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I know nothing about Greek literature, so when I looked for adequate reading matter for our hols on Crete I turned to google and found Nikos Kazantzakis Zorba the Greek. Ah, yes, suddenly the wonderful film from 1964 came back to my mind, older dooyooers may recall Anthony Quinn in the role of Zorbas. I didnt know that the film was made after Nikos Kazantzakis novel, in fact I didnt know anything about the author at all, now Ive learnt that the author is not only the most famous Cretan author but he is the most written about and most translated Greek author of modern times, an internationally acclaimed novelist, dramatist, poet and journalist; he narrowly missed out on the Nobel Prize for literature by one vote in 1956.
(from the net) Kazantzakis was born in Heraklion, the capital of Crete, in 1883. He studied law in Athens before moving to Paris to study under the influential French philosopher Henri Bergson. In Paris he also developed a deep appreciation of Nietzsche, and soon afterwards became heavily interested in the teaching of the Buddha. He also composed travel books about his journalistic visits to many countries in Europe and the Far East. One of his novels The Last Temptation of Christ, was placed on the Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books by the Pope in 1954. He was a highly controversial intellectual, official Greece and the Church didnt love him, only now hes being rediscovered.
I imagine that Kazantzakis wanted to put down his thoughts on life and death, religion, politics, nationality, patriotism, liberty, love, nature and the universe not only in theoretical treatises which would only attract few readers but also in a novel, profound and entertaining at the same time, that would please the general reading public. He created two opposing characters: a 35-year-old intellectual, a Cretan by birth, who has led the life of a bookworm and suddenly feels the urge to get into contact with real life, he rents a lignite mine on the south coast of Crete and sets out to exploit it with simple workmen sharing their simple life.
When hes waiting in a bar for the ferry, hes accosted by a 65-year-old workman from Macedonia who asks him if he wants to employ him, hes capable of doing any job. More opposed characters are not imaginable, but the two men like each other at first sight and so an adventure begins that spans three quarters of a year. The story deals with the job in the mine, the difficulties they encounter, the people they meet in the nearby village, the villagers problems and how they affect the two mens lives; simple as the lives of the villagers may seem, their problems have the impact of ancient Greek drama, there is a natural death, a beheading as a vendetta act and arson.
It is the story the film is based on, theres enough going on to fill more than two hours, but reading the book I realised that the story, thrilling as it is, is not what has secured the novel a place on the Guardians list of the 100 best novels ever written, it is the two characters and their discussions.
The story is told in the first person by the young intellectual, he hasnt got a name, we know him only as boss, he describes Zorba, comments on his character and repeats their discussions. Mostly Zorba begins like this, Boss, what do you think about . . . and more often than not the widely read bookworm has no answer, Zorba then tells him what * he * thinks, always backed up by something hes experienced during the adventurous times hes spent in various Balkan states. Hes earned his living as a quarrier, miner, pedlar, potter, comitadij, santuri-player, passa tempo hawker, blacksmith, smuggler, hes been in prison, married several times (once legally, the other times illegally), has broken all commandments, committed atrocious crimes and has nevertheless come out a humane and wise man. That man has not been to school, I thought, and his brains have not been perverted. He has had all manner of experience; his mind is open and his heart has grown bigger, without his losing one ounce of his primitive boldness. All the problems which we find so complicated or insoluble he cuts through as if with a sword, like Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian knot. It is difficult for him to miss his aim, because his two feet are held firmly planted on the ground by the weight of his whole body. Zorba is a like a force of nature, his character has been seen as the personification of Henri Bergson's ideas of élan vital.
The book was published in 1952, in pre-feminist times, women are weak, they must be protected but above all, they must be loved. Zorba is convinced that should he go to hell, if there is hell, that it will be because once when a woman wanted him, he didnt go. He loves all women, he doesnt love them as individuals but as the female of the species, he loves womanhood as such. Such an attitude should infuriate me - I want to be seen as an individual, not as a specimen of a species!- , but it hasn't done so, with Zorba it's acceptable, in fact I can't imagine him otherwise.
The intellectual envies Zorba, does he learn from him, does he change his life, can he change it at all? The friendship between the two men and how it develops reads as fascinatingly as the story about the mine and the villagers, I enjoyed it throughout, the ending is one of the best endings ever!
The description of the Cretan landscape through the year is evocative, many plants and animals are mentioned and described in loving detail as are the sea and the mountains, what is said about Crete is true for all islands in the Mediterranean Sea and as I know some, I enjoyed reading these descriptions, the novel cant be read as a kind of guidebook, though, the Crete Kazantzakis describes is not the one the tourists of today find. The second half of the twentieth century and the advent of mass tourism have changed Crete like other destinations round the Mediterranean Sea (well, world-wide) more than the millenia before, the novel has thus gained a dimension the author could not foresee, its a portrait of Crete of times gone by, never will they return.
From what Ive gathered from the information on the net the boss is modelled after the author, Zorbas spirit, however, must also have been part of Kazantzakis character. Due primarily to the condemnation of his portrayal of Christ in the book The Last Temptation of Christ, permission was refused for his body to lie in state in Athens after his death in 1957. He was buried in his hometown Heraklion outside the cemetery on the Martinengo Bastion, on his tomb stands the inscription, I hope nothing, I fear nothing, I am free. Zorba could have said that.
The book is out of print in GB and the USA, amazon sent me a used copy from the USA, there are still quite a lot of copies left from 0.01 onwards, you may also find the book in your local library.
The copy Ive got is from the publishing house Simon and Schuster, New York
Translated by Carl Wildman
Portrait of a modern hero whose capacity to live each moment to its fullest is revealed in a series of adventures in Crete.