Years ago in college my old roommate, after successfully completing his term’s load of classes, thought he would sell off a few of his no longer needed textbooks in hopes of raising a bit of much-needed cash. After being offered what he felt was a miniscule sum for his wares, in a fit of contempt towards the buyers associated with our university bookstore, instead opted to just give me one of his books. Thanking him for his slightly subversive act of generosity, I accepted his gift. That gift was a slightly dog-eared (but still in good shape) 1984 paperback edition of Nikos Kazantzakis’ classic 1964 novel The Fratricides. For years I kept the book, hoping that someday I’d finally be in the right mood to read it. Then at the start of summer, for whatever reason, I became possessed with the urge to supplement my heavy reading diet of nonfiction with a little literature in translation. One day while walking by my living room bookshelves on the way to the kitchen I noticed my old copy of The Fratricides. A split-second later I realized the time had come. I grabbed Kazantzakis’ novel from the shelf and later that evening began reading it. After finishing it late last night during my bus ride home from the pub I’m glad I did.
Set during the Greek Civil War (a brief but bloody conflict that occurred immediately after the end of Second World War) it tells the story of Father Yanaros, a Greek Orthodox Priest from the northern Greek village of Castello and his painful attempts to act as godly agent of compassion and justice as war rages around him. Caught between the government’s forces representing tradition, the Church and the established order and those of the Communists representing the poor, the oppressed and the promise of a better world, Father Yanaros fights his own personal batter in hopes of advocating a third way. Revolted by the Communists’ atheistic contempt for the Church (but at the same time supportive of their struggle to build an equitable society) and revolted as well by the Monarchists’ refusal to deal justly with poverty and oppression (but thankful for their support of the Church) Father Yanaros proclaims a third way, that of Christ’s: compassion and forgiveness for all and the cessation of hostilities so all Greeks can live together as one family. Of course, with the two warring sides love of power and their inability and unwillingness to see anything beyond their respective self-interests, the good Father’s mission is easier said than done.
While some on-line reviewers seem to think this is Kazantzakis’ best novel, I liked his earlier one, The Last Temptation of Christ a bit more. But don’t get me wrong, this is a powerful novel. It touches upon several issues, most important of which is how should a saintly and just person conduct oneself in a horribly unjust world. This dark and meditative novel just might contain a few answers to the age-old and perplexing question.