TITLE: Last Temptation of Christ
AUTHOR: Nikos Kazantzakis
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster Inc.
There's been quite a ruckus lately about the movie version of this book, and as I enjoy a good ruckus and abhor censorship, I feel that a quick review of this wicked book is in order.
Many people are unaware that this book was written thirty years ago by the Nobel Prize winning author of Zorba the Greek. Many of those trying to suppress this work would be surprised to learn that the author was a deeply religious man and a devout christian. I am not a christian or a religious man in the ordinary sense of the word, but I found this novel to be a compelling portrait of a great spiritual hero. I now appreciate some of the subtleties and depths of this famous story that had previously eluded me.
The novel begins and ends with a dream; this eerie mirror image symmetry and the strange visions and disturbing images scattered throughout, lends a haunting, dream-like quality to the tale. Jesus' first dream is a nightmare about a giant red-bearded man who turns out to be Judas. Jesus is the village carpenter and his first task upon awakening is to finish building a cross which will be used to crucify a popular religious fanatic who claims to be The Christ. The condemned man's mother curses Jesus and the curse follows him through the rest of the book.
Putting a sacred story like this one into the form of a modern novel is inevitably illuminating and disturbing because it forces writer and reader alike to confront many difficult questions. Is Judas a blackhearted villain or is he really an unsung hero doing the will of God and suffering a fate worse than crucifixion? How does Jesus deal with his parents? What tempts him? How much does he understand about his own fate?
Kazantzakis does a superb job of conjuring up the often cruel and paradoxical god of the Old Testament, a god who offers his creations a choice between a broad road strewn with lilies and a narrow road beset with thorns. He strikes a plausible compromise between the conflicting gospels and dispenses with the various hocus pocus parlour tricks which have always cheapened the tale. The fanaticism of his protagonist rings true and his peasant disciples are presented in all their glorious human weakness.
It was strange to read this book at the same time I was reading Queen of the Damned. Both books seek to make the fantastic real and both pursue the theme of immortality in a mortal world. I wish I could see the movie, but it has been effectively banned from small towns and rural areas across the country. As is all too often the case, small minds suppress the very books and films that seek to lift them up.