Kazantzakis Freedom or Death Captain Michalis, the Book Review

Excerpt from Book Review :

Kazantzakis Freedom or Death

Captain Michalis, the hero of Freedom or Death, was based on Kazantzakis' father Michalis, a traditional Cretan community leader and warrior in the independence struggles who fought in the 1888-89 rebellion. He also introduces the Captain's best friend Nuri Bey and his wife Emine, who he also loves, but in the end he rejects them both in the cause of Cretan independence. The Pasha and the Metropolitan also symbolize the ancient clash of religions, cultures and civilizations that is fought out in this novel -- Greek vs. Turk, Christian vs. Muslim -- which also resonates with the contemporary word and the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. These ethnic, tribal and nationalistic hatreds are so great and so enduring that they crowd out all romance, friendship or personal feelings, as all the characters join in the bloodbath. Only Nuri Bey commits suicide rather than go to war against his former friend, but the Captain is totally committed to the Greek cause and quite willing to die for it, taking most of his friends and relatives with him.

2. Summary: Summarize the plot of the book:

The rising acting of Freedom or Death takes place in the town of Megalokastro on Crete, where Cpatin Michalis is engaged in a week-long drinking party while another rebellion against the Turks is brewing in the background. For the Orthodox Metropolitan of Megalokastro, who was of course a nationalist and supporter of the rebellion, Crete has taken the place of the crucified Christ in one of his paintings, he replied to an observer who thought the picture sinful "but she is worth it" (Kazantzakis 164). Only the two town idiots think that the Greeks and Turks should be able to get along, and even the Turkish Pasha agreed that they were wiser than himself and the Metropolitan, but the war went on regardless. In addition, the Pasha lamented the decline of the Ottoman Empire, saying "but now I've grown old. The State, too, has grown old. And it's the fault of this damned Crete" (Kazantzakis 122). When the Turks suppress the revolt, an army of medieval Dervishes lands on Crete, wearing "green skirts and pointed white hats, and with daggers in their belts. They clambered on to the mole, unrolled the green flag of the Prophet in front of the Harbor Gate, and began dancing round it, slowly, clapping their hands" (Kazantakis 267). They finally defeat the rebellion and drive Michalis and his men back up into the mountains, where they engage in a suicidal and pointless last stand at the climax of the novel. Captain Michalis saluted his nephew as an honorable warrior when he came to die with him at the climax of the novel, and proclaimed that they were all going to die for "Immortal Crete" (Kazantakis 470).

2. Historical Context

In the period 1820 to 1912, numerous rebellions occurred on the island of Crete until it finally gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1913. Although the Turkish minority was allowed to remain for ten years after that, it was finally expelled in 1923 at the same time Ataturk expelled most of the remaining Greek population from Turkey. From the time of the first wars of Greek independence in 1820-29 to the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and the First World War of 1914-18, this was an era of nationalism, and the main goal of the Greek Christian population was to be reunified with mainland Greece. This was finally accomplished in 1913, after major rebellions in the 1820s, 1858, 1866, 1888-89 and 1896-97, although after the latter one the European Powers forced the Turks to grant autonomy to Crete as well as its own elected institutions. In the novel, Kazantakis describes the unsuccessful 1888-89 revolt in which the main character and his followers die at the end in a battle against the Turks.

4. Ideological Context:

Megali referred to the Great or Grand Idea of nationalist irredentism by the Greeks, to establish the Hellenistic Empire that had existed ever before Alexander the Great, when the Greeks dominated the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. It had continued on in the form of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire with its capital at Constantinople, at least until the Arabs and Turks conquered it. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Greece, Britain and France attempted to put the Megali Idea into practice but were defeated by Ataturk in 1922. As a result, over a million Greeks were expelled from Turkish lands, including from communities where they had lived for 3,000 years: none of these exist any longer. Crete and Cyprus were also scheduled to be part of this revived Greek Empire, and on Crete the Turkish minority was expelled. This would also have occurred on Cyprus had it reunified with Greece, except that the Turks landed troops there to protect the Turkish minority, and the conflict has not yet been fully resolved. Captain Michalis is dedicated to the nationalist ideal of reunification of all the Greeks and gives his life for it, and in fact he is quite a warlike man who cannot easily imagine any other occupation.

5. Social Context

Michalis is completely obsessed with the idea of liberating Crete from the Turks and regards all of them as his hated enemies, except for his childhood friend Nuri Bey. He is also in love with Nuri's wife Emine, but far more dedicated to the rebellion and the cause than any personal concerns. He is motivated by the honor code of "philotimo" which places the highest value of patriotism, self-respect, courage in battle and comradeship although under this chivalric code he also swore a blood oath of friendship with Nuri, both literally mixing their blood in a cup and swearing by Jesus and Mohammad. A mad Turk called Efendina ate pork and drank wine with Michalis, both of which violated the prohibitions of Islamic law. He then ran around screaming and crawling on the ground, begging the Captain to kill him, shouting "I have defiled myself…eaten pork, drank wine, uttered wicked words. Men and women, forgive me! May God also have mercy and forgive me!" (Kazantzakis 144). Europeanized women were not particularly comfortable with the rough and primitive conditions on Crete, like the French wife of the physician who asked her husband "Where's the railway you said ran past our house?....That's what you said in Paris," to which the doctor replied "in Megalokastro we call the donkeys our railway" (Kazantzakis 53).

In the towns of Crete, at least, the women are certainly as tough and independent as the men, like the wife of Mastrapas, who keeps him tied to the bed at night so he cannot go downstairs and dally with the maid. Another wife refuses to assure her husband Mr. Demetros that all their children were really his, even when he is dying, because she is concerned that he might still recover (Kazantzakis 63). Cretans considered many of the Franks (Westerners) to be peculiar or impractical, including their local archeologist who was trained abroad and came home with a peculiar interest in digging around in ruins. Tityros, the younger brother of the Captain, is a school teacher who wears glasses and dresses in Western clothing, which means that the more traditional Cretan men consider him weak, cowardly and effeminate. This is confirmed when he murders his brother-in-law with poison, which was a dishonorable way of disposing of an enemy in a culture that valued duels and personal combat. Yet when the revolt began, Tityros became a patriot and started wearing traditional Cretan clothing again, proclaiming to his students "whole chains of Cretan children are hanging round my neck. I'm awakening Crete in them, to the best of my power" (Kazantzakis 443). Michalis's young nephew Kosmas was…

Sources Used in Document:


Kazantzakis, Nikos. Freedom or Death. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1983.

Cite This Book Review:

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