Captain Michales

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.

The cover of the 2nd Greek edition in 1955 illustrates the spirit of Captain Michales and the book perfectly [Image via Wikipedia}
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:

“Freedom or…”

Death.

The Gruesome News from Famagusta

The two hundred galleys of the Holy League – Venice, the Spanish Empire, Genoa, the Papacy, the Knights of St John and sundry smaller states on the Mediterranean seaboard – were sailing south on the Ionian Sea in battle order when a small brigantine passed them: a Venetian ship from Crete carrying the news that the town of Famagusta, the last stronghold of the Republic of Venice on Cyprus, fell to the Turks.

The date was 4 October 1571, three days before the Battle of Lepanto.

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Nesebar: A Trip Down Memory Lane

Today, a trip down memory lane – in more than one sense. First, the last time I saw the place we’re going to visit (when I took the photos) was in 1988 – I hazard the guess that a number of you weren’t even born then. Second, this is (or was then) a place forgotten by time and the world. And finally… photos from thirty years ago: look at their quality! That is, their lack of it (admittedly not helped by the scanner).

The Church of Christ Pantokrator, Nesebar
The Church of Christ Pantokrator, Nesebar

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The Pirates of the Adriatic

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View of the Adriatic from Fortress Nehaj, Senj. Photo by: Joadl CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Countless films have been made about the pirates of the Caribbean, not to mention the countless books written, both fictitious and factual. But how many of you knew that there used to be pirates on the Adriatic too? Or who they were or where was their lair? (Anybody who doesn’t know where the Adriatic is is probably reading the wrong blog by the way.)

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The Great Siege: Malta 1565

I’m sitting on a rooftop terrace in Valletta, the town founded by and named after Jean Parisot de la Valette, Grand Master of the Knights of St John some 500 years ago. The terrace overlooks the Grand Harbour, and the solid walls of Fort St Angelo across the water are lit up tonight. Beyond it, sprinkled with lights, the towns of Vittoriosa and Invitta, originally called Birgu and Senglea, but renamed “Victorious” and “Unconquered” by the Knights after the Turks failed to take them in 1565. I can see the marina in Dockyard Creek whose entrance the Knights closed with a huge chain during the siege. Somewhere to my left, out of sight on the tip of the peninsula that is Valletta, beyond the rooftops, stands Fort St Elmo, whose defenders sacrificed themselves so gallantly in defence of Malta.

I’m on holiday in Valletta, and I’ve just read The Great Siege: Malta 1565 by Ernle Bradford, starting it on the plane to Malta and finishing it on this terrace, opposite Fort St Angelo.

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Fort St Angelo across the Grand Harbour

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