Earlier in the week, the Northamptonshire chief constable threatened to send his policemen to check on shoppers’ baskets and trolleys because in his opinion going out to buy chocolate Easter eggs is not essential!
Our virtual escape today, in honour of Easter, is to the small fictional Greek village of Lycovrissi, in Anatolia, under Turkish rule, about a hundred years ago. Christ Recrucified by Nikos Kazantzakis (of Zorba, the Greek fame), tells the story of the year preceding the village Passion play. Every seven years Christ’s Passion is reenacted for Easter; on this occasion with some unexpected and tragic consequences…
The following excerpt describes the village elders discussing which villagers to choose for the various characters for the following year’s Mystery in the beginning of the book:
“We are therefore met together today,” the pope continued, “to choose—and may God enlighten us—those to whom we shall entrust this sacred mystery. Speak freely; let each put forward his opinion. Archon, you are the first notable, therefore speak first; we are listening.”
“Judas! We’ve got him,” the captain interjected. “You’ll never find a better one than Panayotaros, the plaster-eater; sturdy, spotted with the small-pox, a real gorilla, like the one I saw at Odessa; and what’s even more important, he’s got the beard and hair for the part: red as the Devil’s in person.”
“It’s not your turn to speak, captain,” said the pope severely; “don’t be in such a hurry, there are those whose turn comes before yours. Well, archon?”
“What shall I say, pope?” replied the archon. “I desire only thing: that you should choose my son Michelis to act Christ.”
“Impossible,” the pope cut in. “Your son is a young archon, big and fat, eating and drinking and enjoying life, while Christ was poor and thin. It isn’t suitable, forgive me. And besides is Michelis capable of going through with so difficult a part? He will be scourged, he will have to wear a crown of thorns, he will be hoisted up the cross: Michelis won’t have the strength, do you want him to fall ill?”
“And the most important of all,” the captain cut in, “is that Christ was fair, while Michelis’s hair and moustache are as black as boot-blacking.”
“For Mary Magdalen we’ve just the thing,” said Ladas, clucking: “widow Katerina. The bitch has everything required; she’s a fine whore with golden hair; I saw her one day in her yard, combing her hair, and it cam edown to her knees; devil take her, she’d damn an archbishop.”
The captain already had his mouth half-open to utter some jest, but the pope gave him a look which made him hold his tongue.
“The bad ones are easy to find,” said the pope; “Judas, Mary Magdalen. But the good ones? That’s where I’m waiting for your advice! Where shall we find, where shall we find—Lord forgive me!—a man resembling Christ? Let him but resemble Him more or less physically, that will be good enough. I—for days and weeks I’ve been hatching this idea in my head and many nights it’s kept me awake. But I believe God has had pity on me; I’ve found the man.”
“Who?” said the old archon, stung; “out with it.”
“With your permission, archon, someone in your service, whom your lordship also loves well—your shepherd, Manolios. He is mild as a lamb, he can read, has been in a monastery too; has blue eyes and a short beard as yellow as honey, a real Christ like an icon. And pious into the bargain. He comes down from the mountain every Sunday to hear Mass, and every time I’ve confessed him and given him Communion I’ve found not the least pecadillo to reproach him for.”
“He’s a wee bit crazy,” squeaked old Ladas, “he sees phantoms.”
“No harm in that,” the pope assured him; “it’s enough that the soul be pure.”
“He can stand the scourges, the crown of thorns and the weight of the cross. What’s more, he’s a shepherd, another advantage; Christ is also shepherd of the human flock,” said the schoolmaster sententiously.
“I approve,” concluded the archon, after having reflected for a good while. “And in that case, my son?”
“He’ll do very well for John,” said the pope enthusiastically. “He has everything required: well fleshed, black hair, almond eyes, and of good family, just as the well-beloved disciple was.”
“For James,” said the schoolmaster, watching his brother the pope timidly, “it seems to me we couldn’t do better than Kostandis who keeps the café. He’s thin; fierce-looking, crabbed, and that’s how they represent the Apostle James.”
