The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis

5821444768 A quarter of a century. That is how long this one had been on the shelf, shaming me for a whole 25 years. ‘So…you can watch the film but you can’t be bothered to read the book,’ it seemed to sneer. Well, yes, that’s about the size of it: a 500-page translation of a Greek book from the 1950s in small, close type, describing the final agonies of Jesus as he waits to die on the cross. I mean, what else is the average agnostic reader going to do with their time in Easter week? And anyway books don’t sneer, that’s ridiculous. This one does something else: it soars. Perhaps you’re not quite left like William Blake, who centuries ago saw angels on Peckham Rye, but I find it hard to believe that anyone could be confronted with Kazantzakis’ vision of the earthly trials of the Almighty and not be moved. The book was blacklisted by the Vatican as heretical at the time – perhaps it still is – but then that must be pretty much par for the course for more or less anything that departs from the accepted path. One of Jesus’ first appearances has him carrying a cross – but that is because he, a carpenter, is collaborating with the Roman occupiers in helping to crucify its opponents. Poor old Judas, a freedom fighter, starts off wanting to kill him but ends up having to be persuaded by Jesus to betray him in order to fulfil his destiny – a sort of Snape/Dumbledore situation, younger readers may think. I’m not really the Pope’s target audience but it’s difficult to imagine a more serious book than this. Perhaps the main problem is that, like Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ, it examines the notion of the truth around a cult. Maybe these questions are just too interesting. Way back in 1988, watching Scorsese’s flawed movie, I was struck for the first time that the son of God was a man who, quite reasonably, rather fancied just having a quiet life with the wife (well, wives) and kids, thanks, rather than saving mankind by dying horribly. “Why me?” he cries. The anguish remains palpable.


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