Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation, trans. P.A. Bien (London: Faber and Faber, 1983)
Man’s heart was crushed under the six hundred and thirteen written commandments of the Hebrew Law, plus the thousands of unwritten ones – yet it did not stir; under Genesis, Leviticus, Numbers, Judges and Kings – yet it did not stir. And then suddenly at the most unexpected moment a light breeze blew, not from heaven, but from below, on earth, and all the chambers of man’s heart were shaken. (p. 372)
When, he asked himself, would men realize that good deeds never condescend to accept recompense. p. 400
This terrific, vital novel is about a man who struggled, with himself, with God, with his neighbours, friends, family and eventually, followers, and with the devils of temptation, despair and illusion. And won.
This book was written because I wanted to offer a supreme model to the man who struggles; I wanted to show him that he must not fear pain, temptation or death – because all three can be conquered, all three have already been conquered. (Prologue, p. 9)
He happens to have lived at the start of the first century AD and he happens to have been called Jesus. But his biographer, the author of Zorba the Greek, intends this not as the story of a particular creed, but a universal human one. He wanted to show that any struggle you or I may engage in, or have thrust upon us, has been triumphed over before. That Jesus, fallible, uncertain, reluctant, resolute, often sad, lonely, misunderstood or overwhelmed, overcame the beautifully evoked ‘blossoming snares of the earth’. Kazantzakis apparently drew on his own complex relationship with, and longing for, God:
This nostalgia for God, at once so mysterious and so real, has opened in me large wounds and also large flowing springs. (Prologue, p. 7)
The story, surely pouring out of one of those large flowing springs, is stripped of any Sunday School cosiness or inevitability. I remember images of Jesus always with a beatific smile, born knowing who he was, knowing his purpose and destiny, and already fully equipped with the mental, miraculous and related faculties he would need to fulfill his mission. Certainly, there were a few moments of feeling forsaken here and there, but all in all, my childhood impression was that he embraced his role from the outset, his family fully behind him.
In Kazantzakis’ telling, he starts out as a diffident youth, hoping that the intimations of destiny that invade his sleep are just bad dreams and that he will be left alone to live a normal life, get married, have a family, be a carpenter like his father. But God isn’t that kind, and when the Holy Spirit descends on him, it’s like a screaming banshee grasping his skull in a vice-like grip, digging its claws into his cranium and then releasing him exhausted.
Another twist in the tale lies in his apparently innocent, wholesome career choice; Jesus has no qualms in accepting all kinds of commissions, including making crosses, bringing upon himself the opprobrium of his neighbours who often see him as an imperial collaborator. He builds and delivers a cross for the crucifixion of a zealot whose mother, seeing her son’s torture, curses both him and Mary, wishing upon her the same suffering of watching her son strung up on a cross to die.
“My curse upon you,” she said wildly, hoarsely, “my curse upon you, Son of the Carpenter. As you crucified another, may you be crucified yourself!”
She turned to the mother:
“And you, Mary, may you feel the pain that I have felt!” p. 57
Mary is not the holy mother we see in churches, on whom we can call for intercession or comfort, la beatissima. She is a simple, bewildered, conventional, kvetching Jewish mother, bitter at the fact that no sooner had she married Joseph than he was struck down with paralysis, and then she was given a son who was delusional or possessed. All she wants of (and for) him, is that he should marry a nice local girl, settle down, and give her grandchildren she can parade in the biblical equivalent of the park on Sundays. She begs the Rabbi of Nazareth, her brother-in-law, to exorcise the demons addling Jesus’ brain with messianic nonsense. His response, here as elsewhere, comes through the English translation of a Greek telling of a biblical story, in the tones of a joke told in Brooklyn:
“Mary, your boy isn’t being tormented by a devil; it’s not a devil, it’s God – so what can I do?”
“Is there no cure?” the wretched mother asked.
“It’s God, I tell you. No, there is no cure.”
“Why does he torment him?”
The old exorcist sighed, but did not answer.
“Why does he torment him?” the mother asked again.
“Because he loves him,” the old rabbi finally replied. pp. 35-36
Simeon, the old Rabbi, as well as using his authority to keep Mary’s maternal cosy-hearth impulses under control, is one of the most intelligent and impressive characters and one of the first to guess the real emerging identity of Jesus. He has been hanging on to life through sheer grit because somewhere along the line God promised him he wouldn’t let him die without seeing the Messiah. It’s with growing wonder that he starts to guess this might be his nephew.
