First of all, I can’t think of anything like it in the canon. In style it is comparable to Beowulf, perhaps – but the writing style of the two great epics in Modern English – The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost – rely on the niceties of the language rather than its dynamism. Some modern translations of Homer attempt to echo the raw, driving exuberance of Beowulf and the Scandinavian epics – I’m thinking in particular of Robert Fagles’ – but Friar, although he clearly has given as much careful thought to the effect of every verse as to its meaning, has composed a non-stop, intemperate, heroic, heart-rendering 33,333-line roll of thunder.
Here is a fine passage from Fagels’ Odyssey:
But now, as calves in stalls when cows come home,
Droves of them herded back from field to farmyard
Once they’ve grazed their fill—as all their young calves
Come frisking out to meet them, bucking out of their pens,
Lowing nonstop, jostling, rushing round their mothers--
So my shipmates there at the sight of my return
came pressing round me now, streaming tears,
so deeply moved in their hearts they felt as if
they’d made it back to their own land, their city,
Ithaca’s rocky soil where they were bred and reared.
Here is a passage from Friar’s Kazantzakis:
(Odysseus and his crew have just landed in Africa, at the mouth of the Nile.)
The torrid sun had not yet risen, but storks awoke
and with long silent wings sped toward the flowing stream;
on a dung-heap a fierce young cock challenged the sun
till the sky heard him, laughed, then slowly turned pale-white.
Holding the morning in his hands, a cool round fruit,
Odysseus looked, and seeing not a soul in sight,
freely allowed his tears to trickle down his cheeks.
For a long time he let the salty waters flow,
and felt refreshed, he had longed deeply for this hour.
Slowly he turned and watched the sea: her curling
waves swelled up erect to reach the sun, and turned rose-red;
he watched his palms, and they too calmed and turned to rose.
The rugged seaman smiled, and from his briny tears
curved rainbows gleamed in mid-air, snared in his long lashes.
That is bold; it teases dangerously with the banal. But that is where masterpieces often are found, on the cusp between the profound and the banal. Friar’s poetry is rescued by its sonorous readability, if by nothing else. Outside of Shakespeare, I cannot think of any other work I’ve read which, again and again, compelled me to read it aloud – just for my own pleasure and the cat’s.
Not only does Friar channel the style of early North Atlantic epics, at the same time he manages to sound Homeric, thanks to Kazantzakis’ lacing the work with properly evocative similes for recurring characters or grand natural effects – Odysseus, his companions, dawn, the sea, mountains.
Kazantzakis is at his best in descriptive passages, and in these can be found the poem’s greatest beauty.
(Odysseus and his crew’s last glimpse of Ithaca.)
God sent a gentle shower on earth to cool with balm
the hairy fists that pulled at oars in the open sea.
All kept their silent faces turned toward their loved island;
fragrance of wild thyme drifted down the mountain slopes,
odor of vines and ripening grain, and smothered their minds;
the mountain partridges came down to drink, and all
the glimmering valley glades soon rang with their harsh cackling.
Amid the hazy light of dawn, its feet wrapped up in mist,
their sacred island softly smiled, a babe awakening.
Perched on the mountain slopes, the hamlets gleamed with light,
bells softly sang like birds or cool cascading waters,
and suddenly unrestrained, with patient threnody,
as though the whole earth sighed, a cow's deep lowing rang.
A smooth land breeze blew softly, and the mainsail flapped
until the pointed ship leapt like a huge dolphin
with two enormous eyes that stared from the wet prow,
and the azure-painted tail rose proudly over the billows.
There are difficulties with the book. Kazantzakis has an intense humanist philosophy, complex and romantically vague (not vague to him, I’m sure), as hard to fathom as Fichte’s, which fills the poem with images and ideas that, presented less skillfully, would be uncomfortably obtuse and arcane. (The epithet “two willed” in the following passage is an element of that.) Yet, in the incessant, passionate stream of startling nouns and focused adjectives, the reader – his mind on the edge of its seat, so to speak – accepts all.
The beauties of the book far outweigh its imperfection.
The third day, on a high plateau, the two willed man
saw a wild twisted pear tree blossomed in the sun;
all year she'd fought the elements with gallant spite,
the rain, the frost, the whirlwinds and the cankering
worm, yet in her bark had slowly spun her pears with
patience until she trembled like a bride and broke in flower.
Joy filled the tear-drenched mind of the quick tempered man,
and for long hours, until the evening shadows fell,
he admired his far victorious sister wedged in rock
who took what fate had given, water, soil, and stone,
and stubbornly in sun turned all to subtle flower.
There is no finer evocation of man’s empathy with nature in Wordsworth or Marvell.
