Thursday, June 20, 2013

Zorba the Greek

by Nikos Kazantzakis

Zorba the Greek is, in the tradition of Greek philosophy, a lengthy and beautiful discussion about what it means to be alive.  Despite its anachronistic portrayals of women, this book is a joy to read.  The two main characters are a bookish intellectual (the narrator, whose name we never learn) and a lusty, brawny, working man who join forces to make a fortune.  After having been shamed by his best friend, Stavridakis, for living only the life of the mind, and therefore living with no purpose, the narrator leases a lignite mine on the island of Crete in an effort to prove that he is in fact a man.  Unfortunately, the narrator is naïve and inexperienced in every aspect of being an adult male and, during the course of the story, learns many important life lessons the hard way.  His teacher, however, is one of literature’s most joyful and profligate characters, whose every utterance is filled with a passionate love of life.

The book opens with the narrator sitting in a café in Piraeus, waiting for the ship that will transport him to Crete where his mine is located.  While he sits, obsessing over his fight with Stavridakis,  a scruffy character named Alexis Zorba, introduces himself as an experienced mine foreman and excellent cook.  Unbeknownst to the narrator, Zorba had sized him up as being in need of guidance in his mining venture as well as education about the world of men.  Zorba begins his seduction by regaling the narrator with stories of his lusty pursuits and physical accomplishments.  Intrigued by this effervescent and entertaining person, and grateful to have someone who will cook, the narrator hires him and the two board the boat for Crete. 

Upon arrival, the villagers compete to host the two men whom they believe will being economic relief to their depressed island, but Zorba decides that staying with Madame Hortense, an elderly French courtesan, will be more to their liking.  Madame Hortense claims to have been kept by military leaders of all the great European powers and has beautiful, but threadbare, clothing and shoes and fancy jewelry given by her many admirers to prove it.  She puts the narrator and Zorba up in one of her primitive beach huts where the two attempt to understand each other.   One of the narrator’s first lessons is having to listen to Zorba and Madame Hortense make love as if they were decades younger.  Nikos Kazantzakis, through the narrator explains Zorba’s blind lust for the decrepit old woman this way: 

Behind each woman rises the austere, sacred and mysterious face of Aphrodite. That was the face Zorba was seeing and talking to, and desiring. Dame Hortense was only an ephemeral and transparent mask which Zorba tore away to kiss the eternal mouth.

The sexually repressed narrator could not fathom Zorba’s attraction to Dame Hortense, but Zorba symbolizes the outsized sexuality of Zeus, Greek king of the gods.  By contrast, the narrator’s inhibited, perhaps closeted, sex drive refers to the strictures of celibacy required of traditional Christian priests.
Zorba is a man of the earth who enjoys earthly pleasures and hard work in equal measure.  He has had little formal education and doesn’t understand the narrator’s fascination with deep philosophical questions posed by the books he obsessively reads.  The narrator recognizes his deficits as a man and tries to become more manly, but finds himself paralyzed when he catches the eye of a beautiful woman referred to as “the widow”. Zorba insists that the narrator succumb to her charms because even though all the men in the village lust after her and one young man, Pavli, stalks her, it is the narrator whom she wants.  When he fails to acknowledge her attraction, Zorba scolds him for squandering a priceless gift that is his for the taking.  Zorba equates the narrator’s constant reading and writing to retreating from the world:  You want to build a monastery. That's it! Instead of monks you'd stick a few quill drivers like your honored self inside and they'd pass the time scribbling day and night. [...] I want you to appoint me doorkeeper to your monastery so that I can do some smuggling and, now and then, let some very strange things through into the holy precincts:  women, mandolins, demijohns of raki, roast sucking pigs ... All so that you don't fritter away your life with a lot of nonsense!

Zorba begins his education of the narrator by teaching him how to eat.  People approach food in three different ways, according to Zorba.  For some, food is consumed without pleasure and produces only waste.  For gluttons, it is a form of worship.  But for men like Zorba, food is pleasure, sustenance, and the fuel for hard work and the needs of the body.  After never knowing the enjoyment of good wine and well-seasoned food, the narrator’s senses start waking up and he begins to respond to the widow’s charms.

Meanwhile, in the lignite mine, Zorba rules like a tyrant and scolds the narrator for trying to be friends with the mine workers, referring to the socialist movement which had been gaining traction in parts of eastern Europe following World War I. He scolds the narrator by saying “Keep your distance, boss! Don't make men too bold, don't go telling them we're all equal, we've got the same rights, or they'll go straight and trample on your rights; they'll steal your bread and leave you to die of hunger.”   Later, Zorba justifies his dictatorial style by saving the miners when a tunnel collapses.  Following this setback to the business, the narrator gives Zorba some money with which to procure supplies for a logging operation on that same mountain in response to Zorba’s design for a cable car to transport logs from the mountaintop to the sea.  It is an innovative approach which, he boasts, will make them very rich men. 

The narrator’s passivity enables Zorba’s opportunism,  and the short buying trip becomes an extended orgy from which the rogue returns empty-handed.  The narrator acts out his annoyance at Zorba’s abuse of his trust by telling Dame Hortense that Zorba has written to say he intends to propose marriage upon his return.  The pathetic old woman falls for this cruel trick and begins planning the wedding.  When Zorba returns he cannot bear to hurt Dame Hortense by telling her it was all a joke, so he goes along, but invents a series of excuses as to why the wedding cannot happen right away. 

The great beauty of this book is how the author uses language and dialog to illuminate questions about life, death, love, and work.  For a time, the narrator and Zorba live an almost enchanted life, camping on the beach, eating, drinking, planning, and talking about big unanswerable questions deep into every night.  Zorba’s philosophy of life is to live as if he might die the next minute, whether working, sleeping, making love, eating, dancing, or thinking.  He has no patience for religious dogma, and explains his spirituality in a parable:  neither the seven stories of heaven nor the seven stories of the earth are enough to contain God; but a man's heart can contain him. So be very careful …  never to wound a man's heart!” 

For all of his bluster and lust for life, we discover a deep core of grief within Zorba after things in the village start to fall apart.   When the narrator looks to Zorba for answers and for hope, we learn just how shattered his heart is.  Earlier, Zorba had explained that “You must sometimes rejoice that the dark forces of destruction are so numerous and invincible: for thus your aim to live almost without hope becomes more heroic and your soul acquires a more tragic greatness.  Action, he had told the narrator, is the only salvation for the soul.  In other words, the life of a monk or a scholar is no life, and after life “there is only death, which is nothing.”  Old age,” on the other hand, “is a disgrace.”  Later, when Zorba shares his wartime experiences with the narrator, his blithe philosophy collapses and he becomes tragic.

Zorba the Greek is the story of a beautiful friendship between opposites:  the scholar and the proletariat; the monk and the Lothario;  the ascetic and the hedonist;  the thinker and the doer.  By not naming the narrator, Kazantzakis further contrasts him from Zorba, the man of action who dances when sharing his most vital stories.  He dances his joy, his sorrow, his love, his anger, his courage, his fear, his past, present, and future.  The narrator is so moved by Zorba’s language of dance that he joins in and the two bond at a spiritual level.  When they part ways at the end of their time on the island of Crete, the narrator cannot permit himself to express the depth of his feelings of love and loss.  Zorba, for his part, has no use for emotional farewells and simply walks away to whatever comes next.  His parting words to the narrator are “The highest point a man can obtain is not Knowledge, or Virtue, or Goodness, or Victory, but something even greater, more heroic and more despairing:  Sacred Awe!”  It is only in recognizing how small we are in relation to the universe that we understand the true nature of God.

Copyright 2013 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved