Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Nikos Kazantzakis: Toda Raba

Nikos Kazantzakis
Toda Raba
Published 1931
English Translation, 1964
Amy Mims,  trans.


The focal point of this tale is the Soviet Union's celebration of the Tenth Anniversary of the October Revolution in 1928.  Nikos Kazantzakis received an invitation from the Soviet government to attend a general meeting being held at that time.  Although Kazantzakis never became a member of the Communist Party, he apparently saw them at that time as the best hope to improve the condition of   the mass of humanity and to fight the ever increasing threat of fascism.  Like many others during the 20s, he seemed, to me at least, to be more of an admirer of the Ideal Communism.   He attended the meeting and traveled once again extensively throughout the Soviet Union in 1928. Toda Raba was written in 1929 and first published in 1931.   According to what I have read, he later witnessed the rise of Stalin and became disillusioned by communism as practiced in Russia.

The narrative is split, for it follows the travels of six or seven people who were invited to attend that Tenth Anniversary meeting in Moscow.  The travelers are varied:  there is Rahel, a Polish-Jewish young woman who is a member of the Cheka (Soviet secret police): Azad, a ex-member of the Cheka and a murderer; Geranos, who, like Kazantzakis,  is from Crete; Sou-ki, a Chinese living in California; Amita, a Japanese writer;  Amanda, a monk from India; and Toda Raba, a black African.

The characters are forcefully drawn and come alive.  This is one of Kazantzakis' strengths--his ability to make his characters come off the page, even minor characters who only appear briefly for a page or two, and are never seen again.  For example:

Geranos turned around.  .  .  He saw a man dressed very soberly and elegantly, who moved with short, fiery movements.  His eyes were exalted and cold.  Only his smile, broad and controlled and showing beautiful carnivorous teeth, betrayed the hungry sensuality in this disciplined man. 

Some parts of the novel might be mistaken for a travelogue for Kazantzakis provides us with beautiful descriptions of the Russian countryside and the varied cities and towns and the many nationalities along with their native dress and customs as the travelers take different routes to reach Moscow.

But, above all, Kazantzakis gives us the varying political and ideological flavors of the travelers, from idealistic believers to those who see various problems arising within the system to those who see Communism as the wave of the future and wish to be part of it.  Azad, at one point, says:

"But are you blind?  Don't you see?  There's something not right in our Russia!  What it is I don't know . . . . There's a stream of mire . . . . of red mire . . . . Let's get together, we old fighters, we honest men, the ones with fire.  Let's create a different stream, even if we have to make it out of blood.  Let's climb the hill again.  Let's purge the earth once more! Can't this little band sign the death warrant any more . . ."

Azad sees what he considers flaws in the system.  He is not blinded by his faith in this way.  However, he believes that the flaws are the result of those in power and that the solution is to remove them and put in better people.  He doesn't realize that all human created systems are flawed, that there really is no such thing as the perfect system.   

As you can see, Kazantzakis' travelers are anything but a monolithic bloc of true believers as they debate and argue about the state of communism in the Soviet Union.  The flyleaf to the novel suggests that the characters all represent Kazantzakis' own deeply conflicting views of  the Revolution.  If so, it is easy to see why he never have joined the Communist Party.

I have read many of Kazantzakis' works over the years, but I had never heard of this work until last year, and  I was curious about it. I had to find out why it had been so neglected and ignored by the scholars and critics I had read over the years and I wanted, naturally to read it.  I haven't read much actually of the scholarship, to be honest, but I would have thought this one would have mentioned by at least one or two.  Perhaps it is Kazantzakis' communist leanings that scholars wished to ignore, to pretend it never happened.  But, to me anyway, the book shows Kazantzakis to be in no way a true believer, but a one who feels that communism, at least in 1929, is the best hope for humanity, even though very skeptical as to the direction it seemed to be taking.  And history has shown that his skepticism was justified.


  1. Ms. M loves K... i've read a bit of him; i found his style similar to L. Durrell's; that same, graphic, explicit attention to detail and the glorious wealth of description... overpowering... disillusionment following hopeful interest in Communism was common in those years... as you say, it seems all human efforts to establish a functional, honest government seem vain, as they invariably wind up in the hands of gangsters...

    1. Mudpuddle

      You must be reading my mind. I've been thinking of putting up a post with a description by Durrell and one by Kazantzakis. I never noticed the similarity before, but that may be due to not having read them so close together as I just did.

      I remember reading many years ago a book containing five or six essays by ex-communists, explaining why they left the Party. The title was very apt: The God That Failed. I don't think that Kazantzakis was one of them, but I think he could very easily have been in there.

  2. Fantastic commentary on this book Fred.

    I tend to love fiction that involves characters debating ideas. The fact that the author may have been conflicted about these ideas is interesting. In a way, this is great way for a writer to work out his or her thoughts and conflicts.

    1. Brian,

      Thank you for your kind words.

      Such a process would make for an fascinating glimpse into the writer's way of thinking.