By Nikos Kanantzakis.
Translated from the Greek Vios kai poloteia tou Alexe Zormpa by Carl Wildman
311 pages
New York: Schribner Paperback fiction, 1996
ISBN: 0-684-82554-6

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2001

This is the third time I've read this classic by Nikos Kazantzakis, and I've seen the film version well over a dozen times. It continues to inform, challenge and entertain.

The unnamed narrator is on his way to Crete to escape his books and become a capitalist, mining coal in a small rented mine located in a tiny village. Alexis Zorba asks to be taken along. He'll work, cooking soups, and even has mining skills. The narrator decides to take the risk and is off on the greatest adventure of his life.

Zorba is the quintessential free spirit. He's missing one finger which he chopped off himself since it was getting in the way of his pottery work. Just chopped it off, endured the pain and went on making pottery. That sort of symbolizes his way to be in the world. He follows his passions, passions of the moment, and suffers great pain in the service of the intense pleasures which accompany his acts. Without doubt Zorba's greatest passion is for women and he has had countless sexual experiences, one real marriage, two other sort of marriages and hundreds of one-night stands. Zorba regards the greatest sin of which man is capable to be not going to the bed of a woman who calls him.

However, on Crete Zorba has other real jobs. He and "Boss" as he calls his benefactor, live in a small hut near the mine. Zorba is the mine boss, then does indeed do the cooking for the two. Unofficially, however, he educates his university-educated book-writing Boss on the realities of life, human existence, freedom and love. The Boss pelts Zorba with questions of his life and views Zorba as his own Sinbad the Sailor who tells stories of his life. Zorba also communicates with his santuri, a tinny sounding string instrument, and, when all else fails, with dance. He dances like a man possessed and communicates in the eruption of emotion which empties Zorba like a balloon popped.

Zorba told the Boss at their first meeting that he also tends to destroy nearly everything he touches, and he manages to wreck the Boss' dreams of becoming a successful capitalist. The mine is making some headway, but needs stronger beams to hold the roof. In trying to figure how to get the beams, Zorba concocts a hair-brained scheme to build a sort of ski lift to get trees from a near-by mountain, and then they will not only have the beams for a successful mine, but a lumber business to boot. The scheme fails and bankrupts the Boss ending their time together.

Along the way however, Boss gets what he's really wanted -- an education on how to live and value. Zorba gets another experience and another woman for his time.

There isn't all that much to the story, the essence of the book is Zorba, his being, his notion of life, his way to be and act.

Zorba accepts the world as it is, both the natural world and human world. When he is telling the Boss of his love of the santuri he tells how he lived with an old Turk learning to play the instrument. He went to him, knowing his fame as a teacher. Zorba had no money, only the instrument itself and great passion for playing. The Turk took him in and trained him for a full year. Zorba allows how he loved his man more than any other he had every known. And then says: "If Gods lets dogs enter his paradise, let him open his gate to Retsep Effendi." Zorba can both love Effendi and still accept that in this world, God has made it such that as a Turk his is no more than a dog whom God may or may not admit into his kingdom.

Later on Zorba allows that he himself went though years of warring when he killed men simply because they were Turk or Kurd or whatever, but that he finally learned that a man is simply as man and some are good and some are bad. But he never really challenges the standard prejudices of his time.

Unquestionably his most obnoxious fixation is the view he has of women. They are simply weak things there for sexual pleasure and vexation of men. Zorba uses them like he would a hammer or mule, though all three, woman, hammer and mule, Zorba would treat with care and concern.

The Boss has a rather typical idealist's passion for educating people and challenging their traditional way of being. Zorba is opposed to this since he believes most people are simply not capable of such change and trying to move them will only hurt them. He tells the Boss:

"Just go now and teach them that women have equal rights with men, and that it's cruel to eat a piece of the pig while the pig's still raw and groaning in front of you, and that it's simple lunacy to give thanks to God because he's got everything while you're starving to death! What good'll that poor devil Anagnosti get out of all your explanatory humbug? You'd only cause him a lot of bother. And what'd old mother Anagnosti get out of it? The fat would be in the fire: family rows would start, the hen would want to be cock, they would just have a good set-to and make their feathers fly….! Let people be, boss; don't open their eyes. And supposing you did, what'd they see? Their misery! Leave their eyes closed, boss, and let them go on dreaming!"

Nonetheless, Zorba can't get enough of the Boss' wisdom, or rather, of getting frustrated with him because he can't answer questions. Zorba asks all the traditional impossible questions: Why is their suffering? Why do humans exist? How can their ever be peace? Toward the end of the novel Zorba presses again. He asks: "I want you to tell me where we come from and where we are going to. During all those years you've been burning yourself up consuming their black books of magic, you must have chewed over about fifty tons of paper! What did you get out of them?" The Boss answers this time in a way that touches Zorba:

"We are little grubs, Zorba, minute grubs on the small leaf of a tremendous tree. The small leaf is the earth. The other leaves are the stars that you see moving at night. We make our way on this little leaf examining it anxiously and carefully. We smell it; it smells good or bad to us. We taste it and find it eatable. We beat on it and it cries out like a living thing.

"Some men -- the more intrepid ones -- reach the edge of the leaf. From there we stretch out, gazing into chaos. We tremble. We guess what a frightening abyss lies beneath us. In the distance we can hear the noise of the other leaves of the tremendous tree, we feel the sap rising from the root of our leaf and our hearts swell. Bent thus over the awe-inspiring abyss, with all our bodies and all our souls, we tremble with terror. From that moment begins…"

"I stopped. I wanted to say "from that moment begins poetry," but Zorba would not have understood. I stopped.

"'What begins'? asked Zorba's anxious voice. 'Why did you stop'?

"…begins the great danger, Zorba. Some grow dizzy and delirious, others are afraid; they try to find an answer to strengthen their hearts, and they say: 'God'! Others again, from the edge of the leaf, look over the precipice calmly and bravely and say: 'I like it.'!

In the end Zorba never changes, but the Boss comes away from the time on Crete a new person. He turns back to his books, but he has learned from Zorba, learned to dance, to experience passion, to embrace and accept life as it exists. He has come toward the edge of the leaf and he, himself, likes it.

The novel itself is his testament to Zorba. After Zorba dies a few years later he decides to tell the story of his meeting with Zorba, his days on Crete and what he learned from this sage who embraced life with full passion and lived everyday as though it were his last.

Kazantzakis writes with clarity and passion, telling a story which grips us and challenges the most traditional person to look inside and see what passions are being bottled up as the Boss' traditional life had done him. He may not draw us out, that's perhaps a task that can't be achieved for many. But it's hard for me to imagine anyone coming away from this novel without some glimmer of a world either lost, or buried, perhaps to be found or resurrected with courage and the willingness to learn to dance.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu