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Zorba the Greek

Zorba the Greek

Author: Nikos Kazantzakis and Peter Bien
Rating: 10/10
Last Read: September 2017

Zorba the Greek sat on my reading list for many years. It came highly recommended from sources I trusted, but I never quite took the bait. I went into the book knowing nothing about it, other than hearing from Rozi that it was a wonderful read and that Zorba presents a most interesting character.

I love this book and cannot recommend it enough. It is very similar in theme to Herman Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund, but I find the characters much more interesting and lovable.

If you need some fiction that will move your spirit, Zorba the Greek is for you. Even if you think you don't need moving function, read the book anyway. You won't regret it.

Look, I was passing through a small village one day. An old fogey ninety years old was planting an almond tree. ‘Hey, grandpa,’ I say to him, ‘are you really planting an almond tree?’ And he, all bent over as he was, he turns and says to me, ‘My boy, I act as though I’m never going to die.’ I answered him in my turn, ‘I act as though I’m going to die at any moment.’ Which of the two of us was right, Boss?”

My Highlights

Zorba taught me to love life and not to fear death.

“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!’

To prolong one’s parting from a beloved friend is poison. To leave with a knife stroke is better, for it allows one to return to humanity’s natural climate: solitude.

“Emotion?” he inquired, attempting to smile. “Yes,” I calmly replied. “Why? Didn’t we agree? Haven’t we agreed for years now? The Japanese you love, how do they say it? Fudōoshin. Equanimity; imperturbability; one’s features an unmoving, smiling mask. Whatever happens behind the mask is one’s own business.”

How was it that I, who loved life so much, had been involved with paper and ink for so many years?

“Why! Why!” he said disdainfully. “Good God, can’t anyone do something without asking why? Just like that! Because you feel like it! So take me as a cook, let’s say. I make amazing soup.”

“Are you married?” “I’m human, am I not? To be human means to be blind. I fell face-first into the same pothole that those before me fell into. I got married, went to the dogs, down the steep slope. I became middle class, built a home, produced children. Nothing but trouble! But thank God for the santouri.”

Where was some brain to get to the bottom of things? Accurate, honorable thoughts require tranquility, old age, a mouth full of false teeth. When you’ve got dentures it’s easy to say, ‘For shame, boys, no biting!’ But when you’ve got all thirty-two of your own teeth . . . A man in his youth is a wild animal, a ferocious beast who eats other men!”

Consequently, are so many murders and dirty tricks required in this world for people to gain freedom? Because, if I sat here and ticked off for you what outrages we committed and what murders, it would make your hair stand on end. Yet what was the result? Freedom! God, instead of hurling his thunderbolt to incinerate us, gives us freedom. I don’t understand anything.”

“Look here, what I’m telling you is that this world is a mystery and every human being is a great brute—a great brute and a great god.

“Yes, that’s what freedom means,” I was thinking. “To have a passion, to amass golden pounds, and suddenly to conquer your passion and throw away everything you possess—toss it into the air. Or to free yourself from one passion by obeying another that is higher. But isn’t that just a different form of slavery: sacrificing yourself for an idea, for your nationality, your God? Or could it be that the higher one’s master stands, the rope tying one to slavery is lengthened by the same amount? In that case, if we jump and frolic in a much wider domain, we die without ever discovering its boundaries. Is that what freedom means?”

I felt that this Cretan scene resembled good prose: well-worked, reticent, liberated from superfluous wealth, strong, restrained, formulating the essence by the simplest of means, refusing to play games, not deigning to employ tricks or grandiloquence, but saying what it wants to say with virile simplicity.

“You’re not hungry!” exclaimed Zorba, slapping his thigh. “But you haven’t eaten anything since morning. The body, too, has a soul. Take pity on it; give it something to eat, Boss. Give it something to eat; it’s our donkey, you know. If you don’t feed your donkey, it will abandon you halfway to your destination.”

Look, I was passing through a small village one day. An old fogey ninety years old was planting an almond tree. ‘Hey, grandpa,’ I say to him, ‘are you really planting an almond tree?’ And he, all bent over as he was, he turns and says to me, ‘My boy, I act as though I’m never going to die.’ I answered him in my turn, ‘I act as though I’m going to die at any moment.’ Which of the two of us was right, Boss?”

Those two paths are equally uplifting and rugged; both can lead to the summit. To act as though death does not exist and to act with death in mind at every moment—perhaps both paths are the same.

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?”

The entire world—earth, water, thoughts, people—was flowing toward a distant sea, and Zorba was flowing happily with it, offering no resistance, asking no questions.

Youth is fierce and inhuman because it doesn’t understand.

Workers fear a hard boss, respect him, and do good work for him; they take control of a soft boss as though he were a horse meant for them to saddle and mount, and they start loafing. Understand?”

Angered, I dug in my heels: “You have no faith, then, in human nature?” “Don’t get angry, Boss. I have no faith in anything. If I believed in human nature, I would believe in God as well, also in the Devil. It’s a big problem. Things get all mixed up, Boss, and cause me trouble.”

“Human beings are brutes!” he shouted angrily, banging his staff on the stones. “Great big brutes. The likes of you doesn’t know this; everything came to you too easily. But ask me. Brutes, I’m telling you. If you treat them badly, they respect and dread you; if you treat them well, they cause your ruin. Keep your distance, Boss. Don’t embolden people, don’t tell them that we are all one and the same, all have the same rights, because immediately they’ll trample your rights, snatch away your bread, and leave you to croak from hunger. Keep your distance, Boss, for your own good!”

"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. All the others are ghosts. I see him with my eyes, hear him with my ears, digest him with my guts. All the others, I tell you, are ghosts. When I die, everything dies; the entire Zorba-world hits rock bottom.”

“Remember what we were saying the other day, Boss? Apparently you wanted to enlighten the masses, to open their eyes. All right, go and open Uncle Anagnostis’s eyes for him. Did you notice how his wife stood there cringing and awaiting orders? Well, Your Highness, how about going now and teaching them something about women, that they have the same rights as men and that it’s truly a mean thing to eat a piece of a hog’s flesh with the hog, alive, bellowing in front of you, and that it’s hugely stupid to be tickled because God has everything while you’re starving! What will that miserable abomination, Uncle Anagnostis, profit from all this enlightening gobbledygook of yours? You’ll only cause him a mess of trouble. And what will Mrs. Anagnosti profit? Arguments will start; the hen will yearn to become the rooster, and the couple will do nothing but fight each other and suck dry each other’s blood. Let people stay placid, Boss; don’t open their eyes. If you do open them, you know what they will see: their malice and cold unsociability. So, leave their eyes closed; that way they can keep on dreaming!”

Are they going to see new forms of darkness? Let them stay where they were, with their former habits. Can’t you realize that they’ve done well enough until now? They manage—manage quite nicely. They give birth to children, have grandchildren, God makes them deaf or blind and they shout ‘Glory be to God!’ They’re at home with misfortune. So leave them where they are and shut your trap.”

I was happy; I knew that I was happy. We sense happiness with difficulty while experiencing it. Only when it has passed and we look back do we suddenly comprehend, sometimes with astonishment, how happy we have been. I, however, on this Cretan shore, was experiencing happiness while being simultaneously aware of my happiness.

“What can you expect from women? To have children by whoever happens to be available. What can you expect from men? To fall into the trap. No time to fiddle-faddle about any of that, Boss.”

“I’ve got some gray hair, Boss, and my teeth are working loose; I don’t have time to spare. You’re young. You can be patient; I can’t. As I get older I become wilder, by God. Why do people sit there and keep telling me that old age tames a person, makes him lose his zest, stretch out his neck when he sees death and say, ‘Slaughter me, please, dear agha, so that I may become a saint’? As for me, as I get older I become wilder. I don’t quit. I want to eat up the whole wide world.”

Once again I assured myself that happiness is something simple and self-restrained—a glass of wine, a chestnut, a paltry brazier, the sea’s rumble, nothing else. The only requirement for one to sense that all this is happiness is to possess a heart that is also simple and self-restrained.

Confucius says: “Many seek a happiness higher than the human being; others seek one lower. But happiness is the same height as the human being.”

“Life is trouble; death isn’t,” Zorba continued. “Do you know the definition of being alive? To undo your belt and look for trouble.”

“There are none so deaf as those who refuse to hear!”

“What’s going on, Zorba?” “Nothing. Haven’t a single idea. I ran into a priest early this morning. Get going!” “If there’s some danger, wouldn’t it be shameful for me to leave?” “Yes,” Zorba answered. “Would you leave?” “No.” “Well, then?” “I have different standards for Zorba than I have for other people,” he stated with annoyance. “But since you understand that it would be shameful to leave, do not leave. Stay.”

I feel this way when I am interrupted:

He had work to do; he did not condescend to converse. “Don’t talk to me when I’m working,” he said to me one evening; “I might break in two.” “Break in two, Zorba?” I replied. “Why?” “There you go asking ‘Why?’ again, like a small child,” he said. “How could I explain this to you? I give myself over to my work; I stretch from toenail to scalp, extend myself to overcome the stone or coal I’m wrestling with—or the santouri. If you touch me all of a sudden, if you talk to me and make me turn, I might break in two—but how could you understand!”

The world is simple, Boss—how many times do I need to tell you that? Don’t make it complicated.

What I understood deeply on that day was this: to hasten eternal rules is a mortal sin. One’s duty is confidently to follow nature’s everlasting rhythm.

Great visionaries and poets see everything in the same way—for the first time.

They see a new world before them each morning. No, they do not see this new world; they create it.

It wasn’t my destiny that brought me here (a person does whatever he wishes) but I who brought my destiny here and who worked like a dog and still works.

Dear teacher, I hope that you receive this letter of mine, which perhaps will be my last. No one knows. I have no faith in the mystical forces that supposedly protect us humans. I believe in the blind power that strikes to the right and left without malice or purpose, and that kills whoever happens to be near it.

I believe that you will understand from my letter what an unfortunate man I am. It’s only when I am with you and I talk to you that I have some hope of being relieved of my hypochondria, because Your Excellency is just like me, only you don’t know this. You, too, have a devil inside you but you still don’t know his name and because you don’t know his name, you suffocate. Baptize him, Boss, and you’ll find relief.

It’s true that you are still young, Boss, but you’ve read the wisdom of old and have become, if you’ll excuse my saying so, a bit old yourself.

I stared at her with goggle eyes. “You’re not going? Why? Don’t you want to?” “I want to go if you come, too. If you don’t come, I don’t want to go.” “But why? Aren’t you a free human being?” “No, I’m not.” “Don’t you want to be free?” “No.” What can I say to you, Boss? I felt I was going to have a fit. “You don’t want to be free?” I shouted. “No, I don’t! I don’t! I don’t!” Boss, I’m writing you from Lola’s room, on her paper. Pay attention, please. I believe that a human being is a person who wants to be free. Women don’t want to be free. So are women human beings? Please answer me at once.

“Good God, people are wild beasts,” Zorba said suddenly, aroused by so much singing. “Boss, abandon your books! Aren’t you ashamed? People are wild beasts, and wild beasts do not read books.”

“Don’t say those words, Uncle Anagnostis. You scare a person to death.” “Bah, never fear. Who listens to my words? And if a few do listen, who believes them? Consider: was there ever a more fortunate person? I had fields, vineyards, olive groves, and a two-story house. I was a respected man of property. My wife turned out fine—obedient, gave birth only to sons, never lifted her eyes to look me in the face. And my children also turned out well. I have no complaints. I made grandchildren, too. What more could I want? I’ve put down deep roots. Yet if I were to be born again, I’d tie a stone around my neck, like Pavlis, and fall into the sea. Life is really harsh; even the most fortunate life is harsh, blast it!”

“You are young,” he said to me, smiling. “Don’t listen to old folks. If everyone listened to the aged, they’d all be quickly ruined. If a widow happens to cross your path, pounce on her! Get married, have children, don’t hesitate. Troubles are made especially for fine young stalwarts.”

The voice of those cranes, echoing once again within me, was the terrible forewarning that this life is unique for each human being, that no other life exists, that we may enjoy it, enjoy it here, that it passes quickly, and that no other opportunity will be given us in the whole of eternity.

one’s mind vows to conquer its own degradation and weakness, to conquer laziness and great futile hopes in order to catch full hold of every split second that is departing forever.

“What’s your favorite dish, granddad?” “Everything, everything, my son. It’s a great sin to say that this food is good, that food not good.” “Why? Can’t we choose?” “No, we really cannot.” “Why?” “Because there are people who are hungry.” I fell silent out of shame. My heart had never been able to achieve such nobility and compassion.

“What are ten or fifteen years?” asserted the abbess, sternly. “You fail to consider eternity?” I did not speak. I knew that eternity is each moment that passes.

Earth engenders children and feasts on them, engenders children anew, feasts on them anew—a perfect circle.

As a small child, I was in danger of falling into the well; when I grew older I was in danger of falling into the word “eternity” and also into quite a few other words: “love,” “hope,” “fatherland,” “God.” It seemed to me that I kept escaping year by year, making progress. But I was not making progress. I was merely changing one word for another and calling that liberation. Most recently, for two entire years, I had been suspended above the word “Buddha.”

Since the day I dyed my hair I’ve become another person. You may wonder, but I myself believe it, believe that I have black hair. You see, people easily forget what’s not to their advantage. And, by God, my strength increased. Lola, she, too, understood. That stitch I had in my side—here, remember it?—that’s gone, too. Unbelievable!

The great ascetic, gathering his disciples around him, cries out: “Woe to whoever does not have within him the source of happiness! Woe to whoever wishes to please others! Woe to whoever does not sense that this life and the other life are the same!”

“You laugh, Boss, and can continue if you wish. But that’s how people liberate themselves. Listen to me: they liberate themselves by being rakes, not monks.” And you: how will you get free of the Devil if you don’t become Devil and a half?”

“This is my second theory: Every idea that has real influence also has real substance. It exists. It is not a bodiless phantom wandering in the air. It has a veritable body—eyes, mouth, feet, belly. It is a man or a woman and pursues either men or women. That’s why the Gospel says, ‘The Word became flesh.’

Eternity exists even in one’s ephemeral life, but it is very difficult for us to find it on our own. Ephemeral concerns mislead us. Only very few people, the most select, manage to experience eternity in this ephemeral life. The others would be lost if God had not felt pity for them on this account and sent them religion, which enables the multitude to experience eternity.”

“Zorba, why don’t you write something that explains to us all the world’s mysteries?” “Why don’t I? Obviously because I live all the mysteries you mention and don’t have time. Sometimes it’s people in general, sometimes women, sometimes wine, sometimes the santouri, so I don’t have a moment to grab hold of that blathering dame, the pen. So the world falls into the hands of pen pushers. Those who live the mysteries lack time and those who don’t lack time don’t live the mysteries. Got it?”

Zorba, satisfied, rubbed his hands together. “This was a good day, Boss,” he said. “You’ll ask me what ‘good’ means. It means ‘full.’

“Saved from my country, saved from priests, saved from money. No more sifting. I’m increasingly finished with sifting things out; I’m simplifying. How can I express it to you? I am freeing myself, becoming a human being.”

Well, I’ve really learned something. Now I look at people and say, ‘This one is a good person, that one a bad person. It doesn’t matter whether he’s a Bulgarian or a Greek. To me they’re both the same. The only thing I ask now is whether he’s good or bad. And the older I get, yes, by the bread I eat, it seems to me that I’ll begin not to ask that either. Bah, who cares if they’re good or bad? I pity them all. When I see someone, my guts split apart even if I pretend not to give a damn. Look here, I say: this poor devil eats, drinks, loves, fears, has his God and his Devil; he, too, will kick the bucket and be laid out dead as a doornail underground to be eaten by worms. Poor miserable devil! We’re brothers, all of us. Food for worms!

‘My country,’ you keep telling me. You ought to listen to me, not to the twaddle your papers say. As long as countries exist, the human being will remain a beast, a ferocious beast. But I escaped, glory be to God, escaped. What about you?”

He once said to me, “Half-finished jobs, conversations, sins, and virtues are what have brought the world to its present mess. Reach the end, everyone! Strike; win the fight! God detests the half-Devil more than the Devil-in-chief.”

I eat larger, more delicious portions, and they don’t all become manure. Something remains, something is saved, turning into merriment, dance, song, or a slight argument. That something is what I call resurrection.”

“Damn it, my friend, Christ is risen! Oh, if only I was as young as you! Women and wine galore, sea and work galore! Full blast no matter what! Work on full blast. Wine, sex, all on full blast. No fear of God; no fear of the Devil. That’s the meaning of youth and strength.”

I don’t know how to tell you all of this to make you understand, but in my opinion none of it has any meaning.

He jumped up; his eyes misted with tears. “I can’t stay, Boss,” he said. “I’ve got to walk, to go up and down the mountain two or three times tonight, to tire myself out, so my mind can settle down. Hey you, you widow, I feel I’m going to burst if I don’t chant a dirge for you!”

Zorba went out into the yard. He was overcome by weeping, ashamed to be seen in front of women. I remember one day he said to me, “I’m not ashamed of crying in front of men. I’m a man; we’re all the same tribe and it’s not shameful for us. But in front of women we always need to appear brave. Why? Because if we started weeping in our turn, what would happen to those poor creatures? It would be the end of everything.”

turned to me again. “I want you to tell me where we come from and where we are going. You’ve been wasting away for so many years with your black magic and must have squeezed the sap out of ten or eleven thousand pounds of paper. So, what juice did you find?” Zorba’s voice was so agonized that his breath broke.

“I look down at death continually,” he said at last. “I look at it and am not afraid. Never, however, do I say, ‘I like it.’ No, I do not like it, not at all. I am free, am I not?

“Boss,” he said, as though wishing to justify himself, “every sorrow breaks my heart in two. But that organ of a thousand wounds heals immediately and the wound does not show. I am full of healed wounds; that is why I bear up.”

“New road, new plans. I’ve stopped remembering bygones, stopped seeking future prospects. What matters to me is whatever is happening right now, at this very moment. I ask myself, ‘What are you doing now, Zorba?’ ‘I’m sleeping.’ ‘All right, sleep well!’ ‘What are you doing now, Zorba?’ ‘I’m working.’ ‘All right, work well!’ ‘What are you doing now, Zorba?’ ‘I’m embracing a woman.’ ‘All right, embrace her well!’ Forget all the rest. Nothing else exists in the world except you and that woman. Shake a leg!”

“I believe, Zorba, but can be wrong, that human beings are of three kinds: those whose purpose, as they say, is to live their own lives—to eat, drink, kiss, grow rich, become famous; next are those whose purpose is to live not their own lives but the life of humanity as a whole, since they feel that all human beings are one and the same in their struggle to enlighten, to love, and benefit others; finally there are those whose purpose is to live the life of the entire universe, since all people, animals, vegetables, and stars are one and the same, one essence engaged in the same struggle—namely, to transubstantiate matter into spirit.”

“That’s difficult, Boss, very difficult. What’s needed in this instance is folly. Do you hear? Folly! You need to go the whole hog. But you’ve got intelligence, and that will eat you up. Intelligence is a grocer. It keeps accounts, writes ‘I gave this amount, got that amount, this amount the loss, that amount the gain.’ Intelligence is a good manager, you know, never putting everything on the line, always holding something back. It doesn’t break the string, oh no! That louse holds it tightly in its hands; if the string slips away, intelligence is finished, done for, the bum! But tell me, for as long as it fails to break the string, what solid basis does life have? Chamomile, diluted chamomile. What’s needed to turn the world upside down is rum!”

“You understand, and that’s what will eat you up! If you did not understand, you would be happy. What do you lack? You’re young, you have money, intelligence, you’re healthy, a fine person—you lack nothing. Nothing, blast it! Just one thing, as we said: folly. And when that’s missing, Boss—”

Little did Yorgis know that he would eventually become the protagonist of one of the greatest novels of world literature, and his character would become an ecumenical figure that set a new literary archetype: the Lover of Life, the authentic, primordial, all-embracing Dancer, a man renowned for his robust exuberance, his vigor and vitality.

With this freshness of heart, he had “a bravery to mock his very own soul, as though he possessed in him a power superior than the soul.”

But Kazantzakis takes this idea further; he proposes that even if Sisyphus succeeds in pushing the rock all the way to the top of the hill, he would then seek a higher hill, start a new ascent, for the ascent itself is the enlightenment. It is the pushing, the sweat, the struggle that transubstantiates flesh into spirit, darkness into light, mud, blood, desires, and visions into enlightenment.

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Zorba the Greek
By Nikos Kazantzakis


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