Zorba the Greek

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About The Book

A stunning new translation of the classic book—and basis for the beloved Oscar-winning film—brings the clarity and beauty of Kazantzakis’s language and story alive.

First published in 1946, Zorba the Greek, is, on one hand, the story of a Greek working man named Zorba, a passionate lover of life, the unnamed narrator who he accompanies to Crete to work in a lignite mine, and the men and women of the town where they settle. On the other hand it is the story of God and man, The Devil and the Saints; the struggle of men to find their souls and purpose in life and it is about love, courage and faith.

Zorba has been acclaimed as one of the truly memorable creations of literature—a character created on a huge scale in the tradition of Falstaff and Sancho Panza. His years have not dimmed the gusto and amazement with which he responds to all life offers him, whether he is working in the mine, confronting mad monks in a mountain monastery, embellishing the tales of his life or making love to avoid sin. Zorba’s life is rich with all the joys and sorrows that living brings and his example awakens in the narrator an understanding of the true meaning of humanity. This is one of the greatest life-affirming novels of our time.

Part of the modern literary canon, Zorba the Greek, has achieved widespread international acclaim and recognition. This new edition translated, directly from Kazantzakis’s Greek original, is a more faithful rendition of his original language, ideas, and story, and presents Zorba as the author meant him to be.

Excerpt

Zorba the Greek PROLOGUE


I often wished to write “The Saint’s Life of Alexis Zorba,” a laborer of advanced age whom I exceedingly loved.

The great benefactors in my life have been journeys and dreams. Very few people, dead or alive, have helped me in my struggles; yet if I wished to single out those individuals who did engrave their traces most deeply upon my soul, I would presumably designate these four: Homer, Bergson, Nietzsche, and Zorba.

The first was a serene, all-bright eye for me like the sun’s disk, illuminating everything with redemptive brightness. Bergson released me from insoluble philosophical anguishes that had tormented my early youth. Nietzsche enriched me with new anguishes and showed me how to transform misfortune, sorrow, and uncertainty into pride. Zorba taught me to love life and not to fear death.

If today I were to choose a spiritual guide from the whole wide world—a “guru,” as they say in India, a “venerable father” as the monks say at Mount Athos—the one I would choose without fail would be Zorba. He possessed precisely what a pen pusher needs for deliverance: the primitive glance that snatches nourishment lovingly from on high; the creative artlessness, renewed at each daybreak, that views everything unceasingly as though for the first time, bequeathing virginity to the everlastingly quotidian elements of wind, sea, fire, women, and bread; the sureness of hand, the freshness of heart, the gallant stalwart’s ability to poke fun at his own soul for seeming to harbor a power higher than the soul; finally, that wild, throaty laugh welling up from a source deeper than a man’s inner depths, a laugh that erupted redemptively at crucial moments from Zorba’s elderly chest, exploding with sufficient power to demolish (and did demolish) all the barricades—morality, religion, nationalism—erected around themselves by wretched, lily-livered humans to let them hobble securely through their diminished mini-lives.

I can hardly endure my rage and sorrow when I consider what nourishment my famished soul was fed by books and teachers for so many years, and then compare this to the leonine brainpower that Zorba fed me for just a few months. My life was fated to be ruined because I encountered this “venerable father” too late, when the portion of my inner self still capable of being saved was minimal. The great alteration—the definitive change of front, the “conflagration” and “renewal”—did not take place. The time was already too late. Thus Zorba, instead of becoming an exalted, authoritative model for my life, was sadly debased into a literary subject causing me to fill numerous sheets of paper with splotches!

The doleful privilege of turning life into art leads many flesh-eating souls to disaster because ardent passion departs the breast when it finds an outlet of this sort. In such a case the soul experiences relief. It no longer fumes with rage, no longer needs to fight breast to breast, to intervene directly in life or action. Instead, it is pleased to admire its ardent passion as it ascends like smoke rings in the breeze and fades away. The soul not only takes pleasure in this relief; it also grows proud, for it believes that it is accomplishing something grand by supposedly eternalizing the irreplaceable temporary moment, which alone possesses flesh and blood in limitless time. This is how Zorba, so full of flesh and bone, degenerated in my hands into paper and ink. Years ago, the Zorba story, without my wishing it to do so, and, indeed, wishing the opposite, began to crystallize within me. The mystic rites began deep inside me, a musical turbulence at first, a feverish delight and malaise, as though my organism, a foreign body having entered the bloodstream, were struggling to control and annihilate this story through assimilation. Words then began to speed around the nucleus, to encircle and nourish it like an embryo. Blurry memories became clear, sunken joys and sorrows rose to the surface, life was transposed into finer air—and Zorba became a tall tale.

I still lacked a clear notion of what form to give this tall Zorbatic tale: novel, poem, complex make-believe narrative from the Thousand and One Nights, or something matter-of-fact, dry, reproducing the conversations we had on the Cretan shoreline where we lived and were supposedly digging to find lignite. Both of us well knew that this practical purpose was just a smokescreen for the eyes of outside observers. Neither of us could wait for the sun to set, the workmen to leave, the two of us to stretch out on the sand, eat our delicious village food, drink our dry Cretan wine, and begin to talk.

Most of the time I said nothing. What could an intellectual say to an ogre? I would listen to him speak about his village near Mount Olympus, about snow, wolves, terrorists during the Balkan Wars, Hagia Sophia, lignite, magnesite, women, God, patriotism, death. Then, suddenly, when he was choking and no longer able to find room for words, he would leap up onto the beach’s rough shingle and start to dance.

An old man, erect and bony, his head thrown back, his fully round eyes as tiny as a bird’s, he would dance and shriek, stamping his callused soles on the shoreline, his face spattered with seawater.

If I had listened to his voice—not his voice, his outcry—my life would have become worthwhile. I would have experienced with blood, flesh, and bone what I now ponder like a hashish smoker and effectuate with paper and ink.

But I did not dare. I would see Zorba dancing at midnight with horse-like whinnies, bellowing at me to slip out of my comfortable shell of prudent habit and to flee with him on great journeys. But I remained motionless, shuddering.

Many times in my life I have been ashamed because I caught my soul not daring to do what supreme folly—life’s essence—was calling me to do. But never did I feel so ashamed of my soul as I did when in the presence of Zorba.

* * *

One morning we parted at daybreak. I headed abroad once again, suffering from the incurable Faustian disease of learning. He went north and settled near Skopia, in Serbia, where he apparently unearthed a rich vein of magnesite in a mountainside. He hooked a few investors, purchased tools, recruited workmen, and began once again to open up galleries in the earth. He dynamited boulders, constructed roads, brought water, built a house, and married—the lusty old codger!—married Lyuba, a frisky, good-looking widow, fathering a child with her.

One day when I was in Berlin I received a telegram: “FOUND MOST BEAUTIFUL GREEN STONE. COME IMMEDIATELY. ZORBA.”

Germany was then suffering from intense famine. The Papiermark had fallen so low that you carried sackfuls with millions in them to make a small purchase, and when you went to a restaurant to eat you opened your napkin, which was overfilled with paper currency, and emptied it onto the table in order to pay. The day came when ten billion Papiermarks were required for a postage stamp.

Hunger, cold, frayed jackets, tattered shoe soles, red German cheeks turned yellow. An autumn wind blew, and people fell in the streets like leaves. Infants were given a bit of rubber to gnaw as a ruse so they wouldn’t cry. Police patrolled the bridges over the river to prevent mothers from jumping in at night to save themselves by drowning.

It was winter, snowing. A German professor of Chinese in the room next to mine, in order to keep warm, clasped his long brush and attempted to copy some ancient Chinese poem or a Confucian maxim using the incommodious method of the Far East, by which the tip of the brush, the scholar’s delicately elevated elbow, and his heart were required to form a triangle. “After a few moments,” he used to tell me with pleasure, “sweat runs from my armpits and thus I feel warm.”

It was during those bitter-cold days that I received Zorba’s telegram. At first I was annoyed. Millions of people were humiliated and forced to their knees because they lacked a slice of bread to support their spirits and bones, and here comes a telegram telling me to travel a thousand miles to go see a beautiful green stone! “Curses on beauty!” I said to myself. “It is heartless, unable to sympathize with human suffering.” But suddenly I was frightened. My annoyance had already dissipated. I felt with horror that Zorba’s inhumane outcry was answering another inhumane outcry within myself. A savage vulture in me spread its wings, ready for departure.

But I did not depart. Once again, I did not dare. I did not board a train, did not obey the divinely ferocious internal outcry, did not perform a gallant, irrational deed. Following the sensible, frigid, human voice of reason, I took up my pen, wrote to Zorba, and explained.

He answered me: “Forgive me for saying this, Boss, but you are a pen pusher. You poor creep, you had the chance of a lifetime to see a beautiful green stone, and you didn’t see it. By God, sometimes when I have no work to do, I sit down and ask myself, ‘Is there a hell or isn’t there?’ But yesterday, when I received your letter, I said to myself, ‘There sure is a hell for certain pen pushers!’?”

* * *

Memories have begun to flow. They are jostling each other, hurrying. The time has come to put things in order, to start “The Saint’s Life of Alexis Zorba” from the beginning. Even the most insignificant events related to him gleam clearly, preciously, in my mind at this moment, darting swiftly like multicolored fish in summer’s diaphanous seawater. Nothing of his has been lost to me; everything Zorba touched seems to have become immortal. Yet these days I am suddenly worried. It has been two years since I received a letter from him. He is more than seventy years old; he may be in danger. Yes, he most certainly must be in danger; otherwise I cannot explain why I am governed by an abrupt need to reassemble whatever was his: to remember what he said to me and what he did, immobilizing everything on paper to prevent its disappearance—as though I wished to exorcise death, his death. I fear that what I am writing is not a book; it is a memorial.

Looking at it now, I realize that it contains all the characteristics of a memorial. The tray with its boiled wheat, the kollyva, is embellished with a thick sprinkling of sugar and the name “ALEXIS ZORBA” written on top with cinnamon and almonds. I look at this name and all at once the indigo-blue sea of Crete rises up, flooding my mind. Words, laughter, dancing, carousing, concerns, muted conversations at twilight, full, round eyes focused upon me forever with tender disdain as though welcoming me at every moment and also bidding me farewell at every moment.

Just as, when we view a decorated memorial tray, disparate memories hang like bunched-up bats in the cave of our heart, so Zorba’s ghost, without my desiring this, was complicated from the very start by another much-loved shade, Stassinakis, and behind it unexpectedly by still another, that of a fallen woman, Madame Hortense, kissed a thousand times, her hair dyed a thousand times, whom Zorba and I had met on a sandy Cretan beach by the Libyan Sea.

The human heart must surely be a grave that is closed and filled with blood. If it opens, all the inconsolable specters that continually multiply around us, darkening the air, run to it in order to drink, quench their thirst, and return to life. They run to drink our heart blood, knowing that no other resurrection exists.

In front of all the rest of them today runs Zorba with gigantic strides, pushing aside the other specters because he knows that the memorial taking place on this day is his own.

Let us therefore grant him our blood so that he may be revived.

Let us do our best to allow this amazing guzzler, swiller, workhorse, womanizer, and scalawag to remain alive just a little longer—the broadest soul, surest body,

freest outcry that I ever knew.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Zorba The Greek includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction

“Traveling?” he asked. “Where to, if you don’t mind?”
“Crete. Why do you ask?”
“Are you taking me with you?”


