Zorba the Greek

Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek is one of those famous books that is nothing like what you expect when you start to read it. That, at least, was my experience. Perhaps I had expected something purely comic: a Don Quixote of modern Greece. Since the novel does have a comic duo of sorts in the intellectual narrator (‘Boss') and his much more passionate sidekick (Alexis Zorba) setting out on an adventure, full of illusions – there may be something in that comparison. Another starting point might be to consider Zorba the Greek alongside The Great Gatsby – where the character under study by the narrator is a down-to-earth working- man, rather than a grand dreamer and great liar. Both novels have bookish narrators who admire another man’s zest for life. In both books, the narrator is searching for some meaning beyond the material concerns of his age.

The new translation by Peter Bien opens with a prologue not included in the standard translation. The first line reads ‘I often wished to write “the Saint’s Life of Alexis Zorba,” a labourer of advanced age whom I exceedingly loved’ (1). In the prologue, the Boss wonders what sort of book this will be –‘a novel, poem, complex make-believe narrative …’ He decides what he has written is something else – a memorial. While there is a plot of sorts and adventures relayed, ultimately the character study of Zorba is what gives the book its focus. Chapter One begins thus: ‘I first met him in Piraeus’ (9) and ends with the Boss writing his ‘saint’s life’ in a matter of weeks. Then comes the news of Zorba’s death. To say this up front is not ‘giving away the ending’ – since this is all foretold and implied at the beginning. It does help to understand the nature of the tale.

I read Zorba the Greece on the island of Crete where it is set, and I admit I did this with some fear that I was being a stereotypical tourist is search of some “truth”. I need not have been nervous because the book is of tremendous quality and it is therefore there is nothing to be ashamed of here. As to the plot: the Boss meets a labouring man and together they take the night boat to Crete from Athens port (Piraeus). The shared plan is to work an abandoned lignite mine – with the narrator leaving most of the business to Zorba, while he spends his days reading and writing a manuscript, inspired by Buddhist readings but not described to the reader. They pair stay in Madame Hortense’s ‘miniature hotel’ in a coastal village – the room they share is really a bathing cabin rather than a hotel room. Like Zorba, Madam Hortense has an adventurous life, but is a sort of ancient ruin -- a windmill, if you like -- where Zorba conjures her beauty.

Zorba has been involved in the country’s many wars of the nineteenth century, and has scant regard for the authority of the state, or religion. Kazantzakis also shows us the real horror of honour killings, still prevalent in the twentieth century, and the corruption (as he saw it) of religious institutions. At one point, Zorba recalls murdering a Bulgarian priest ‘a fierce, bloodthirsty partisan’ who had recently killed a Greek schoolteacher. When Zorba discovers that the priest had 5 children, he gives them all his money and runs. Here’s a short extract of dialogue to show these themes from this section of the text:

              Leaning against the wall, Zorba turned and looked at me:
“That’s how I was saved,” he said. 
“Saved from your country?”
“Yes, from my country,” Zorba answered in a calm, firm voice. A moment later: “Saved from my country, saved from priests, saved from money. No more sifting. I’m increasingly finished with sifting things out; I’m simplifying. How can I express it to you? I am freeing myself, becoming a human being.” (252).
The Boss longs for this sort of simplicity, this ability to live in the moment, but like an artist – Zorba’s philosophy has been born of suffering and experience; there is nothing bookish about it. When the Boss and Zorba must part, Zorba’s dance speaks to his friend in a physical language that fills both of their hearts with joy. Their parting of ways is as moving as any in literature. Zorba’s last words to the Boss come in the form of a letter: “People like me should live a thousand years. Good night!” 
As one who is more than a little inclined to be bookish myself -- Would it not be good to capture at least some of Zorba's dancing; his song, his love of the senses: his zest for life? 



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