On Living Life to the Fullest

In the vaunted halls of Greek literature, one name looms above all. Born in 1883, Cretan Nikos Kazantzakis has proven himself one of the most distinguished names, not just in his locality of Greece, but also in the grander vistas of world literature. With his extensive resume as a playwright, translator, poet, memoirist, essayist, and travel writer, Kazantzakis has showcased to the world the vast expanse of his skills as a writer. His versatility and talents were widely recognized by literary critics and scholars. He was also acknowledged by his fellow writers, such as Thomas Mann, and Albert Camus. However, Kazantzakis was more widely recognized for his novels, such as O Khristós Xanastavrónetai (The Greek Passion, 1954), and O televtaíos pirasmós (The Last Temptation of Christ, 1955). For its controversial subject, the latter was banned by both the Catholic and the Greek Orthodox Churches.

Situated among the Titans in Kazantzakis’ extensive resume is another highly-heralded work. Originally published in 1946 as Víos kai Politeía tou Aléxē Zorbá (Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas), Zorba the Greek was one of his first novels. By the time the novel was published, Kazantzakis has already established himself as a prolific writer and translator. Nevertheless, Zorba the Greek established Kazantzakis’ status as a novelist and further cemented his legacy as one of Greece’s most prominent and important writers. The success of Zorba the Greek would also be the precursor to Kazantzakis’ highly successful career as a novelist later in his life.

Zorba The Greek commenced in a cafe in Piraeus, a port city adjacent to the Greek capital. The novel’s primary narrator, a young scholarly Greek, was contemplating how to move forward with his life following the departure of his closest friend for the Russian Caucasus on a mission to help their fellow Greeks who are “in danger” of persecution. A feeling of moroseness seized the young Greek; he was shaken and stung by his friend’s parting words: “Mind you, I haven’t the slightest belief in telepathy and all that….” (Kazantzakis/Wildman, 1953/1996: 7) For a change of scenery, he planned to depart for Crete and re-open an idle lignite mine. In changing his usual scene, he was also hoping to meld into the local atmosphere, to gain a better understanding of the world of the peasants.

“Free yourself from one passion to be dominated by another and nobler one. But is not that, too, a form of slavery? To sacrifice oneself to an idea, to a race, to God? Or does it mean that the highger the model the longer the tether of our slavery? Then we can enjoy ourselves and frolic in a more spacious arena and die without having come to the end of the tether. Is that, then, what we call liberty?"

~ Nikos Katantzakis, Zorba the Greek

The book’s primary narrator is of the intellectual type, a young man drawn into the world of books and literature. It came as no surprise when he referred to Dante’s Inferno as his traveling companion. When he was about to resume reading the book, he suddenly felt disturbed, “I felt as if two eyes were boring into the top of my skull” (Kazantzakis/Wildman, 1953/1996: 9). As fate would have it, the pair of two eyes belonged to a man of about sixty years of age. As they strike a conversation, the young man was immediately riveted by this stranger who forced his way into his life. The man, who introduced himself as Alexis Zorba, was also straightforward with his intentions. A Greek born in Macedonia, he was in search of employment and he was hoping that the young man would provide grant it to him. With his vast experience living in different parts of Europe, he has become some sort of an authority in different subjects, a jack-of-all-trades.

On their way to Crete, their conversation got longer as they covered a bevy of subjects. The young man slowly found himself being absorbed into Zorba’s world of tall tales. He was reeled in by Zorba’s transparency and the vastness of his experience. Zorba’s peripatetic existence made the narrator compare him to Sinbad the Sailor. He hired Zorba to be the mine’s supervising foreman. When the mine opened, Zorba was instrumental in inculcating life lessons to the young man he fondly referred to as “Boss”. One lesson Zorba imparted to his boss pertains to the attempts of the narrator, a socialist by nature, to know his workers. Zorba warned him about man’s brutish nature, that one must impose his authority in order for him to be respected, and feared. Any attempts at kindness were seen as projections of innate weaknesses that can be exploited.

The novel followed no singular plotline. Kazantzakis, nevertheless, engaged the readers with the interactions between Zorba and the scholarly young man. Their conversations, which cover a vast area of subjects, make up the heft of the novel. As the story moved forward, Zorba started evolving into a life coach, or a mentor for the young man. He has opinions on nearly everything and he openly shared these thoughts with his boss who often found them either fascinating, entertaining, or insightful. The relationship between Zorba and the young man showed aspects of hero worship. The story also followed how they interact with the other members of the village, in particular with Madame Hortense, the hotel owner who Zorba gave the pet name “Bouboulina”.

