At the age of 3, the Cretan Nikos Kazantzakis was, it seems, already a full-blown sensualist. In his autobiographical fantasia Report to Greco, he describes being picked up by the plump, blonde young wife of a neighbour in Heraklion:
The woman leaned over, placed me in her lap, hugged me. I, closing my eyes, fell against her exposed bosom and smelled her body; the warm, dense perfume, the acid scent of milk and sweat. The newly married body was steaming. I inhaled the vapour in an erotic torpor, hanging from her high bosom.
Kazantzakis was a writer whose inner life was devoted to the struggle between flesh and spirit. Although he came within a whisker of winning a Nobel Prize in 1952, his name meant nothing to me when I first picked up Report to Greco at the age of about 22. I do remember, however, being overwhelmed by that sense of recognition which the best writers inspire. Kazantzakis put into words – and such words! – the tumultuous feelings of my youth.
Written not long before the author’s death, the book is a philosophical odyssey that takes Kazantzakis from Heraklion to Naxos, where he was sent to school with French Franciscans, and then to Athens University. After travels in Greece and Italy, he studied in Paris, where he was shocked and invigorated by reading Nietzsche and comforted by the lectures of Henri Bergson.
Though it sounds presumptuous, we seemed to have a lot in common. Kazantzakis was brought up in the Greek Orthodox Church but broke away to find his own road to salvation. Report to Greco is the story of that search. I was brought up a Roman Catholic, taught by nuns as a child and by monks as a teenager; and around the age of 16, I rejected their story. It was the Church’s squeamishness about sex that alienated me, its celibate preoccupation with sins of the flesh. Like Angelos Sikelianos, the poet with whom Kazantzakis visited Mount Athos, I thought the flesh was as mu
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