One of literary history’s most under-appreciated work of art, written by a Greek nomad who couldn’t get farther away from Greece if he had emigrated to Saturn. Nikos Kazantzakis was a Nietzschean, a Buddhist, an adventurer, writer of the beautifully profane The Last Temptation of Christ. In Zorba the Greek he has written an Epicurean masterpiece.
Novels are unique art forms. They use the infinite malleability of words to create something that doesn’t exist in order to bring to life something real and true. Novels are the most long-winded path towards veracity. That is why we weep for Anna Karenina or loathe Captain Ahab or cannot stomach Raskolnikov. Few novels are so bereft of action and drama and yet so full of life as Zorba the Greek.
Zorba the Greek is the perfect novel because it makes you want to stop reading it! It makes you want to go for a starlit swim, to go dance with your dearest friends, to worship a woman by loving her triumphantly – or just to have a roasted chestnut. “I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else.” In lines – verses – such as these the narrator, the boss, delves into an Epicurean truth: “He who is not satisfied with a little, is satisfied with nothing .”
Zorba the Greek is the perfect novel because it is not a novel. It is a travel book. A life lived within the unbounded confines of language. It is a philosophical treatise on the redundancy of philosophy. The narrator is a self-confessed book-lover, eager to find the meaning of life in the pages of Buddha and the like. Then he meets Zorba, a 65-year-old Macedonian who has lived a life fuller than us mere readers could dare imagine. He is a strong man, fit, talented, charming; a great lover of women, wine, war, friendship and all of life itself. According to the narrator Zorba has that greatest of gifts, he looks at everything as if he is seeing it for the first time. He is excited by everything and he shows the narrator that to live one doesn’t need books: one needs life. No, this is not a novel.
This great frugal, socialist novel is also one of the most powerful intellectual works of the century. It doesn’t shy away from existential, metaphysical quandaries, and even takes on God. But always, whatever it takes on and discusses, it does so with the freshness of the sea and the smell of rain pattering on the soil. “Once more there sounded within me the terrible warning that there is only one life for all men, that there is no other and that all that can be enjoyed must be enjoyed here. In eternity no other chance will be given to us.” This is existentialism from the edge of existence. It does what a novel ought always to do: enlighten. And Zorba the Greek enlightens via maddening inspiration.
Structurally the novel is self-indulgent. There is little plot, and the novel is situated in one hut, next to a small village in Crete, near a beach and a mountain. Throughout the streaming course of the novel you begin to feel as if that beach, that hut, that mountain – is yours and yours alone. The descriptions are so numinous that you imagine yourself eating lamb and drinking wine with Zorba and the boss. And as a quick footnote: this is the perfect novel because when you finish it you feel a great, long-distance sadness. As if you’ve been on holiday and when you close the book the holiday is over. It is a novel to be lived not read.
Despite its loose structure there are still moments of great tragedy in the novel. Such as the moment when the villagers turn on a beautiful widow whom they see as a devil; one of the men, whose son committed suicide on her account, succeeds (after a great scrap with Zorba) to cut off the woman’s head in the village square. A heart-rendingly ISIS moment in the midst of this Olympian tale. Also, one suspects that this is Kazantzakis’ condemnation of the provincial Greek and his idle, hypocritical life. There is also the scene when Bouboulina, an old Frenchwoman who Zorba very comically and very indulgingly agrees to marry, succumbs to illness and dies with a sickening whimper. Soon after the hotel she owns is ravaged and looted by the villagers and all Zorba can take away with him is her old parrot.
But Greek Tragedies aside, the novel is filled with uproarious laughter and humour and one can just hear Zorba’s booming, zestful laughter billowing through the pages. Zorba’s humour always seems to underlie a great moral truth. He reminds us of those old uncles we know, that speak wisdom packaged in aging madness. At first you think they’re misogynistic, racist or just out of it. But on second deliberation you find yourself hungry for more of their truths. “There is only one sin god will not forgive Boss, and that is to deny a woman who is in wanting.” Who is Zorba to speak for God? But of course, this entire novel is Zorba’s Bible. His gospel. The Gospel According to Zorba. Amen. “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!…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!”
Zorba is an Epicurean overdosing on hedonism. And I am tempted to say that we stand to learn a great many thing from him. I would even dare to say that the world would be a richer place if we indulged in his kind of poverty. But then I remember and I stop myself: Zorba has nothing to teach except life! The whole novel is a play that enacts frugal good living to the optimum, played out on a beautiful Cretan coast full of sun, mountains and white-baked villages. Zorba the Greek is the perfect novel because it does what it does (enlighten, inspire, entertain) by really showing and not lecturing.
And Zorba the Greek, finally, is the perfect novel because it inspired one of the greatest scenes in film history. The moment when the project Zorba had been working on collapses breaks and fails. The moment when Zorba begins to laugh and the narrator, the boss, asks Zorba to teach him how to dance. Zorba is then made to speak the most madly eloquent phrase in literary and cinematic history: “A man needs a little madness or else he never dares cut the rope and be free.” And then, they dance!
And then, we all danced!