“And he has a wife who worries the life out of him” (it was the captain again. “Was the Apostle married too? Well? What’s your opinion, most learned of all the learned?”
“Stop joking about sacred things, blasphemer!” cried the pope angrily. “You’re not on your boat here, telling dirty stories to your scum. We are considering a mystery.”
The schoolmaster plucked up courage.
“A passable Peter,” he said, “would, I think, be Yannakos the carrier: narrow forehead, grey curly hair, a short chin. He loses his temper and calms down, flares up and goes out as easily as a tinder; but he’s a good heart. I can’t see a better Peter than him in all the village.”
“A bit of a cheat,” said the archon, shaking his big head. “But what can you expect of a tradesman? It doesn’t matter.”
“They say he killed his wife,” wheezed father Ladas; “he gave her something to eat and she died of it.”
“Lies, lies!” cried the pope; “don’t come telling that story to me! One day, out of sheer greed, his late wife at a whole great bowl of raw chick-peas; it made her so thirsty she couldn’t bear it. The poor woman was thirsty, she drank a whole jugful of water. She swelled up and died. Don’t damn your soul, father Ladas!”
“Served her right!” said the captain; “that’s where drinking water leads to, she need only have drunk raki.”
“We still need a Pilate and a Caiaphas,” said the schoolmaster; “I think we shall have trouble in finding them.”
“A better Pilate than your lordship we shall never find, my dear archon,” the pope hazarded, in a honeyed voice. “Don’t frown; Pilate too was a great nobleman; proud in manner, well stuffed, double-chinned, well groomed, with just your bearing. A good man, too; did what he could to save Christ, and at the end even said: ‘I wash my hands of this.’ By that he escaped sin. Accept, archon, and you’ll enable us to give grandeur to the Mystery. Imagine what a glory it will be for our village and what a crowd it will draw when people hear that the worthy archon Patriarcheas is to act Pontius Pilate!”
The archon gave a self-satisfied smile, lit his chibouk and was silent.
“Father Ladas would make a first-rate Caiaphas!” said the captain, breaking in again; “we couldn’t find a better. In your opinion, pope, since you paint icons, tell me, what do they make Caiaphas look like?”
“Well…,” said the pope, swallowing, “rather like father Ladas: skin and bones, grimy, cheeks hollow, nose yellow and narrow…”
“And was his moustache, too, scurfy?” asked the captain, who liked giving pin-pricks. “De he, too, grudge giving a drop of water even to his guardian angel? Didn’t he, too, walk about with his boots under his arm so as not to wear out the soles?”
“I’m going!” shouted Ladas, jumping up. “And you, captain, why don’t you take a part? What are you waiting for? There’s not a smooth skin needed, by any chance, is there?”
“I? I form the reserve,” said the captain, with a laugh and the gesture of twirling moustaches. “Perhaps in the course of the year—after all we’re men, and not young!—one of you will go west: you for instance, Ladas of the moustaches, or even his lordship Pilate… If so, I shall take his place, to save the Mystery.”
“Find another Caiaphas, that’s all I’ve got to say!” bawled the old skinflint. “Anyhow, I must do some watering. I’m off!” And he made for the door.
But at one bound the pope was there and, with outstretched arms:
“Where are you going? Our people are coming, you shan’t leave. You don’t want to make us all ridiculous?”
“You must make a sacrifice, like the others, Mr. Ladas. And think of hell-fire; many of your sins will be forgiven you if you aid us in this work, which is pleasing to God. A better Caiaphas that you we shall never find. Don’t hold out against us. God will note it on His tablets.”
“I don’t want to be Caiaphas!” shouted old Ladas in terror. “Find another! And as for those tablets—”
But he had no time to finish his speech: the villagers were already coming up the stairs and the pope unbolted the door.
“Christ is risen, notables!” About ten villagers came in, their hands on their chests, lips or foreheads. They formed a line along the wall.
“Risen indeed!” replied the notables, placing themselves more squarely on the divan. The old archon passed round his tobacco-pouch.
“My children, the decision has been taken,” the pope announced…