Freedom and Death by Nikos Kazantzakis

Freedom and Death by Nikos Kazantzakis

The book is described as Kazantzakis’ Iliad, and that felt like exaggeration for me but after finishing this book, I agree. Crete has a long, bloody history, but it’s proud people always fight back. This book for me was an education in the Cretan spirit of resistance.

The first book by Kazantzakis I read was ““Zorba the Greek”” and it was great. I then tried reading ““Report to Greco”” but got stuck halfway through. It was a good book but is in need of editing. It was written at the end of his life so he never had the chance to edit it as much as he should. That book kinda put me off from reading Kazantzakis, but am I not Cretan? I must read more of his books. I’m glad that I got over my trepidation and attacked this book. I will be mulling over this book for a long time.

““Better an hour of life in freedom than forty years of slavery and prison,””

I’m Cretan by blood and my blood was getting hot reading this. Crete hasn’t changed as much as other places in the world, so though you are reading a novel set in the late 1800s, it doesn’t feel like it is that old. Reading this book brought back memories of wandering the alleys of Rethymno and Iraklio in the summers of my youth. In fact I’ve visited many of the places mentioned in the book.

The language he uses is authentic. I can hear my yiayia and papou speaking the Greek phrases he uses. I read the English translation of this book, but now would really love to go back and read parts of this book in Greek.

““I don’t care if they kill you, only if Crete is smashed.”” ““Idiot, it won’t be smashed, have no fear. We men are smashed, but not Crete, the immortal…””

When first reading this book, it feels like there are a lot of characters (there are!), and not much is happening (there isn’t!), but it all slowly builds to a boil. If you didn’t know so much about the daily life of the Greeks in Megalokastro, why would you care about them later?

Crete herself is an important character in this story. She is to be protected, honoured, and to die for! Cretans are fiercely patriotic to their land. It’s all about horafia with olive trees in Crete.

He loved Crete like a living, warm creature with a speaking mouth and weeping eyes; a Crete that consisted not of rocks and clods and roots, but of thousands of forefathers and foremothers who never died and who gathered, every Sunday, in the churches. Again and again they were filled with wrath, and in their graves they unfolded a proud banner and rushed with it into the mountains. And on the banner the undying Mother, bowed over it for years, had embroidered with their black and grey and snow-white hair the three undying words; FREEDOM or DEATH

While reading, I was annoyed that the key call to arms in this story was ““Freedom or death!”” but the title of the book is ““Freedom or death!””. Keep reading, my friend, and you will be enlightened as I was near the end of the book.

Where am I going? Where am I being taken?…We live haphazard, we die haphazard, rudderless, with sails bellying. A wind blows. Where it blows, there we go. Water rushes into our ship, and the pumps are rusty…That’s human life, and you can yell as loud as you like.

What is this book about? It’s about Cretans rising up against their Turkish oppressors. It’s about life. It’s about death. It’s about honour. It’s about the palikare spirit. To understand Crete, is to understand the palikare spirit.

There are peoples and human beings who call to God with prayers and tears or a disciplined, reasonable self-control - or even curse Him. The Cretans called to Him with guns. They stood before God’s door and let off rifle shots to make Him hear. ““Insurrection!”” bellowed the Sultan, when he first heard the shooting, and in raving fury sent Pachas, soldiers, and gangs. ““Insolence!”” cried the Franks, and let loose their warships against the tiny barks that fought, braving death, between Europe, Asia and Africa. ““Be patient, be reasonable, don’t drag me into bloodshed!”” wailed Hellas, the beggar-mother, shuddering. ““Freedom or Death!”” answered the Cretans, and made a din before God’s door.

Trigger warning: there is lots and lots of bloodshed in this book and women are not treated very ’nicely’. Remember that this book was written in the 1950s, and sadly attitudes towards women haven’t changed all that much in Crete in the present day.

Whoever receives freedom from foreign hands remains a slave. So it’s fire to the villages, the axe to the trees, the tramp of men at war, streams of tears and blood! And even if we fall with our skulls split, fresh men will stand up in our place.

Dictionary of terms

  • Circassian - (Russian: Черкесы Čerkes) are a people from the region in the North Caucasus.
  • Palikare - A “palikari’, or, “palikar”, is a young, Greek military man, who fought against the Ottomans (Turks) in the Greek Revolution, or, Greek War of Independence, 1821, a brave, valiant warrior, daring and courageous, one who never shies away from danger. More info…
  • Giaour - /ˈdʒaʊə/ noun-archaic-derogatory. a non-Muslim, especially a Christian.
  • Kastrian - Kastria (Greek: Καστρία) is a small village in the Peloponnese peninsula, Greece. It is part of the municipality Kalavryta.
  • Mastic - (Greek: Μαστίχα) is a resin obtained from the mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus). It is used as medicine and chewing gum. More info… Pacha


  • Psiloritis - The mountain Psiloritis (Ψηλορείτης) also known as Mount Ida.
  • Kanea - The city of Xania (Χανιά).
  • Three Vaults - I couldn’t figure out where this is, but I think it is Neoria Vechi (Νεώρια Vechi) near the Old Ventian Habour.
  • Megalokastro - After the Byzantine reconquest of Crete, the city was locally known as Megalo Kastro (Μεγάλο Κάστρο, ‘Big Castle’ in Greek) and its inhabitants were called Kastrinoi (Καστρινοί, ““castle-dwellers””). Now city is called Heraklieon/Iraklion.
  • Saint Menas Church - Saint Minas Church See of the Archbishop of Crete (Μητροπολιτικός Ναός Αγίου Μηνά)

Rating: ★★★★★

Book #38 in My 2019 Reading Challenge

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