Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Theodoros Kolokotronis: ‘one of the leaders of our race’

One of my favourite parts in one of my favourite Nikos Kazantzakis’ books is the following from Travels in Greece: Journey to the Morea, in which the Cretan author reflects on the character of perhaps the foremost hero of the Greek War of Independence, Theodoros Kolokotronis, the Old Man of the Morea. I’ve always liked Kazantzakis’ description of Kolokotronis, which has him, for 50 years, patiently preparing for the fight against the Turks, for the moment when his life would begin and take meaning.

The Old Man of the Morea
Today as I sit in a Tripolitan coffeehouse watching the people and listening to their talk, I sense that if I were a young man living in Tripolis, I would concentrate – in order to save myself – upon the rich, aggressive and valiant soul of Kolokotronis. Here in Tripolis, air and mountain are still filled with his ample breath. From the days he spent as a merchant in Zakynthos, gazing at the mountains of Morea across the way, sighing:

I see the spreading sea, and afar the Morea,
Grief has seized me, and great yearning…

until his censure by the land that he liberated, and those final serene moments when Charon found him, Kolokotronis’ life was a dramatic, characteristic unfolding of a rich modern Greek soul: faith, optimism, tenacity, valour, a certain, practical mind, deceptive versatility, like Odysseus.

When the penpushers all lost their bearings, or the tin-soldier generals bickered among themselves, Kolokotronis would see the simplest, most effective solution. Gentle and softhearted when it served the great purpose, harsh and savage when necessary. Harsh and savage most of all with himself. When he served as a corsair on the ‘black ships’ he once found himself without tobacco. He opened his pipe and scraped it in order to get some burned tobacco to make a cigarette. But at the same instant he started to smoke, he felt ashamed. ‘Here’s a man for you,’ he muttered to himself with scorn. ‘Here’s a man who wants to save his country, and can’t even save himself from an inconsequential habit.’ And he flung the cigarette away.

Thus he conditioned and hardened himself, in order to be prepared. For years in foreign armies he studied the art of war, the ‘manual of arms’; aboard ship he learned the risalto, the assault; he made himself ready. And when the revolution burst out he was primed, fifty years old by then, organised from top to toe. Armed to the teeth. He had amassed knowledge by the quintal, cunning, bravery, wide experience; he wrought songs to relieve his ‘yearning’; by contributing an axiom at a crucial moment he would silence the unorganised chatter. Our modern Greek problems have not yet found more profound, humorous and epigrammatic expression.

He had both impulse and restraint, he knew how to retreat so that he could advance; hemmed in by enemies, Greeks and Turks, he was forced to mobilise all his bravery and wile so that the Race would not be lost. Often all would desert him, he would be left alone in the mountains, and then burst out weeping. He sobbed like the Homeric heroes, with his long hair and helmet; he sobbed and was refreshed. He regained his fortitude, formulated new schemes in his mind, sent off messages, involved the elders once more, mocked the Turks, conciliated the Greeks; and the struggle began again.

Kolokotronis, with all his faults and virtues, is one of the leaders of our race. Here in Tripolis, which he took with mind and sword, his scent still lingers dissipated in the air; with patience and concentration a youth should be able to reconstruct, as model and guide, the peerless Old Man. And thus, with a struggle now invisible and spiritual, to reconquer and ravish Tripolis.