I was given the Greek language;
a poor house on Homer’s beaches.
My only care my language on Homer’s beaches.
Seabream there and perch
green sea-currents amid the azure currents
which I felt light up in my viscera
with the first words of the Sirens
pink shells with their first black shivers.
My only care my language with the first black shivers.
(Odysseas Elytis: Psalm II)
La lengua me la dieron griega;
la casa pobre en las arenas de Homero.
Unica cuita me lengua en las arenas de Homero.
Allí sargos y percas
verbos sacudidos por el viento
corrientes verdes entre las azules
cuanto vi que se iba encendiendo en mis entrañas
con las primeras palabras de las Sirenas
conchas rosadas con los primeros estremecimientos negros
Unica cuita me lengua con los primeros estremecimientos negros.
We live haphazard, we die haphazard, rudderless, with sails bellying. A wind blows. Where it blows, there we go. Water rushes into our ship, we work at the pumps day and night. But the water keeps rising and the pumps are rusty. The wretched things won’t work any more, and we go to the bottom. That’s human life, and you can yell as loud as you like. What’s our duty? To serve the pumps day and night, not to fold our arms, not to complain, not to moan. We ought not give up shamefully, but to work at the pumps day and night. That much I’ve learned from life, and you can take it or leave it!
The eggs had already been eaten, shells and all. Now Captain Michales with a blow from his fist, smashed the pottery egg-cups, and distributed them to his guests to eat. Bertódolus was terrified, took his piece and clung breathless to a cask. With goggling eyes he watched the Cretans at his feet bit their bits of clay and chew them until they became sand and grit, which they swallowed with a snigger.
There are three sorts of men, Bertódolus slowly explained to himself: those who eat eggs without the shells; those who eat eggs with the shells; and those who gobble them up with the shell and the egg-cups as well. Those of the third kind are called Cretans.
(Nikos Kazantzakis: Freedom and Death)
Image Credit: Kazantzakis Museum via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0
Freedom and Death by Nikos Kazantzakis: A Book Review
Captain Michales is a wild man. His own family calls him the Wild Boar; and when he invites his companions to one of his drinking bouts – which often last for days – not only they dare not to say no, they dare not to stop drinking either, not even if it makes them miserably sick.
Even so, Captain Michales is no wilder than his country, Crete.
Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, Freedom and Death, is set at the end of 19th century when Crete was still a – reluctant – part of the Ottoman Empire. The island saw a series of rebellions against Turkish rule throughout the 19th century before eventually it became independent and finally united with Greece in the 20th.
Kazantzakis himself was born in Megalokastro (today’s Heraklion) in 1883 and in his autobiographical book, Report to Greco, he hinted that the figure of Captain Michales was inspired by his own father: in the novel he’s describing the world that he grew up in.
A harsh and chaotic world.
Relations between the two groups of inhabitants of the island, the Greeks and Turks, are turbulent to say the least: ethnically motivated murder is a daily occurrence, family vendettas drag out for decades and law is practically non-existent. This forms the background of the novel, which is a story of friendship, jealousy, murder and vengeance, embedded in the larger story of the fight for Cretan independence.
The hero, Captain Michales, is a larger than life figure from the town of Megalokastro. The other chief characters are his Turkish blood brother and at the same time enemy, Nuri Bey; Nuri’s wife Eminé, who strikes passion in more than one man’s heart; Captain Michalis’s extended family, his rivals, his friends and neighbours in Megalokastro; not to mention the Pacha in charge of the island and the spiritual leader of the Christians, the Metropolitan.
In addition to the actual plot line, the novel is like a caleidoscope of colour about life in Megalokastro in that particular moment, strongly emanating the atmosphere of the time and place – for Kazantzakis writing it must have been like reliving his childhood.
It is a memorable book, but brutal: brutal like the hero, and brutal like the times and the country in which he lived. Not for the faint hearted.
Captain Michales stretched out his hand and raised the severed head by the hair like a banner. A wild light haloed his face, which was filled with an inhuman joy. Was it pride, god-like defiance, or contempt of death? Or limitless love for Crete? Captain Michales roared:
For the past few days, the row about whether a certain politician who broke the lockdown rules by travelling to visit family at some 200 miles’ distance (for childcare reasons) should resign.
In the circumstances I don’t believe that his reason for travelling was acceptable; but that’s just my personal opinion. What I do know for a fact on the other hand is that my family made sacrifices in the interest of public health instead of doing what was the best for us (as I believe did many others!) – while this mother****** did the exact opposite. Ergo, he should resign.
Today I had a long, hard day at work in an overheated office (our patio) and in my well considered opinion this lockdown sucks, sucks and sucks some more.
I know you’re very busy so I’ll be brief: I want water. Not from the tap! I want to go to the beach; if not that, then to the river; if not that, to the lido; if not that, at least to the pool where I’m a member.
