Zorba the Greek
Zorba the Greek
by Nikos Kazantzakis
translated by Carl Wildman
Simon and Schuster, New York (1953)
Although it is written as prose, Zorba the Greek is essentially a poem. Like Homer, Nikos Kazantzakis seems to have composed his work to the rhythm of the sea. Nature and spirit are mingled in every line. The elements are like familiar beings with changing moods. The sky bends down to embrace the earth. The trees call out to the stars. The wind brings joy and pain, then quickly steals away.
Zorba the Greek is the story of a friendship between two men whose lives on the surface are worlds apart, but whose spirits have much in common. Alexis Zorba, a rugged workman always on the lookout for adventure and a job, is sixty-five. The narrator, a writer and intellectual who has spent his adult life sifting through books and pondering their many shades of meaning, is thirty years younger. They meet in a caf�, and Zorba soon convinces the narrator that he is the right man to go with him to Crete and supervise a crew in the narrator�s lignite mine.
After they settle into a hut on the beach, a daily routine develops in which the two get to know each other through talk and observation. Zorba does the cooking, plays his santuri, and tells his employer that the best thing he can do is to stay away from the mine, because it�s obvious that he will confuse the workers with his grand notion of equality, and keep them from getting their work done.
The two characters represent distinct philosophies of living. Zorba is earthy and sensual and lives in the moment. He is an unfettered soul who sings, dances, and loves with complete abandon. The narrator, meanwhile, approaches life through his intellect. Despite his academic learning and Zorba�s corresponding lack thereof, what impresses him is the older man�s ability to cut to the heart of any situation or moral question.
For these reasons, Zorba becomes the narrator�s inspiration, and, to some degree, his mentor, by urging him not to waste what remains of his youth, and to give up his books and partake of life�s pleasures while he still can.
. . . I was a long time getting to sleep. My life is wasted, I thought. If only I could take a cloth and wipe out all I have learnt, all I have seen and heard, and go to Zorba�s school and start the great, the real alphabet! What a different road I would choose. I should keep my five senses perfectly trained, and my whole body, too, so that it would enjoy and understand. I should learn to run, to wrestle, to swim, to ride horses, to row, to drive a car, to fire a rifle. I should fill my soul with flesh. I should fill my flesh with soul. In fact, I should reconcile at last within me the two eternal antagonists. . . .
By the book�s end, the narrator has succeeded � and not succeeded. When he runs out of money and the two part company, he realizes how hard it is to live outside Zorba�s influence and the shelter of his own intellect. His observations, though, are priceless, and he is more in tune with the world than he is perhaps ready or willing to believe. Like all of us, he is happy and free until he stops to analyze his happiness and freedom.
Zorba the Greek is a wonderful book, brimming with vitality. When you�re reading it, you would never guess that the author and his wife were starving while it was being written, and that they had to spend long hours in bed just to conserve energy.
Incidentally, Nikos Kazantzakis did go on to write a sequel to the Odyssey. It is called, appropriately, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. It is a 33,333-line poem that took him a dozen years to complete, and which he considered his greatest achievement. So far, I�ve read just the first few pages, but it is clearly a masterful work.
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A few words about my favorite dictionary . . .
From Zorba the Greek
by Nikos Kazantzakis
. . . Zorba�s eyes glowed, his large mouth laughed contentedly.
After staying silent a moment or two he started off again. His heart was overflowing, he couldn�t control it.
�There was a time when I used to say: that man�s a Turk, or a Bulgar, or a Greek. I�ve done things for my country that would make your hair stand on end, boss. I�ve cut people�s throats, burned villages, robbed and raped women, wiped out entire families. Why? Because they were Bulgars, or Turks. �Bah! To hell with you, you swine!� I say to myself sometimes. �To hell with you right away, you ass.� Nowadays I say this man is a good fellow, that one�s a bastard. They can be Greeks or Bulgars or Turks, it doesn�t matter. Is he good? Is he bad? That�s the only thing I ask nowadays. And as I grow older � I�d swear this on the last crust I eat � I feel I shan�t even go on asking that! Whether a man�s good or bad, I�m sorry for him, for all of �em. The sight of a man just rends my insides, even if I act as though I don�t care a damn! There he is, poor devil, I think; he also eats and drinks and makes love and is frightened, whoever he is: he has his God and his devil just the same, and he�ll peg out and lie as stiff as a board beneath the ground and be food for worms, just the same. Poor devil! We�re all brothers! All worm meat!� . . .