When the bookish, unnamed narrator of Zorba the Greek finds himself waiting for his ship to sail from Piraeus to Crete, he encounters an unremarkable figure who will fundamentally alter the course of his existence: Alexis Zorba, a sixty-something jack of all trades, santouri aficionado, and unapologetic lover of life. Immediately taken with the dynamism of his new companion, the narrator invites Zorba to join him on a journey to Crete to manage a lignite mine.

Once on Crete, Zorba and the narrator rent a shared room from Madame Ortense, an erstwhile courtesan and French emigré, whose romantic entanglement with Zorba serves as a diversion for both men. During breaks in Zorba’s work at the lignite mine and the narrator’s labors on a manuscript about Buddha, the two men engage in a wide-ranging dialogue about the true meaning of life, their theories about God, and the roles of women and men in society.

Zorba’s focus on living life to the fullest compels the narrator to examine his own life choices, and awakens in him a profound appreciation of the great contradictions inherent in human existence. This new English translation of Zorba the Greek brings these contradictions into brilliant relief.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. “This Zorba was precisely the person I had been seeking for such a long time and not finding: a vivacious heart, warm voice, a great unrefined, unsophisticated soul with its umbilical cord not yet severed from the earth.” (I) How would you describe Alexis Zorba’s chance encounter with the narrator in a café? In the course of his conversation with the narrator about his love for santouri, what integral elements of his personality does Zorba reveal?
 
2. To what extent is the narrator’s decision to rent a lignite mine in Crete an effort to escape from his life as a man of letters? What role does his friend, Stavridakis, play in the narrator’s choice to throw himself into “a life of action”? How does Alexis Zorba stand in as a surrogate for Stavridakis in the narrator’s life?
 
3. “I imagined this Madame Ortense to be the island’s queen, a sort of mustachioed, glistening seal that had been stranded half-rotted on this sandy beach thousands of years earlier, perfumed and happy.” (II) How does Madame Ortense in the flesh compare to the narrator’s vision of her? What accounts for Zorba’s attentiveness to Madame Ortense, whom he dubs Bouboulina? What traits do Zorba and Madame Ortense share that might enhance their romantic compatibility?
 
4. “One thing at a time in proper order. Right now we’ve got pilaf in front of us; let our minds be pilaf. Tomorrow we’ll have lignite in front of us, so let our minds, then, be lignite. No half-measures—understand?” (III) To what extent is Zorba’s ability to be fully absorbed in the present moment apparent in his exploits in Zorba the Greek? How might the narrator interpret Zorba’s pragmatism in light of his own focus on asceticism?
 
5. Why does Zorba reject the narrator’s efforts to become better acquainted with the workers at the lignite mine? In what ways are the narrator’s aims at odds with Zorba’s when it comes to the mine? How would each man define success in the context of the lignite mine?
 
6. “I believe in nothing and no one, only in Zorba. Not because Zorba is better than others, not at all—no, not at all! He, too, is a brute. But I believe in Zorba because he is the only person I have under my power, the only one I know.” (IV) What does Zorba’s abundant faith only in himself suggest about his egotism? How does the narrator understand his friend’s faith?
 
7. In the novel, the sixty-something-year-old Alexis Zorba refers to his friend, the narrator, as “Boss,” and the thirty-five-year-old narrator occasionally refers to his employee, Zorba, as Sinbad the Sailor. How significant are their ages in the context of their working relationship? How does the narrator’s control of the purse dictate his position? How does Zorba’s wealth of experience affect his status?
 
8. “I never had my fill of watching the immense care and tenderness with which Zorba undid the cloth that cloaked his santouri, as though he were cleaning a fig or undressing a woman.” (VI) How do Zorba’s attitudes about women compare to his feelings for his santouri? How would you describe the significance of both in Zorba’s life?
 
9. “My life had taken the wrong path; my contact with fellow humans had ended up as an internal monologue. My degeneration was so great that if I were to choose between loving a woman or reading a good book about love, I would choose the book.” (VIII) How does the alluring widow who passes outside the Modesty Café and Meat Market alter the course of the narrator’s life? How would you characterize Zorba’s role in the narrator’s shift from an intellectual being to a sexually-awakened being?
 
10. Until the unexpected collapse of the lignite gallery, Zorba’s work at the mine seems of little consequence. What does the collapse reveal about the courage and cowardice of Zorba, the narrator, and the miners? What role does the collapse play in the narrator’s decision to allow Zorba to travel to Iraklio for supplies when they have no money left to pay their workers?
 
11. What propels the narrator to fabricate a lie about Zorba’s desire to marry Madame Ortense? How is Zorba able to reconcile his cynical views on marriage with his tender feelings for his beloved Bouboulina?
 
12. How are Christians and Christianity portrayed in Zorba the Greek? Consider Zorba’s ambivalence about God and the Devil; the bewildering experiences that befall the narrator and Zorba at the Monastery of the All-Holy; the figure of Father Zacharias; the story of Zorba’s grandfather’s fake relic from the Holy Sepulcher; the widow’s murder on the church’s threshold; and the plunder of Madame Ortense’s home on her deathbed. How does the novel’s subtitle: “The Saint’s Life of Zorba,” hint at some of the book’s spiritual contradictions?
 
13. Zorba’s aerial transport scheme for the lignite mine seems doomed from the start. Why does the narrator take so little interest or concern in his traveling companion’s folly? How might such ignorance call into question the reliability of the narrator’s account of Zorba? What less-appealing qualities of Zorba does the narrator overlook or avert his gaze from in promoting the goodness that Zorba exudes?
 
14. “Boss...I have so many things to tell you. I never loved anyone as much as you.” (XXV) How does Zorba’s affection for the narrator compare to the narrator’s feelings for Zorba? What accounts for the intense bond between these two strangers? Which one is the more emotionally dependent in their relationship?
 
15. In the aftermath of his time living with Zorba, the narrator reflects on Zorba as “a great soul” and “a madman,” (XXVI). To what extent are these identities mutually exclusive? How might Zorba’s character encompass both qualities? How would you characterize Zorba?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Alexis Zorba has been described as “an Everyman with a Greek accent.” Zorba’s unrelenting exuberance for life preoccupies the narrator of the novel. Members of your book group may want to consider the Zorbas in their lives. What family member, friend, or acquaintance has functioned for them as Zorba does for the narrator: as a sounding board, an exemplar of a life well-lived, or as pure inspiration? Members of your group may want to compare their experiences and the phases of their lives when these influential and mesmerizing figures consumed much of their world.
 
2. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator pledges with his friend, Stavridakis, to play a game of psychic communication in which each will think of the other with great intensity when they are in danger of dying, despite the fact that neither believes their efforts will work. By the end of the novel, the narrator senses the passing of both Stavridakis and his dear friend, Alexis Zorba. Have members of your group discuss their feelings about unspoken communication between friends and family, or extra-sensory perception in general. You may want to share and explore the experiences that members of your group have had following the deaths of loved ones.
 
3. As detailed in Zorba the Greek, the island of Crete resembles a small fishing village. At present, Crete is the most populous Greek island, home to some 600,000 people. Members of your book group may want to screen the 1964 movie Zorba the Greek, starring Anthony Quinn, which was filmed on location in Crete and analyze how the version of Crete depicted in the film compares to the one described in the book by Nikos Kazantzakis. Additionally, members of your group may choose to discuss how the cinematic adaptation enhances or impacts their appreciation of the novel.

About The Author

Nikos Kazantzakis was born in Crete in 1883. He studied literature and art in Germany and Italy, philosophy under Henri Bergson in Paris and received his law degree from the University of Athens. The Greek Minster of Education in 1945, Kazantzakis was also a dramatist, translator, poet, and travel writer. Among his most famous works are, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Saviors of God.  He died in October 1957.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (December 2014)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476782812

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