In our life, we meet people who will leave a lasting impression on us, who will challenge the way we see the world but, at the same time, provide us a new lens upon which to study it. And for the novel’s narrator, it came in the form of the titular Zorba. The mentor-mentee relationship forged by Zorba and the young man made philosophical intersections rife in the story. In these intersections, we find the two main characters discussing subjects such as women, infidelity, fetishism, religion, and life in general. In these discourses, it was palpable how the personalities of the two characters are contrasted. Zorba epitomized the realistic and practical. His understanding of the world was earned through his experiences, from his travels around the world to his life as a former soldier killing Turks in Greece and Bulgars in the Balkans. The young man, meanwhile, was Zorba’s antithesis. He is bookish and widely read. His judgments were based on what he has read.

“I think, Zorba – but I may be wrong – that there are three kinds of men: those who make it their aim, as they say, to live their lives, eat, drink, make love, grow rich, and famous; then come those who make it their aim not to live their own lives but to concern themselves with the lives of all men – they feel that all men are one and they try to enlighten them, to love them as much as they can and do good to them; finally, there are those who aim at living the life of the entire universe – everything, men, animals, trees, stars, we are all one, we are all one substance involved in the same terrible struggle. What struggle?… Turning matter into spirit.”

~ Nikos Katantzakis, Zorba the Greek

It was philosophical intersections that made the novel flourish, providing it with a lush mantle. However, there was a palpable inclination towards Zorba and his brand of philosophies. In the context of the contemporary, some of his philosophies are neither apt nor acceptable. In particular, his views on women were abhorrent and archaic. He viewed women as weak and simple creatures who were incapable of processing complex emotions and views: “I’ve seen all sorts and I’ve done all kinds of things… A woman has nothing else in view. She’s a sickly creature, I tell you, and fretful. If you don’t tell her you love and want her, she starts crying. Maybe she doesn’t want you at all, maybe you disgust her, maybe she says no. THat’s another story. But all men who see her must desire her. That’s what she wants, the poor creature, so you might try and please her.”

With Zorba’s stilted view on women, misogyny turned into a central theme of the story, perhaps even without Kazintzakis’ own design. Women and feminity were leitmotifs, subjects that often trickled into the conversations between the two protagonists. Several dichotomies between women and men were interspersed into their discussions: “Daytime is a man. The nighttime’s for enjoying yourself. Night is a woman.” While this can be seen as an offshoot of the period Zorba was raised in, his view on women nevertheless was one of the most contentious facets of the novel and its philosophy. Zorba refused to cry in front of women for he feels that any signs of male vulnerability will make the “weaker” sex feel even weaker. In contrast, he has no qualms about showing his emotions in front of men. What also came to the fore was the level of toxic masculinity that was prevalent in the early half of the 20th century.

Zorba and his larger-than-life persona loomed large in the narrative. At the heart of it, his philosophy can be captured in a couple of words: living one’s life to the fullest. Zorba’s life philosophy was summarily captured by the popular millennial acronym YOLO. Zorba was its epitome for he reveled in all the best things that life has to offer, such as wine, women, music, to dance. He has traveled all over the world and he has sired a child in nearly every place he stayed. He lusted for life. However, Zorba was not reduced into a monochromatic personality for his psychological profile has demonstrated complexities. While his tendency to be self-indulgent was one of the novel’s key elements, he also valued honesty and hard work. He took his craft seriously and he knows where to draw the line between personal and professional relationships. He was simply larger than life and the young man cannot hide his admiration for his newfound friend.

The young man and primary narrator, in a way, was the antithesis of Zorba. He mostly came across as passive. He spends his days reading although he dreams of establishing a Buddhist monastery and a community of scholars and artists. Buddhism, of course, was a philosophy that directly contrasted Zorba’s worldview centered on his lust for life. While the young man was made of dreams, he still largely relied on Zorba and his opinions. Zorba was slowly drawing him out of his cave, making him let loose. Zorba’s presence, however, tended to mute the voice of the primary narrator. The story also had some undertones of homoeroticism, which was exhibited in the young man’s relationship with his dear friend, Stravridaki. They have a lifelong bond and they even promised to love each other. A letter that the young man received from his friend expounded on their unusual relationship. There were allusions to a deeper relationship but the story did not reveal more details.

“Luckless man has raised what he thinks is an impassable barrier round his poor little existence. He takes refuge there and tries to bring a little order and security into his life. A little happiness. Everything must follow the beaten track, the sacrosanct routine, and comply with safe and simple rules. Inside the enclosure, fortified against the fierce attacks of the unknown, his petty certainties, crawling about like centipedes, go unchallenged. There is only one formidable enemy mortally feared and hated: the Great Certainty. Now this Great Certainty had penetrated the outer walls of my existence and was ready to pounce upon my soul.”

