Friday, December 28, 2012

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Fourteen

Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ

This novel arrives on my list by way of another of my long-standing interests: censorship. In 1988, when the film version of The Last Temptation of Christ was released, it was censored around the world. Not only did theatres refuse to show it; religious groups organized protests and violent acts were committed in an effort to silence an unconventional artistic exploration of one of the West's most significant figures. When the film finally played at the Princess theatre, of course I had to see it. I found it an overwhelmingly moving and provocative text.

So naturally I read the novel on which the film is based. Kazantzakis is well known as the author of Zorba the Greek, a text I thought I was familiar with through popular culture (and, although I have tried, I have not yet read that novel). At the time, I was an English Honours student, thoroughly immersed in the discovery of history, philosophy, and literature. The novel The Last Temptation of Christ was a profound reading experience for me. It is rapturously, gloriously written and offers a fascinatingly human alternative portrait of Jesus of Nazareth, full of doubt and sensuality. For someone raised outside of Christianity, it was — and is — a culturally defiant and life-affirming text.

One of the lines that remained with me for years is this: "There is only one woman in the world. One woman with many faces." The feminist I was at the time read this line as confirmation of the transcendent being of Woman; the feminist I am now (especially after attempting to read Zorba the Greek) is not so sure. The Last Temptation of Christ remains, however, one of the most intellectually provocative and artistically accomplished texts in my personal canon. For years, I bought copies of the novel as gifts, much as I have done with other books that have moved me deeply. I don't know how the novel struck those readers — if they even read it — but I have always hoped it would speak deeply to them about their own questioning of fate, of determinism, and of the larger cultural story. And not about religion.

It's unlikely that my experience of reading this text will encourage anyone else to read it, and there is of course a massive formal literary apparatus available to anyone who feels inclined to explore the book or its critical reception. For me, however, The Last Temptation of Christ is unquestionably a novel that changed my life, by opening my mind to a different way of reading one of the West's most significant texts. It also reinforced my commitment to freedom of expression, even for those texts I'd rather not see, hear, or understand.

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