An e-mail from my airline regarding my upcoming holiday flight – the one we postponed from April – left me in the quandary: do I transfer the flight to July (my only remaining free holiday time), do I accept the voucher that I can’t use and try to swindle my way round the fact that it’s not transferable, or do I sit tight and hope that the airline will cancel the flight and I can get my money back?!
On the subject of holiday flights: I saw the following video a while ago, and probably you all saw it by now… but just in case somebody missed out, something to cheer you up!
Locked Down in London, Day 23: The Police Is Losing the Plot
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!
Locked Down in London, Day 13: The Year of the Genius Generation
Since the government cancelled all exams this summer (A-levels and GCSEs both), the young and a bright are set to get predicted grades instead.
Wow! This will be the only year ever in which no student fails his exam; the only year when all departments in all schools meet their targets; the year when academic achievement across the country soars to unimagined heights… the year of the Genius Generation!
There’s only one small problem: How will the universities and sixth form centres accommodate all this talent?
Throughout history, there were soldiers who wielded the pen with as much as skill as they wielded the sword; sometimes better.
Autores con la espada en mano
A lo largo de la historia, hubo soldados que manejaron la pluma con tanta habilidad que la espada; a veces, mejor.
Most of the literary output of these soldier-writers was, understandably, autobiographical: descriptions of battles and campaigns they took part in. A classic example of this is Xenophon’s Anabasis, better known as The March of the Ten Thousand, a gripping account of the retreat of ten thousand Spartan mercenaries in the wake of a lost battle across hostile territory, from Mesopotamia all the way to the shores of the Black Sea. Another is Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s The Conquest of New Spain, a similarly gripping (at least in the abridged version) account of how four-hundred desperadoes under Hernán Cortés conquered Mexico and overthrew an entire empire in the process. I warmly recommend them both.
La mayor parte de la producción literaria de estos soldados-escritores fue, naturalmente, autobiográfico: descripciones de batallas y campañas en que lucharon. Un ejemplar clásico de este tipo de libro es La anábasis de Jenofonte, mejor conocida con el título La marcha de los Diez Mil, un relato emocionante de la regresa de diez mil mercenarios espartanos después de una batalla perdida, a través de un territorio hostil, todo el camino desde Mesopotamia hasta las orillas del Mar Negro. Otro relato que es semejante emocionante (por lo menos en la versión abreviada) es la Historia verdadera de la conquista de Nueva España por Bernal Díaz del Castillo, que narra como cuatro cientos aventureros bajo el mando de Hernán Cortés han conquistado Mexico y derrocado un imperio entero en el proceso. Os recomiendo ambos libros.
But in addition to these authors, there were a handful of soldiers who are better known by literature professors than by military buffs; a handful of soldiers who are more famous for being authors than for ever having been soldiers.
Pero además de esos autores, hubo un puñado de soldados, que son mejor conocidos por profesores de literatura que por aficionados de la historia militar; un puñado de soldados que son más famosos por ser autores que por su pasado como soldados.
This summer it’ll be five years ago that I visited Santorini for what then I thought was the first but now suspect was also the only time. I didn’t know the poetry of Odysseas Elytis then even though he had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1979 and I did – twice! – graduated in literature. Admittedly, neither of those degrees was in Greek literature but you don’t study literature, in any language, in a vacuum, and my ignorance of a Nobel Prize winning poet seems preposterous in retrospect.
O children of the Greeks, go,
free your homeland, free also
your children, your wives, the temples of your fathers’ gods,
and the tombs of your ancestors: now the struggle is for all things.
Aeschylus: The Persians
The Battle of Salamis According to Aeschylus
Can you imagine telling a story, with your audience hanging upon your every word, breathless with excitement or moved to tears – although they had heard the story many times before and know the final outcome? Because that’s exactly what Ancient Greek playwrights had to do; and Aeschylus pulled it off beautifully with The Persians.
Now that’s a heading that nobody should have been expecting from me, given how I go on and on about Homer whenever I have nothing better to do. But I have finished reading The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson, and put it down with the feeling that sadly, it failed in what it set out to do: namely to convince skeptics that Homer mattered, that Homer should still be read, perhaps even studied, because he’s relevant to our lives. Continue reading “The Mighty Dead or Does Homer Matter?”→
When I was ten, I read Swallows and Amazons and in the course of that, Arthur Ransome introduced me to English poetry. One of the characters, Titty (I still wonder what sort of a name is that for a girl), was much given to recalling random lines of poetry that they had taught her at school.
The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.
These lines spoke about adventure and unknown worlds in pulsating rhyme. I’m not surprised that they stuck in Titty’s head; they certainly stuck in mine. Ransome – and not my literature teachers – made me read Keats; and Keats made me pick up Homer again, many years after I left school.