Review by Maria Smilios, 2002
Kazantzakis, Nikos. God’s Pauper: Saint Francis of Assisi. Bruno Cassirer, 1962.
Had it not been for Anthony Quinn’s unforgettable portrayal of Zorba in the 1964 film Zorba the Greek and the controversial success of Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis could have been yet another gifted foreign author who somehow completely eluded US ears, but thanks to Hollywood, his name somewhere resonates. Those who are familiar with the energetic and spirited nature of his films will likely find that Kazantzakis’ final novel, Saint Francis, strikes the senses with a similar vigor.
Wielding an erudite style and a rapier that slices through popular hagiographic representations, Kazantzakis ushers his readers into a mental and physical journey of a man in “search for God.” Anyone expecting to take the saint’s hand and embark upon a leisurely stroll towards the pearly gates of glory, however, best think again. This Francis is not an easily satiated sentimentalist humbly frolicking through forests with his band of merry brothers, offering panegyrics to the birds; nor is he impervious to hate, rage, doubt, or hunger. This Francis is “a man God-possessed.” But the indefatigable deity who commands him with a voice “severe and full of scorn” to rebuild churches, kiss lepers, and endure being stoned begins to sound like Job retold. Kazantzakis successfully offsets these shuddering images of Francis, the “terrifying wild beast of God,” through his devout ‘side-kick,’ Brother Leo. The coupling of nonchalance about what the characters experience with their more serious philosophical musings grants the text a necessary emotional balance—it was not all fire and brimstone, but neither was it all glory and God.
The text lays no claims to being a documented or historical account of the saint’s life; in fact, Kazantzakis, in the brief prologue, apologizes for any omissions from or alterations to Francis’ life. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction is a necessity for him, in order “to match the Saint’s life with his myth, bringing that life as fully into accord with its essence as possible.” Attempting to capture the “essence” by filling in the aporias of fact with fiction grants the author permission to respond imaginatively to basic questions surrounding religious ascetism such as the physical deterioration of a body abused (something hagiography tends to disregard). Addressing these seemingly minor issues of his bloodied, swollen, and “melancholy” feet not only gives a full portrait of a man made, not born a saint, but also addresses deeper perennial questions pertaining to religious experience: is he possessed by the idea of God, or possessed by the experience of God? Is this quest “for God” simply a lofty statement of the human mind attempting to transgress its own limits, or is it truly a product of an infinite God, and thus it too is infinite? Kazantzakis is not a rhetorical author, and neither are his characters, so while they may imagine the answers, in the end, these types of questions are left open for the readers to decide.