But I suppose I should give you an example of Kazantzakis’ metaphysical hysteria at high pitch.
Like the lithe snake who in wide circles twists and coils,
delighting in the world from head to tail, just so
the archer wished to merge in one from head to foot.
He bent and fiercely bit his heel till his lips filled
with warm salt blood, and thus his fearful body drank
communion as he sipped his blood, refreshed, till all
his strength flowed round his body in full, steadfast rings.
Man, woman, god, and beast all merged within his blood,
turned to blood brothers, vanished in swift freedom's wheel:
“I've no more children, comrades, dogs, or gods on earth.
May they speed well and prosper, may winds fill their sails!
Enough! I want their breaths and their sweet swoons no more,
for I'm all ships, all seas, all storms, all foreign strands,
I'm both the brain-begotten god and the anti-god,
I'm the warm womb that gives me birth, the grave that eats me!
The circle is now complete, the snake has bit its tail.”
A bit weird, a bit kitschy, yes – but great poetry. No matter how much the reader’s intellect might cavil, the poetry carries him along, his inner voice cascading on from verse to verse.
Of course, this is an adventure epic and there are plenty of cinematic scenes of sex, betrayal, slaughter and destruction.
(Odysseus and his band, using Helen as a kind of Trojan horse [an analogy of Friar’s in his synopsis], foment rebellion in Crete and destroy the Kingdom of Knossos.)
The king fell on his knees in terror as there loomed
above him the tall sea-cap and the sea-drenched head,
but when the pitiless killer seized his shriveled nape
and raised him high with one hand, like a shivering dog,
Phida dashed up in time and grasped that dreaded arm.
“Man killer, stop! This old man is my rightful share!”
As both fought for the king, an ax broke down the door,
and a large strapping man seized Helen with a great roar
and vanished, striding swiftly through the blood-drenched tables.
The archons dashed to flee through the wide-splintered door,
pursued by the enraged archer, while his comrades seized
torches and sowed flame-seeds throughout the women's rooms
as babies smothered in their cradles and young girls
clawed at their cheeks and shrieked to their Bull God in vain.
The Rebels seized the stairs, clacked with their heavy clogs,
smashed all the storage jars, climbed to the upper floors,
piled high all silken pillows, golden robes, then shrieked
and thrust their torches in the heaps to feed the flames.
Groan after groan resounded, harsh and thin cries merged
with women's shrill lament and groans of murdered men.
The shivering king had run and clasped his Bull God's neck,
thrust his despairing head between the towering horns
and hung their like a hapless votive beast for slaughter.
A woman’s arms and double-ax flashed in the torch glare,
and Phida rose up frothing; on her breast and throat
her father’s brains, warm, thick, and sticky, streamed in blood.
There are two problems with Kazantzakis’ Odyssey – A Modern Sequel. That is, if you are willing, as you must be, to accept as not a problem, but as a dramatic necessity, the increasingly esoteric and surreal images and events of the last six or so books (of twenty-four) leading up to Odysseus’ death, which are a challenge to the imagination. One problem is just an infelicity. The other is political, ideological, and a barrier to any early 21st century acknowledgement of the poem’s greatness.
The infelicity is just silly. It is Friar’s rendering of the names that Kazantzakis gives to Odysseus’ companions. I have no idea what they are in Greek, but calling them Granite, Hardihood, Captain Clam and – of all things – Rocky (!) mar the poem’s epic grandeur. It is as if every once in a while you heard the squeak of a bicycle horn in a Mahler symphony.
Then Rocky wrung his wine-soaked beard and spoke with pluck:
“Colossal man, you know the world can’t hold you now,
and yet your proud soul scorns to take another prize.”
The other problem is that Kazantzakis’ Odyssey is racist. Its racism is not the mindless, knee-jerk racism that has plagued Obama’s presidency and overcomes police officers when their adrenaline rises and they have a pistol in their hands. It is the thoughtful, pretentious racism, based on intellectual vanity, that many of the most liberal of 19th century thinkers could snugly fit into their world views: the “white man’s burden” school of racism. Since the entire middle section of the poem deals with Odysseus’ adventures in Africa, the whiffs of it earlier on become a stench and the reader must call on a Gandhi-like patience to continue his collaboration with the author.
Racism is the signal transgression of our age. For example, it, and not religion, was the basis for the Final Solution. Just as now we can look objectively and smugly at the religious persecutions of the Medieval era and the Reformation, some day the racism of our time also will be regarded dispassionately, academically, as a failing of a still unformed, adolescent civilization. Until then, those who love the English language and are thrilled when it is put to good use will find abundant riches in Kimon Friar’s translation of Kazantzakis, but it cannot be a beloved book.