this year, and I’ve had an overdose. These themes have either happened or is happening in almost every corner of the world, so quite naturally this is what many books are about. Unfortunately for Freedom or Death I had a hard time getting into the story, because of my own lack of enthusiasm.
The book is set on the island of Crete, where the author was born. It is beautifully written, and it has all the major elements for a 20th century classic. The troubles between Greeks and Turks are not exactly news to anyone, but it gets concrete in this story of Greek Captain Michalis, and his blood brother Turkish Nurey Bey. The Greeks do not allow themselves to enjoy life, laugh, or take well-deserved breaks from their cause: to free Crete from the Turks. In that sense this book could be set in many places around the world; Northern Ireland, Palestine, Catalonia… But, otherwise it is quite a Greek story, no doubt about it.
The book is titled Freedom or Death, but in reality it is about Freedom and Death, sadly enough. Kazantzakis seems to be a man who likes to introduce the reader to as many characters as possible, which makes the book a heavy read to get into. I read somewhere that he introduced 26 characters in the first 40 pages. That is a lot. For a person like me, who does not like books with hordes of people, this is simply too much.
The story itself is not exactly unique, due to this being a universal subject, but what makes it special are the many rich characters, and their surroundings. Freedom is obviously one of the major important things in life, and you realize it definitely when you don’t have it.
“We Cretans are not like other people. We have twice as much work to do… But a Cretan thinks of Crete as well. And Crete is a great plague! It takes all you have and is always right! It demands of you even your life, and you give it, and are glad.”