~ Nikos Katantzakis, Zorba the Greek

At its heart, Zorba the Greek is an autobiographical work predicated on the author’s own mining venture in Crete in 1917. Through this venture, he came across George Zorbas, a miner who eventually became his close friend. Zorbas was the inspiration for Alexis Zorba, the titular Zorba the Greek. The novel vividly portrayed the admiration that Kazantzakis had for his friend. He was a novelty and his free-spiritedness made the novel flourish. In a manner of speaking, the anonymous narrator, the scholarly Greek young man, was the author’s alter ego. Kazantzakis managed to project his admiration for his friend through the young man.

Zorba the Greek is a lush narrative that reminds us to live our life to the fullest. He reminds us that there is a bigger world beyond our boxes, beyond our comfort zones. Life is meant to be experienced and lived, not simply studied and seen through small lenses. In the millennials’ parlance, Zorba’s worldview is the application of the YOLO philosophy. While the novel was bereft of a plotline, it nevertheless reeled the readers in with its larger-than-life character and his philosophies. The novel provided an insightful study between a scholarly understanding of the world and the realistic and practical views gained through experiences. Zorba is, without a doubt, a memorable literary character. The passage of time did not slow him down nor did it adversely affect his zest for life. His philosophies made the heft of the story although they were not always conclusive, nor were they always life-affirming. Some are no longer even acceptable by today’s standards. However, his views challenged our own and makes us reflect on our own worldviews.

Ratings

84%

Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 22%
Writing (25%) – 23%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
13%

I kept encountering Zorba the Greek in booksellers. However, I bypassed it because I thought that it was a nonfiction work. The writer, Nikos Kazantzakis, also barely rang any bell of familiarity. Things changed when I learned that Zorba the Greek is a fictional work and that it was even listed as one of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. I also learned that Kazantzakis was the writer of The Last Temptation of Christ, which I first came across through its film adaptation. I didn’t realize that the movie was adapted from a book. To cut a long story short, I immediately bought a copy of Zorba the Greek, and, without more ado, I included it as part of my 2021 Top 21 Reading List; this is to ensure that I get to read it this year. Thankfully, I managed to do so. There was not much happening in the story but I was riveted by the mentor-mentee relationship that was forged by the anonymous narrator and Zorba. While the narrator was bookish, Zorba was practical and his natural responses were grounded on his experiences. There are parts that I disagreed with, especially the way women were portrayed by Zorba, but it was still a delightful reading experience. And yes, there is more to life than the boxes we fit ourselves in. It is one of my favorite reads of the year.

Book Specs

Author: Nikos Kazantzakis
Translator (from Greek): Carl Wildman
Publisher: Scribner Paperback Fiction
Publishing Date: 1996
Number of Pages: 311
Genre: Philosophical

Synopsis

Zorba the Greek is the story of a Greek workman who accompanies the narrator to Crete to work in a lignite mine and becomes the narrator’s greatest friend and inspiration. Zorba has been acclaimed as one of the truly memorable creations of literature – a character in the great tradition of Sinbad the Sailor, Falstaff, and Sancho Panza. He is a figure created on a huge scale. His years have not dimmed the gusto with which he responds to all that life offers him, whether he’s supervising laborers at a mine, confronting mad monks in a mountain monastery, embellishing the tales of his past adventures, or making love. Zorba’s life is rich with all the joys and sorrows that living brings, and this is one of the great life-affirming novels of our time.

About the Author

Nikos Kazantzakis (Νίκος Καζαντζάκης) was born on February 18, 1883, in Kandiye, Crete, Ottoman Empire (present-day Heraklion, Greece). From 1902 to 1906, he studied at the University of Athens, where he received his Doctor of Law degree. Following his graduation, he moved to Paris to study philosophy under the philosopher Henri Bergson at the Sorbonne. He also completed studies in literature and art during four other years in Germany and Italy. Kazantzakis has traveled widely before settling on the Greek island of Aegina before the Second World War. In 1945, he served as the Greek Minister of Education and was also the president of the Greek Society of Men of Letters. From 1947 to 1948, he worked under the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris.

Kazantzakis’ first published work was Serpent and Lily (Όφις και Κρίνο, 1906); it was published under the pseudonym Karma Nirvami. However, Kazantzakis was widely renowned for his novels. Among his popular works are Víos kai politía tou Aléxi Zormpá (Zorba the Greek, 1946), O Kapetán Mikhális (Freedom or Death, 1950), O Khristós Xanastavrónetai (The Greek Passion, 1954), and O televtaíos pirasmós (The Last Temptation of Christ, 1955). He was also a dramatist, translator, poet, and travel writer. He wrote memoirs, and philosophical essays such as The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises. However, the highest point of his literary career was the publication of The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, a book he worked on for over a decade. For the sheer extent of his literary influence, Kazantzakis was cited by many literary pundits and critics as one of the foremost writers of his time. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature an unprecedented nine times. In 1957, he lost the award to Albert Camus by a slim margin, a singular vote.

Kazantzakis spent the majority of his later years in Antibes, France. He passed away on October 26, 1957, in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany.