Zorba the Greek is a picaresque novel by Nikos Kazantzakis that supposedly is based on a real man that Kazantzakis knew. Zorba is an old Greek working man who insinuates himself into the journey of a young well-to-do intellectual Greek fellow who is travelling to Crete to take up ownership of a coal mine there. Their business venture and various adventures together are the story line of the book. But the story is the apprenticeship of the bookish young man under the tutelage of Zorba. And the craft he is learning is how to be a free man.
Kazantzakis was fascinated by philosophy and the spiritual life of the modern world. Being an atheist, he was always searching for meaning and truth. I’ve read a number of his books. None of them speak to me except Zorba. And the character in Zorba the Greek that represents Kazantzakis, the young intellectual, I do not find interesting. Zorba is the whole story. When he leaves the scene, I lose interest.
Zorba is a larger than life character that within the confines of his workingman’s world has lived many of the most intense experiences. He has been a guerilla warrior in the Greek wars against the Turks and the Bulgarians. He has been a musician, a craftsman, a laborer, a business man and an engineer. And he has had a life-long career as a Casanova. But at the basis of Zorba’s personality is his conviction that the only real wealth a man has is his free will. And that is what he tries to teach the young intellectual. A man is never free until he can throw away everything he has to follow a whim. If he can’t do that, then he is a slave to whatever things hold him back. And he includes wealth, family, patriotism and fear in that category.
Whether Zorba’s beliefs are consistent or even logical I’ll put aside. The book has many moments that are comical, moving, thought provoking or some combination of the above. The details of Cretan peasant life are picturesque but if accurate point to a primitive existence that verges on the barbaric. But this primal landscape provides scope for the larger than life exploits of Zorba.
And no matter how things turn out, no matter how fate conspires against Zorba, he is completely undaunted. He moves forward and latches onto the next day and the people and things around him and puts together some new mad plan to conquer the world, or at least his world. And that is the greatest charm of the book. To meet a man who has an unquenchable appetite for life. To meet someone who loves life at the visceral level. Who sees everything as if for the first time. Sees, hears, smells, tastes and touches things as if he were the first man in the world to do so. That is the charm if you can imagine it. That’s what makes it a perfect summer book for me. At least the parts with Zorba in center stage.
So how does the apprenticeship go? Well the young man will never be Zorba and at the end of the book he fails the test that Zorba gives him. But without a doubt his life has been enriched and his outlook has been broadened by knowing and surviving this catastrophic character.