I’d only read one other Kazantzakis novel before this one, and that was The Last Temptation of Christ, which I thought was absolutely brilliant. I had thought about that novel recently and decided to check out another. Zorba The Greek was that novel. Originally published in Greece in 1946, this English language translation is from 1961 (I’m not sure whether or not it was published in English before then). Just from previewing the first few pages, I knew this was a novel that I had to experience and I’m glad I did because it’s an absolutely wonderful book.
The story takes place in the 1930s. It is a first person narrative of a Greek writer/intellectual who decides to leave his bookish life behind after being insulted by his good friend Stavridakis, who is about to travel to the Caucuses in order to help the Pontic Greeks who are being persecuted there. The narrator decides travel to Crete to reopen an lignite mine and immerse himself in Crete’s working class peasant life. He meets an older, free spirit named Alexis Zorba, a man with a zest for life and experience and the two agree to go into business together with regard to the mine. Immediately we see the difference between these two characters - the narrator the troubled, answer seeking intellectual (who’s working on a manuscript about Buddhism) and the illiterate, take life as it comes, live in the moment working class peasant who has absolutely no time or love for books or anything “intellectual”. He’s a man who desires to be free and freedom to him is not having any attachments of links to anything other than the moment.
But Zorba is not a stupid man by any means and he expresses himself in a variety of ways that have an effect on the young intellectual, who slowly begins to look at the vivacious Zorba as something of a “working class philosopher” who has more to say and more to teach the troubled man immersed in his theories and books. The two become great friends, nevertheless, an almost mentor-teacher relationship. However, the harsh, peasant life and the amorality of its citizens, coupled with tragedy and their business difficulties alienates the young intellectual, despite his growing appetite to be more like Zorba and detach himself from his former way of life.
Behind it all is also an exploration of post-Ottoman Greece and the lives of the people effected/influenced by it. There is quite a bit of interesting history here, of which Zorba had experienced and figures strongly into his personality and philosophy of life. At times the novel becomes heavily existential and thought provoking making for a challenging but highly entertaining read. Kazantzakis’s prose is wonderful, perfectly capturing the hot, Mediterranean climate in which the story is set. It’s not a “perfect” novel but it is most definitely a great one (it’s “imperfections” are solely based on my own personal tastes).
It is also said that Kazantzakis based the character of Zorba on an actual person he knew, a man named George Zorbas, who worked together, along with the author, in the mines and his experiences with George Zorbas was the impetus for the character in the novel.
A wonderful read and one I would highly recommend.