Saturday, August 11, 2012

Nikos Kazantzakis: The Fratricides

Nikos Kazantzakis' novel,  The Fratricides, is aptly named for it is set during the late 1940s when Greece was in the midst of a civil war.  "Fratricides"  are brother killers, the first crime that occurs in the Old Testament.  A civil war is also the bloodiest war imaginable, as those who are familiar with the US Civil War know so well.

The novel takes place in the small village of Castello, unfortunately placed between the rebels up in the hills and the government forces camped just outside the village.  Kazantzakis tells us very early in the novel of the horrors brought about by this conflict. He says this of the villagers:

"Their life is an unceasing battle with God, with the winds, with the snow, with death.  For this reason the Castellians were not surprised when the killing began, brother against brother.  There were not afraid; they did not change their way of life.  But what had been simmering slowly within them, mute and unrevealed, now burst out, insolent and free.  The primeval passion of man to kill poured from within them.  Each had a neighbor, or a friend, or a brother, whom he had hated for years, without reason, often without realizing it.  The hatred simmered there, unable to find an outlet.  And now, suddenly, they were given rifles and hand grenades; noble flags waved above their heads.  The clergy, the army, the press urged them on--to kill their neighbor, their friend, their brother. Only in this manner, they shouted to them, can faith and country be saved! Murder, that most ancient need of man, took on a high mystic meaning,.  And the chase began --brother hunting brother.

Some of the men put on red hoods and took to the hills.  Others barricaded themselves in the village, their eyes glued to the top of Mount Etoraki across the way, where the guerrillas were hiding.  With whooping cries the red-hooded ones would storm down the hill, or the black tops would attack from below.  And they would pounce on each other, flesh against flesh.  And the sweet fratricide would begin.  Women with tousled hair dashed form the courtyards and climbed onto the terraces, shouting, to goad the men on.  The dogs of the village howled; they ran panting behind their masters, their tongues hanging out as they joined in the hunt; until night came and swallowed up the people."

Some historians consider the Greek civil war to be the first "battle" of the Cold War, with neighboring Communist governments supplying the rebels and the British and US assisting  the government forces.  Kazantzakis, however, does not bring this element in the novel.  He restricts it to the government "fascist" forces and the communist guerrillas. Since Kazantzakis was on the left side of the political divide, one might see this designation of the.government as being a bit biased.  However, as you can see from the two paragraphs quoted above, the novel is not a portrayal of the noble aspirations and dreams of the guerrillas or the government forces.  Both are shown to be equally brutal. 

Yet, there are incidents in which those on both sides and the villagers themselves show mercy and compassion for the fighters on the other side, but this happens only when the individual is alone.  It never happens when others are about. Is it that  compassion and mercy are possible only  in the individual but seemingly never found in groups? 
The village of Castello has suffered from both sides, primarily because it hasn't declared which side it supports. Therefore, it is trusted by neither the government troops nor the guerrillas.  Father Yarnaros is the village priest,  and so far he has been able to keep the village from choosing sides.  But he is under considerable pressure to come out for one side or the other.  Because he has not chosen,  he is distrusted by both sides, even though the leader of the guerrillas is his son.

Father Yanaros is a God-obsessed man, and his relationship to God is not that of pious humility.  At times he scolds God for allowing the killing to continue.  He waits for God to give him a sign as to which side he should choose, but God is silent, which is an answer, though not the one Father Yanaros looks for.  I think Kazantzakis got the pattern for Father Yanaros from the Old Testament, for he sounds much like a  prophet to me--telling unpleasant truths that no one wants to hear, even though it is dangerous, as well as unwanted.  A brutal ideological civil war is not a healthy situation for an outspoken, honest individual to be in.  And Father Yanaros is outspoken, and he will be heard, something both sides realize and fear.

Father Yanaros struggles throughout to minimize the killing and to bring an unwanted (by both sides) truce.  At the end, he makes his decision, but promises are not kept.  It makes no difference which side he chose, for he would have been betrayed by either.

One last point:  Kazantzakis gives us some insight into the psyches of the leaders of the government forces and of the guerrillas.  Both are driven and both are trapped by their situation.  Kazantzakis plays no favorites here. 
Overall Reaction:  a very strong powerful novel of a time of conflict and the effects it has on the people involved, whether they take an active role in the fighting or try to remain neutral. 

Highly Recommended


  1. Fred, thanks for posting on this book. I knew nothing about it other than Nikos Kazantzakis wrote it. Funny that you post on this now. I had wanted to read his Odyssey: A Modern Sequel a while back but somehow things got screwed up at my county library and I haven't had free access to it. I just found a copy at a used book store for a couple of bucks and picked it up the other day.

    I like the comment on the leaders being trapped by their situations. Ashes and Diamonds and several other books I've read lately with wartime settings paint a similar view, although they do make clear that the leaders still had a choice--the exceptions were the ones that stood out. Thanks again--glad to see this.

  2. Dwight,

    Thanks for stopping by. I haven't read his Odyssey yet. It's a very long poem, and I need to be in the right frame of mind for that.

    You have a good point: there are always choices, but frequently those in the situation can't see them. The officer in charge of the government forces was obsessed with destroying the guerrillas, and the only choices he could see would choosing the best way to do that.

    The leader of the guerrilla forces is a slightly more complex individual, but he feared that any sign of leniency or mercy would be considered a weakness by his followers and there were several in the band who were ready to call him on any deviancy. He feared to lose his command and that forced him to act as he did. The Cause above everything was his answer (rationalization) to any problem.