‘Zorba the Greek’ – Nikos Kazantzakis

2443961697_a5ccca8292_oZorba the Greek is more than just a title. The eccentric, wily Mediterranean character who exists in a romanticized past, still flickers in our present day, and is demanded by some for a secure future in the human race. The back cover of my Touchstone copy from ’52 compares Zorba with Shakespeare’s ‘Falstaff’, ‘Sinbad the Sailor’, and Cervantes’ ‘Sancho Panza’. Does such a lofty likeness to these literary figures still hold water in contemporary culture?

Zorba the Greek follows a stuffy intellectual narrator and his conversations with a frankly plebeian, yet worldly man named Alexis Zorba.

Stirred by the final parting words from his close friend Stavridakis, who embarked on a mission in the East to help persecuted Greeks, the unnamed narrator, who is also a writer, commits his own selfless undertaking: connect with the everyday man, the working man. The companionship so desired by the writer is not that far away, in fact, the earthy individual he’s searching for sits at the same bar in Piraeus, under the alias Alexis Zorba or simply: “Zorba”.

In a short, but stimulating conversation between the two, in which Zorba chastises the narrator’s life of “chewing paper” and “covering himself with ink”, the unrefined, santuri playing man is invited along to the island of Crete with the “bookworm.”

To achieve his goal of connecting with the working man, the narrator ventures to re-open a lignite(coal) mine on Crete – with Zorba as the foreman. Yet the inhabitants of the island, which are certainly of the class the writer is looking for, are more than either of the men bargained for.

To achieve the grand ideas presented in Zorba, author Kazantzakis employs a conversational structure, a “Cartesian dualism”. What the Narrator gleans from his naive, yet seasoned foreman, is refunded as Zorba becomes equally educated in the world (and reason) of scholars. This framework would function if not for the less than assertive direction in the dialogue taken by Kazantzakis, who prefers to leave readers ambiguous and unfulfilled by his themes:

“‘But don’t you realize, boss, that my brain’s not the correct weight? Maybe it’s a little overweight, maybe a little under, but the correct weight it certainly isn’t. Look now, here’s something you’ll understand: I haven’t been able to rest for days and nights because of that widow. No, I don’t mean on my account; no, I swear that’s not the case. The devil take her, that’s what I say. I’ll never touch her, that’s one sure thing. I’m not her cup of tea…But I don’t want her to be lost for everybody. I don’t want her to sleep alone. It wouldn’t be right, boss; I can’t bear that thought. So I wander at night round her garden-that’s why you see me disappear and you ask me where I’m going. But d’you know why? To see if someone is going to sleep with her; then I can be easy in my mind.’

‘I started laughing.’

‘Don’t laugh, boss! If a woman sleeps all alone, it’s the fault of us men. We’ll all have to render our accounts on the day of the last judgment. God will forgive all sins, as we’ve said before–he’ll have his sponge ready. But that sin he will not forgive Woe betide the man who could sleep with a woman and who did not do so! Woe betide the women who could sleep with a man and who did not do so! Remember the words of the hodja!'”

Novels of self-discovery and personal awakening like Zorba the Greek seem to have lost the foothold they once held in the literary culture – are we too selfish to read selfish writing? Unless centered around historical events, narratives like the one in Kazantzakis’ book becomes “far from ‘unputdownable'” and tedious. If readers are to follow a recurrent theme in the book – to abandon the literary life for entertainment of the world – why bend the binding of Zorba at all? Furthermore, the lessons taught by the bawdy Greek foreman are certainly connected with proletarian world, yet without educated or intriguing  principle:

“‘Life is trouble,’ Zorba continued. ‘Death, no. To live–do you know what that means? To undo your belt and look for trouble!’

I still said nothing. I knew Zorba was right, I knew it, but I did not dare. My life had got on the wrong track, and my contact with men had become now a mere soliloquy. I had fallen so low that, if I had to choose between falling in love with a woman and reading a book about love, I should have chosen the book.

