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Book Review: Freedom and Death by Nikos Kazantzakis

“Freedom and Death” is a novel based on the 1889 rebellion of the Christian Greeks of the island of Crete, against the rule of the Muslim Turks. The novel aims to humanize the events of the uprising and make it relatable to the readers, by detailing the amplification of humans’ struggle with love, friendship and freedom in the time of war. Its main characters are Captain Michalis and Nuri Bei. Michalis represents the Greek side of the conflict and Nuri Bei, a political ruler and Michalis’ blood brother, represents the Turks, helping the reader understand both perspectives of the predicament.

Both characters suffer a tragic fate in the story, as victims of war, but they die in different ways. While both die because of war, Michalis is killed directly by the sword while Nuri Bei suffers lasting psychological damage that changes his life completely, leaving it unbearable. Other important characters include Manoussakas, the victim of Nuri’s revenge for his father’s death, Emine, Nuri’s wife until his suicide, and Kosmas, nephew of Captain Michalis. The storyline of the novel interweaves these characters in order to understand the and effects that the Cretan revolt had on each individual and how each individual can be interpreted as a representative of their people.

One of the most important events that lead to the climax of this novel is the death of Nuri Bei. After Nuri Bei commits suicide, the problematic environment of Megalokastoro becomes even more chaotic and ready for revolt. The central conflicts of this novel are ideological, internal as well as sexual. Michales and Emine are caught in two love triangles with two other central figures in the novel, Nuri Bei and Captain Polyxingis. The protagonist is seen struggling with this situation, reclassifying it as one of his fights with his inner demons. As emotions flare and soldiers from both sides wage war against eachothr, the central conflict develops. The ongoing theme is the conflicting ideology associated with old values of ancient Greece, represented by Michales and the contradicting informed resolutions represented by Kosmas. The novel climaxes when the Monastery is taken over by the Turks due to Michales’ inner conflict regarding his responsibility and destiny. His decision to kill the temptress Emine is parallel with his decision to overcome his conflict and materialistic desires for the greater good. The last scenes of Freedom and Death present the protagonist in his final fight. The falling action of this novel makes Michales’ into a tragic hero who is willing to sacrifice his life for a cause in which he believes. In this event, the Turks kill Kosmas and Michales, nephew and uncle, in the rugged mountains of Crete.

Historical Context
The Cretan Rebellions of the 19th century involved the island of Crete fighting the powers of the Greek and Turkish empires. The problem that arose was the people of Crete did not feel comfortable with either empires having control over them. This caused Crete to form rebellions against the Greeks, who believed that they must have power over the island in order to maintain its safety and independence from the Turks. Miscommunication and unpreparedness led to the dominance of the Greek and Crete people by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The goal of the Cretan rebellions was to establish an autonomous Greek state in Crete. Throughout the novel, these goals are reflected through the setting of the events and the attributes of Kazantzakis’ characters. Throughout the novel, the island of Crete is personified and given human-like qualities. The author compares the tribulations of Crete to those of Christ and compares the land to a woman. This set up, a long with scenes such as the Cretan mountains amidst the rugged terrain allow for the reader to witness a David versus Goliath type of battle that strongly imitates the reality of what the Cretan Rebellions were.

Ideological Context
The Megali Idea is a nationalistic movement that had formed its roots long before the occurrences described in Kazantzakis’ novel. The Megali Idea is related to the novel as a basis for the hope for an independent domestic political rule. In particular, its paralleling aim was to re-establish a free society by liberating the Greek population from Turkish rule. The mythology of the Megali Idea, or the Great Idea, originated during the times of Greek-Macedonian conflict, which called for the imperialism of Greece. Captain Michales is witnessed fighting for the hope of a free society.

Kazantzakis, however seems to want to attribute only a select principles of the Megali Idea, without associating Captain Michales’ values to that which would have brought Crete under the power of a larger Greek state, encompassing all the regions including those conquered by Turkey as would take away the Cretan’s independence nevertheless.

Social Context
The village of Megalokastoro serves as a microcosm for the island of Crete. In this village, the author describes the relationship between the Muslim Turks and the Christian Greeks as a rocky volcano, which can explode with the slightest provocation. Because of the oppressive nature of the Turkish rule, the Cretan people struggled to earn a decent livelihood, but they still managed to enjoy the simple pleasures of family life. The Ottoman Empire described in the novel’s events saw a lot of Christian Cretans converting to Islam. The forced conversions changed the lives of the Cretan people for the better in many ways, but those who wished to remain Christian had experienced a lot of suffering.

The main female character in Freedom and Death is Emine. Emine is characterized as a temptress who leaves her struggling husband Nuri Bei, after his genitals are wounded in a battle. While the author assigns the protection of civilization and ideals to man, he does not give so much credit to women, assigning them to the limited duties of a homemaker and lover of man. Although his philosophy can be largely attributed to social standards of the time, Kazantzakis has received justifiable criticism for his representation of women in his novels. When one analyzes this interpretation further, one can see through Kazantzakis’ social biases, and understand that he is not wholeheartedly and purposely antagonizing the woman as the source of internal conflict, like he does with Emine. As he informs the reader of the Cretan’s troubles to earn a livelihood or protect ideals, he also admits to the downfall of the man. As he informs the reader of the ability to sustain a happy family life, he complements the woman.

Final Observations
This novel borrows a lot from history the segregation of the Greek people based on religion, particularly the Orthodox Greeks and those under the Ottoman system. Modern Greek identity was shaped largely by the events that are highlighted in this novel. In many ways, the novel serves as a commentary on the Megali Idea and gives a humanistic insight as opposed to just criticism. Although the novel is one of fiction, there are many truths and life-like parallels in it. For instance, Captain Michali is actually a character based on the author’s father. The character lived in a modest home in the small village of Megalokastro, but he was far from modest in his undertakings. In fact he is presented as a rebel and a leader fighting for political, personal, and physical freedom. Although Michali shows signs of rationality, his strength comes in his personality’s strength and fire. Kazantzakis presents this as a possible reason for the struggle of the Cretan people, in the sense that one and all should always strive for an ideal before immediate gratitude. In the novel, this is evident when Michali flees his village to recapture and kill Emine. He kills her in order to ensure his life will serve the right cause, freedom for his land. This results in the burning down of the Monastery of Christ the Lord, which is in it a symbol for the free spirit of the people of Crete.