By James Karas

The Greek community of Toronto has boasted of having several hundred associations over the years organized by people from every corner of the fatherland. One of the smallest and most specialized organizations is surely The International Society of Friends of Nikos Kazantzakis – Toronto Chapter. I will say more about the Society and the Toronto Chapter later but first, a few words about the lecture by George Stassinakis at the Greek Community’s Polymenakio Cultural Centre last Saturday.

Stassinakis is the founder and president of The Society and he delivered a lecture on the relevance of Kazantzakis’s ideas today. (Η Επικαιρότητα της Σκέψης του Νίκου Καζαντζάκη). He attempted to give an overview of the main themes that troubled Kazantzakis as well as providing us with some amazing facts from the life of the great author.

Kazantzakis was a deeply religious and spiritual man who struggled with the most difficult and unachievable facts of human existence: to turn darkness into light; to turn flesh into spirit; always to ascend and to find freedom. For him not freedom alone but the search for freedom was a fundamental concept.

The idea of spiritual ascent was an all-consuming idea and he seems to have summed up some of his life’s quests in his epitaph:  I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free. We fear death and hope and that it will not come or come “later.” Is it possible to have no fear or hope while alive? We can only be free when we are dead but we can search and strive for freedom even if it is unachievable.

The same applies for God whom we never find and God becomes the search for God.  Stassinakis spoke of the current crisis in spiritual values, religion and the destruction of the environment. In his view Kazantzakis’s ideas are as relevant today as they were during his lifetime. Kazantzakis was a free spirit and in his own way patriotic. He was invited to participate in a government of national unity in 1945, Stassinakis reminds us, but quit very quickly. Bureaucracy was not his style.

Stassinakis pointed out that Kazantzakis was fired by the BBC because he spoke against the return of King George II to Greece after the end of World War II. The king had supported Ioannis Metaxas who imposed a fascist dictatorship on Greece in 1936.

Stassinakis corrects the impression created by director Michael Cacoyannis in his film Zorba the Greek that Kazantzakis hated Greeks. This is far from the truth because he was deeply connected to his Cretan roots and those roots as well as his Greekness were the inspiration for much of his work.

The fictionalized version of the relationship between Kazantzakis and Zorba (the novel not the movie) and the facts are quite fascinating. There was a real George (not Alexis) Zorbas from Macedonia and the two men met on Mount Athos and not in a café in Piraeus. Kazantzakis credited Zorbas as being one of the most influential people in his life. The people that left the greatest marks on his soul were Homer, Buddha, Nietzsche, Bergson and Zorba. The first four contributed poetic, religious and philosophical nourishment but Zorba taught him to love life and not be afraid of death.

Stassinakis also mentioned the disgraceful conduct of some members of the Greek Orthodox Church and the admirable conduct of the Archbishop of Crete. The former tried to excommunicate him and refused to give him a Christian burial. The latter did the burial service with pomp and without fear.

Even more disgraceful (if that is possible) was the conduct of Greek governments to the successive nominations of Kazantzakis for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was vilified and the attacks were “successful” – he never got the Nobel.

The lecture was followed by Nikos Syrmalis singing two songs appropriately entitled “The meeting of two friends” (read Kazantzakis and Zorba) and “I want to be free” which was one of Kazantzakis’s greatest quests. A Cretan dance group performed several traditional dances.

A reception followed hosted and funded by Pronia, the ladies’ auxiliary of St. Dimitrios Church.

A few more words about The International Society of Friends of Nikos Kazantzakis.  As happens frequently, this sort of fan club depends on one enthusiast with boundless admiration and stamina. Most of those clubs start with enthusiasm and soon peter out.

That is not the case with Stassinakis’s Society. He founded it in 1988 in Geneva and it now has some 6650 members in 110 chapters across five continents. Stassinakis, a retired lawyer, travels tirelessly lecturing on Kazantzakis and he has earned the title of Ambassador of Hellenism. Some fan club!

His current lecture tour is associated on the 60th anniversary of Kazantzakis’s death.

The Toronto Chapter has been around since 2004 and its handful of members meet regularly to discuss the works of Kazantzakis. Voula Vetsis has been president for a number of years but the Chapter has a loose structure and its longevity is a credit to the few members whose interest in the works of the great writer is unabated.

More information about The Society can be found here: www.amis-kazantzaki.gr