Nikos Kazantzakis (February 18, 1883, Heraklion, Crete, Greece – October 26, 1957, Freiburg, Germany), author of poems, novels, essays, plays, and travel books, was arguably the most important and most translated Greek writer and philosopher of the 20th century. Yet he did not become truly well known until the 1964 release of the Michael Cacoyannis film Zorba the Greek, based on Kazantzakis’s novel whose English translation has the same title.
Crete, where Kazantzakis was born was still under Turkish rule, and had experienced repeated uprisings in attempting to achieve independence from the Ottoman empire and to unite with Greece.
In 1902, Kazantzakis began the study of law at the University of Athens, then went to Paris in 1907 to study philosophy, where he was influenced by the teachings of Henri Bergson.
Upon his return to Greece, he began translating works of philosophy. In 1914, he met Angelos Sikelianos. Together they travelled for two years in places where Greek Christian culture flourished, largely influenced by the enthusiastic nationalism of Sikelianos.
In 1919, as Director General of the Ministry of Social Relief, he arranged the repatriation of the pontic Greek population of the Caucasus region back to Greece, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917. For Kazantzakis, this was the beginning of his personal odyssey across the world. From then until his 1957 death, he sojourned in to Paris and Berlin (from 1922 to 1924), Italy, Russia (in 1925), Spain (in 1932), and then later in Cyprus, Aegina, Egypt, Mount Sinai, Czechoslovakia, Nice (where he later bought a seaside villa, near Antibes), China, and Japan.
While in Berlin, where the political situation was explosive, Kazantzakis discovered communism and became an admirer of Lenin, but he never became a consistent communist. Around this time, his earlier nationalist beliefs were gradually replaced by a more universal ideology.
In 1945, he became the leader of a small party on the noncommunist left, and entered the Greek government as Minister without Portfolio. He resigned this post the following year.
In 1946, The Society of Greek Writers recommended that Katzantakis and Angelos Sikelianos be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1957, he lost the Prize to Albert Camus by one vote. Camus later said that Kazantzakis deserved the honour “a hundred times more” than himself.
Late in 1957, even though suffering from leukemia, he set out on one last trip to China and Japan. Falling ill on his return flight, he was transferred to Freiburg, Germany, where he died. He is buried on the wall surrounding the city of Heraklion, because the Orthodox Church ruled out his being buried in a cemetery. His epitaph reads “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”
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