Woe to him who cannot free himself from Buddhas, Gods, Motherlands and Ideas.
- Nikos Kazantzakis
Though this book hardly needs yet another review, I felt an overwhelming urge to pick up the pen, errrrh, slide out the keyboard, for Kazantzakis has wonderfully demonstrated the old truth: life is pitiless, terrible and beautiful, and we have no owner's manual.
Everyone has heard of Nikos Kazantzakis' (1883-1957) Zorba the Greek,(*) due largely, I suspect, to the well known movie Hollywood made of the book. Unfortunately, such a circumstance is well suited to cause me to make a wide detour around the book. Sometimes such a prejudice leads one into error, and this is such an instance.
Zorba is, first of all, a meeting of two extreme modes of living: the self-reflective, reserved, somewhat bloodless life of a young, middle class intellectual who is, to maximize the contrast, also awash with certain life-renouncing ideas he culled from a study of Buddhism; and the untrammeled, sensual, instinctive life of an elderly man of the people. The former narrates the story, admires and envies the latter, Zorba, immeasurably, but finds it difficult to emulate the old goat. Fascinated by Zorba's nature, he is nonetheless torn between conflicting ideas and urges. But then, so is Zorba himself. Granted, Zorba is not torn between the world of the intellect and ideals and that of his very, very corporeal existence, but he, too, is sometimes uncertain, contradicts himself from one moment to the next and often does so with total certitude, as does the narrator. Mixed into this central confrontation are cameos of other lives, other ways of existence, other conflicted and contradictory ways of life.
Alongside this portrayal of mankind as a confused, self-conflicted mass of mutually contradictory lives all bound for the same place - the grave - Kazantzakis gives us a vivid picture of his native Crete early in the 20th century, how it looked, smelled and tasted, how its people lived and acted.(**)
The narrator has come into an inheritance and, perhaps because he didn't earn the money himself or because he had internalized Buddhistic detachment to such things, he planned to dispense the money in order to acquire some experience in the world outside of the universities and cafes of Athens. Zorba's sudden appearance was just what he needed, and though Zorba would surely have continued through his life as before without the narrator's admiration and funds, he respects and sometimes pities the narrator and spends his money freely. They live in a hut made of petrol cans with glassless window openings on the southern Cretan coast and try to make a go of a small coal mine and logging operation. And they talk and eat and sing and dance and talk. Zorba does by far the most of this; the narrator listens and watches, as do we. Though I did not always share the narrator's admiration for the profundity of Zorba's talk, it did always sweep me along with its colorful and sometimes surprising flow.
The main female characters are women without husbands, women who were (are?) the focal points in Mediterranean societies of sexual fantasies and aggressions.(**) They try to make the best of things, but tragedy surrounds and ultimately besets them. The human vultures who gathered at Hortense's deathbed were wrenching and totally convincing.
A great deal of truth garbed in richly coruscating language. That is a winning combination for me. Perhaps Kazantzakis' characters are larger than life, but I fear that it is we in our sanitized, uniformized, consumerized, over-regulated, hyperbureaucratic urban world who have become smaller than life.
(*) Zorba was first published in 1946, so Kazantzakis wrote it in his sixties, a summa of his lifelong occupation with life itself.
(**) That a rural, poor and uneducated community at that place and time did not conform with early 21st century, first world views of the social standing of women seems to disturb some of Zorba's readers. Particularly the role of widows is tragic. But throughout the Mediterranean basin, and apparently for thousands of years, widows and young, unmarried women who were not protected by their male relatives were irritating challenges to the social order and became obsessive focuses of sexual frustration and not always withheld sexual predation. How can one criticize Kazantzakis for remaining true to life there as well?