‘Don’t calculate, boss,’ Zorba continued. ‘Leave your figures alone, smash the blasted scales, shut up your grocer’s shop, I tell you. Now’s the time you’re going to save or to lose your soul. Listen, boss, take a handkerchief, tie two or three pounds in it, make them gold ones, because the paper ones don’t dazzle; and send them to the Widow by Mimiko. Teach him what he is to say: {The master of the mine sends you his best wishes and this little handkerchief. It’s only a small thing, he said, but his love is big. He said, too, you weren’t to worry about the ewe; if it’s lost, don’t bother, I’m here, don’t be afraid! He says he saw you going by the cafe and he’s fallen sick and only you can cure him}’ 

‘There now! Then the same evening you knock on the door. Must beat the iron while it’s hot. You’ve lost your way, you tell her. It’s dark, will she lend you a lantern. Or else you’ve suddenly come over dizzy and would like a glass of water. Or, better still, you buy another ewe and take it to her: {Look, my lady}, you say, {here’s the ewe you lost. It was I who found it for you!} And the Widow – listen to this, boss – the Widow gives you the reward and you enter into…God Almighty, if only I could ride your mare behind you–I tell you, boss, you’ll enter into Paradise on horseback. If you’re looking for any other paradise than that, my poor fellow, there is none! Don’t listen to what the priests tell you, there’s no other!’

‘Well?…’, he said.

And he waited anxiously.

‘That’ll do!’ I replied harshly.

And I quickened my pace.

Zorba shook his head and growled something I did not catch.”

Yet, there is some silver lining in the just over 300 pages of Zorba the Greek. Kazantzakis’ Narrator finds meaning in, ironically enough, the soliloquies he finds so detrimental to his connection with the world. These poetic self-investigations are what I hoped for in the entirety of the novel. Though short, notice the confidence saturating the passage’s direction:

“I slowly worked some tobacco into my pipe and lit it. Everything in this world has a hidden meaning, I thought. Men, animals, trees, stars, they are all hieroglyphics; woe to anyone who begins to decipher them and guess what they mean…When you see them, you do not understand them. You think they are really men, animals, trees, stars. It is only years later, too late, that you understand…”

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Like nearly all writers, Kazantzakis made his characters out of real-life persons. In 1917, when low-grade coal was needed during the war, the author engaged “a  work-man named George Zorbas” to assist in mining for lignite. The Narrator’s friend, Stavridakis, also closely resembles fellow writer and poet Angelos Siklieanos, who traveled around Greece with Kazantzakis discussing various ways to enlighten the human conscious.

Under the torrid German occupation fro 1941-43, Kazantzakis is able to finish Alexis Zorbas, or Zorba the Greek. This text, like nearly all of the author’s books, is rife his philosophy. Kazantzakis was heavily influenced by “Nietzsche” and Henri Bergson:

“Central to Bergson’s theory, from which Kazantzakis develops concept of ‘God’, is the notion of the elan vi tal, a a pre-existent life-force that wills to become alive and ascend to higher levels of self-consciousness. Yet to become alive it must collaborate with matter, which it then seeks to “unmake”…(further) Kazantzakis believed that his was a transitional age in which one civilization was collapsing and another raw, untamed civilization was emerging. In every age, he claimed, it is our responsibility to seek out and work with the most vibrant ideological movement that enables life’s elan to ascend…(the author) seeks answers to the most profound questions that impinge upon our individual existence, whist recognizing the importance of the process of questioning itself. His work challenges the individual to act authentically in this ‘brief lightening flash’ of life. We are called upon to ‘save God’ by overcoming spiritual lethargy. Moreover, it is our existential duty to do so.”

As the Narrator seeks to come closer to people like Zorba, a descent from overly academic qualities in his life takes hold – much like the unmaking and the elan vi tal Kazantzakis puts faith in. 

Kazantzakis is best remembered in infamy, having been excommunicated for his novel ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, which received a similar backlash during the Scorsese film adaptation. When he passed away from leukemia in 1957, the Greek Orthodox Church refused to intern in his body. He was eventually buried outside the church in Heraklion, Crete, his home Island.

Though it was published in Greece and “Paris” in 1946, Zorba the Greek wouldn’t receive the English treatment until 1953. By then, though, the American literary conscious was becoming occupied with the rise of post-Modernism. That isn’t to say Zorba is Modernist literature, but rather a work of spiritual enlightenment, which was becoming old hat. And for a site dedicated to relevancy, Zorba the Greek, while admirable for it’s time, falls short of necessary reading.

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