The multi-sided author and professor of art history Pandelis Prevelakis (1909-1986) was a friend of Nikos Kazantzakis with whom he shared Cretan birth and upbringing and about whom he wrote Nikos Kazantzakis and His Odyssey: A Study of the Poet and the Poem (1961), one of over forty books written during a productive life. But he is probably best known as an author of novels and memoirs about the life, people and customs of Crete; indeed, he is sometimes called the national writer of that unique island, part Greek, part African. The Sun of Death is one of these and is set early in the 20th century.
Though published in 1959, The Sun of Death is written in a straightforward realist manner. It is not the sophisticated literary style that commands the interest of the reader of this book but rather the characters in the story and the insight into the life and customs of the Cretan people it provides. Like the life of the denizens of the northern Aegean island Skiathos portrayed by Alexandros Papadiamantis in The Murderess and Tales From a Greek Island, ignorance, superstition and envy control the claustrophobic lives of the villagers and small townspeople of Crete. For Papadiamantis the miserable consequences of the custom of enormous dowries were at the center of his attention, while for Prevelakis the similarly widespread Mediterranean custom of blood feuds shapes the tragic story of The Sun of Death.
There are two particularly strong characters in this novel, both of whom are trying to form Yorgakis, the teenage boy at the center of the story, to their individual liking: the enigmatic, wealthy and somewhat threatening exile who wants to make the boy into a poet and sophisticate, and Yorgakis' earthy, religious (though mostly pre-Christian), poor but generous aunt who adopts the boy after he is orphaned early in the novel. But The Sun of Death is much more than an either/or struggle for a boy's soul; it is a convincing coming of age story which has left me with a very vivid picture of the Cretan landscape and life.