The head-ram of this flock was Simeon the old rabbi of Nazareth – shrunken, bent over with the years, warped and contorted by the evil disease, tuberculosis: a scaffolding of dry bones which his indestructible soul held together and kept from collapsing. p. 26
I loved that stark metaphor, a scaffolding of dry bones held together by an indestructible soul.
As time passes, Jesus grows in stature, strength and certainty. He sees the people around him weak and whining, self-seeking, untrustworthy, including even the disciples he loves most, other than Judas. They are frustrating and pathetic, but he cannot help but love them.
When, he asked himself, would men realize that good deeds never condescend to accept recompense. p. 400
Judas is another of the strongest and most engaging characters, and the finest of the disciples. The others range from pusillanimous to meek and mild to self-serving, but Judas is the rock, challenging Jesus, pushing him to take up his mantle and the agony that comes with it, with the impatient purity of a near-fanatic.
“If you love me, be patient. Look at the trees. Are they in a hurry to ripen their fruit?”
“I’m not a tree, I’m a man,” the redbeard objected, coming closer. “I’m a man, and that means a thing which is in a hurry. I go by my own laws.”
“The law of God is the same, whether for trees or men, Judas.”
The redbeard ground his teeth. “And what is that law called?” he asked sarcastically.
“Time.” p. 252
Time is a palpable presence in this masterful, gripping book. Time is the medium that allows Jesus to mould the human spirit into something more noble than its primal mud. Time irrigates the world. Time is a heart-beat. And time is the law of God.
Lastly, most heart-breakingly and powerfully, is Mary Magdalene, the love of Jesus’ life; the descriptions of the intense, sweet, playful closeness they shared as children are moving. Each is thwarted in the possibility of earthly happiness together by this greater thing they both wrestle with, Jesus’ purpose on earth.
Her heart swelled with distress as she recalled the games they used to play together when they were still small children, he three years old, she four. What deep unrevealable joy they had experienced, what unspeakable sweetness! p. 47
The other relationship pervading the book is that of people living always in the shadow of God, of the numinous being ever-latent, occasionally bursting through the veil of reality and taking possession of it, of the world.
The people were crying for God. The air above their heads caught fire, flames bounded forth and joined heaven to earth. Their minds reeled: this world of stones, grass and flesh thinned out, became transparent, and the next world appeared behind it, composed of flames and angels. p. 40
The Zealot held Jerusalem on his knees all night long and constructed the kingdom of heaven deep down in his bowels, not out of angels and clouds, but as he wanted it, warm in winter, cool in summer, and made of men and soil. p. 43
Great things happen when God mixes with man … God was to his left and to his right. He could touch him with his elbows. p. 287
And the backdrop is a timeless biblical landscape, searingly hot, arid, parched, and yet richly varied, fecund, miraculous. Deserts and oases, places of hard, unforgiving rock, grapes cascading as big as twelve-year-old boys, the sweetest of dates and roses that revive by being immersed in water. The precious water of ‘God’s royal artery’, the river Jordan.
… the Promised Land, made up of dew, wind and age-old human desires, and illuminated like a rose by the dawn. p. 13
To the south, the quivering desert of Idemea shifted like the back of a leopard. p. 13
… the Land of Canaan, like embroidered air, many-coloured, richly ornamented, and trembling. p. 13
Leaving the red soil of Galilee behind them, they entered black-soiled Samaria. p. 225
The sun came out of the desert like a lion and beat at all the doors of Israel. p. 247
It matches the unfolding story, sets it off in a stark, blinding light, like a jewel illuminated by a sun-beam. And the story is astounding. I did not see the dénouement coming, or I thought I did, racing through the last dozens of pages on my birthday on a boat at sea, until it hit me, like that biblical light smacking the back of the retina.
On this I give nothing away and share only Jesus’ final prayer:
May God give me strength, he prayed within his heart, may God give me strength to hold this tender flower between my teeth all through the great throes of crucifixion and not bite into it! p. 430
NOTE: the edition used here is not the same as those featured below with links to various online booksellers, or the cover shown above. I bought a secondhand edition no longer available even secondhand…
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