Reading Nikos Kazantzakis’ classic Zorba the Greek for the first time was like stumbling upon a canteen filled with fresh water after wandering, lost and thirsty in the desert for days.
My first impulse was to greedily devour the whole thing, to pour it over myself and revel in it without restraint. But, at the same, I know that once it’s gone, there won’t be any more.
It’s a special kind of painful ecstasy, reading a life-changing novel for the first time. With every page you turn, the looming terror of that final page grows stronger, more tangible.
As I sit down to write this review, I find myself inspired, astounded…and more than just a little bit heartbroken.
Zorba the Greek
by Nikos Kazantzakis
Published in 1946
Where do I even begin to write about this intense, tight little knot of a novel?
Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek is an intoxicating journey beyond language, to a realm of pure emotion; pure life.
By its very nature, Zorba is difficult to define. It’s so slippery, trying to catch it and hold it still is like trying to grab a bar of soap floating in a bathtub. Just when you think you’ve got it – whoops! – it’s gone again.
Zorba the Greek begins with our forlorn, bookish narrator sitting in a café, thumbing through the pages of a well-worn novel. As he searches for some warm, familiar words to comfort him in his misery, he is approached by a bright-eyed old man; a stranger looking for work. He is a miner, a cook, a musician, a father. His name is Alexis Zorba.
Our narrator abandons his novel and, as he and Zorba begin to speak, a friendship blossoms.
Zorba and our narrator travel to Crete, where they live in a shack by the ocean and manage a coal mine. The two have great plans to establish a complicated system of cables and pulleys to bring felled trees down from the mountains to the coast. But Zorba isn’t a novel about mining, forestry or engineering. All that is a decoy. Zorba the Greek is a novel about friendship.
While Zorba has romanced countless women, fought in wars and travelled the world, our young narrator (who is never named) is monk-like. His experience of life comes from books –
“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” (p. 110)
As the two men grow closer, little by little, Zorba reveals to our narrator the story of his amazing life. Zorba speaks of war, religion, love. And, when the words run out – when the sorrow or the joy becomes too great to express, the dance begins:
“[Zorba] threw himself into the dance, clapping his hands, leaping and pirouetting in the air, falling on to his knees, leaping again with his legs tucked up – it was as if he were made of rubber. He suddenly made tremendous bounds into the air, as if he wished to conquer the laws of nature and fly away. One felt that in this old body of his there was a soul struggling to carry away this flesh and cast itself like a meteor into the darkness…” (p. 76)
Gradually, though Zorba’s stories, and through his own experiences, our narrator learns to appreciate the sensual world, the world beyond words and books. He learns to dance for himself.
Of course, it’s Zorba himself that makes Kazantzakis’ novel the true classic it is. Zorba is a walking contradiction; portrayed one moment as an almost child-like figure and the next as anything but naïve. Kazantzakis plays tricks on the reader, showing us in one chapter a Zorba feeble with age, then in another chapter, a sly, sprightly Zorba. On every page, he is a new man. He is almost mystically connected to the earth when he’s underground, in his mine, a connection he loses completely when he’s in the mountains. Our narrator likens Zorba to God, the Devil, Buddha and Zeus – and, in a way, Zorba shares traits with all of them.
Alexis Zorba is larger than the pages of this mere novel allow. He spills forth from the paper and ink and into your consciousness. Despite all of Kazantzakis’ contradictions, Zorba is a perfectly-formed character. As you read, you’ll form a distinct image of him – the grey of his hair, the sound of his voice, the way he moves when he plays the santuri. For me, at least, Zorba is quite real. His words still resonate in my thoughts.
Our narrator, however, is portrayed in quite the opposite manner – we know very little about him. Kazantzakis doesn’t even give him a name. But somehow, this technique works too. I find myself able to identify with this bookish young soul.
Kazantzakis’ writing is imbued with poetry. There are so many astonishing turns of phrase that I’ve dogeared my poor copy of Zorba within an inch of its life. Every page contains a sparkling thought. So many times, I had to force myself to stop reading for a moment and simply let Kazantzakis’ words sink into my soul.
Yet Zorba the Greek is not a perfect novel. There’s a whole section of the plot that, at least on my first reading, I found a little puzzling. I’m hoping that, on future readings, this will click into place. It might not be perfect, but it is nonetheless one of the most amazing pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered.
It’s very important that you don’t mistake this novel for something it isn’t. Zorba the Greek is not a pretty book. It’s tragic, brutal, honest – even offensive at times. Some of Zorba’s revelations about his past will shock you. He’s not always a likeable character. Our narrator even has his own moral flaws.
While Zorba might not be a pretty book, it is undeniably a beautiful book. It’s that rare thing – a novel that inspires you to be a better person.
This unassuming little book has incredible power. Zorba the Greek will change your life. It has the power to heal, to inspire. Zorba will make you feel joyous, it will make you feel sorrowful – it will make you dance.
Zorba the Greek will take you to that place beyond words.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Yes. In fact, you should read this novel once a year. I’m planning to. Kazantzakis is a man after my own heart.
In a word: