Rediscovering a Fictional Icon

When I was given the opportunity to work with the Nikos Kazantzakis estate on a new translation of Zorba the Greek—the first English translation to be done directly from the original Greek—I knew only of the famous film, starring Anthony Quinn. I had read other books by Kazantzakis, including one of my favorite books of all time, The Last Temptation of Christ, but I had never read the mighty Zorba. I learned quickly, though, from the first pages that getting to know Zorba and reading his story (and in many instances having him tell me his story) was going to be a rare treat and one I should not have waited so long to enjoy.

Zorba is a huge mountain of a man—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—bawdy, profane, loyal, passionate, generous, kind, funny, and very human. He is described throughout the book as uneducated by the overeducated narrator, but Zorba imparts gifts of wisdom about life and love that put the narrator’s knowledge to shame.

The story begins in a café in Piraeus. The unnamed narrator, nursing a cup of sage tea, is mourning the loss of his beloved friend, who has left to fight a war. The narrator is on his way to take possession of a lignite mine on Crete, hoping that the physical labor necessary to work the mine will free his mind. He is shaken from his reverie by Zorba’s face at the café window. Once Zorba enters, the book takes on an energy and joy. When he opens his mouth to tell tales of his adventures, you sit back in awe. You want to spend as much time as you can in the presence of this man. When he is not there, you definitely miss him.

The narrator invites Zorba to come help work the mine, and Zorba, who is open to all and any adventures, agrees. In fact, it is pretty much his idea. And they are off. On the island they are greeted by the town’s motley collection of inhabitants, who lead them to Madame Hortense. A woman of a certain age, she has been swept to this shore by wave after wave of love affairs. She lets the two men rooms in her hotel by the sea, where the three of them spend many nights drinking, laughing, and eating. Her sly wit, warmth, and unfathomable need attract Zorba immediately, and soon he is professing love even as he is trying to untangle himself from her charms. In this translation, her thick French accent is kept, which makes her language sometimes funny but also poignant—she is always the outsider struggling to be understood.

Everyone in the town has a story and each tale plays a part in the narrator’s struggle to allow himself to be free the way Zorba is free. There is longing, lust, and loss, and a shocking heartache in the middle of the story, but all of these are balanced by the massive energy and spirit of Zorba.

Whether battling mad monks, making love to Madame Hortense, weeping or laughing, fighting hypocrisy or dreaming of bigger things, Zorba is pure emotion. He is the fight between the rational and irrational worlds. He struggles to understand the nature of God—he believes he completely understands the nature of humanity—and our purpose on earth. This is philosophy hidden in great literature and it is astounding. You cannot read this book without stopping to ponder the questions that Zorba struggles with and you can’t read it without being changed—to quote Wicked—for good. But mostly it fills you with joy. It is a book that makes you want to dance and sing. We have such a short time here—shouldn’t every moment be full?