Sparked by Words

Like several books on this A to Z list, I read Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis while in college, though it wasn’t for a class. A bunch of friends were reading the book (I think some for a college course,) and I read it so I could participate in the exciting conversations. This was during the early 1970’s. When you’re young, in college, in love (or you wish/think you are,) maybe a bit inebriated (sometimes, only sometimes,) out of your parents’ house (finally,) full of vigor, fueled with passion, inspired by the radical and classic ideas that have made the world spin, and free to experiment (‘cause, you know, you’re out of your parents’ house,) Zorba is the most exciting background music you can imagine. It remains one of the most iconic books of all time, but today’s college kids might be rallied by some other title. (Would love you to tell me.)

Zorba the man is as much a swashbuckling figure as Captain Jack Sparrow (though I find Zorba fully dimensional and Sparrow a brittle prop for outlandish makeup.) And that’s what we talked about, sitting on the floor of someone’s apartment (none of us had furniture, but we had energy) and arguing about what the book meant to us and how or if we should emulate Zorba’s attitude about life. Such zest the man had, and knowing Kazantzakis had based his character on a true-life friend made the book that much more appealing. Because frankly, despite our youthful dreams and noble ambitions, none of us had yet made anything of our lives, and we felt like the world was passing us by without hearing our squeaks and pitches. But we all had tests the next day and papers due at the end of the week. Young women or young men, we wanted to be like Zorba, grabbing life by the fistful, singing, dancing, drinking (and having sex) till we dropped, obligations be damned.

The story is narrated by a younger man, a reserved scholar out to mine for lignite on Crete in 1915 or so. Zorba hires on to be the manager, cook, and occasional musician. We never learn the name of the narrator. While many have suggested it is Kazantzakis himself, I think he represents the staid, unheralded Everyman, the backbone of society who works hard to pay the bills and feed the kids. Boring perhaps but dependable. Except that this narrator is so aloof about life that there’s no family at all, just a man who reads, thinks, contemplates religion and philosophy (the Buddhist void,) and decides to manage a lignite mine in order to promote the right of the workers. The polar opposite of Zorba who dances, drinks, labors, sings, ruts like a bull, and advises against getting close to the miners. And submerges his past with flamboyant braggadocio or the plaintive strings of his santuri.

Adventure after adventure, Zorba and the narrator engage in this partnership with each other and with the citizens of Crete. What the narrator cannot learn from his books, he learns from Zorba, often an antagonistic view. At the end is the inevitable: the deaths of the most charismatic people. Only the music endures.

Zorba was the perfect model for students in the seventies. We were the free love generation, the ones who protested the Vietnam War. We argued the value of everything, and we sampled drugs (some kids) the way you might try appetizers. Seen through the lens of my friends, Zorba’s lifestyle was the zenith of exuberance. Yet all of us were students, most working our way through college, many actively and frequently protesting the war. Deciding my life was my responsibility, that my choices had to be my own, I’d already left home. I realized it was egregiously unjust to draft boys not old enough to vote, most of them too poor to be excused for service by attending college. (Young men like the one I would shortly begin a relationship with, eventually to marry.) So I gave up a semester of college to campaign to pass the twenty-sixth amendment which lowered the voting age to eighteen, giving the youngest draftees a chance to vote.

At a time when eating twice a day was all I could afford, it was not insignificant to give up that semester, extending my work at minimum wage jobs and delaying my graduation. I lived full throttle the way Zorba did, the way many of my friends did, but we were also like the young and idealistic narrator. We studied hard, we worked for social justice and democracy, we weighed options, we believed in peace, and we protested for the common man, for civil rights, and for ideals of conscience.

Charismatic, mesmerizing, towering, magnetic, alluring, tragic, life lived fully and in the moment. Or life lived with poetry on one’s tongue, cerebral and distant, the scholar in the ivory tower. The ancient conundrum, the great paradox: individual versus community, instinct versus intellect.

Ah, youth. Ah, Zorba the Greek.

I look forward to learning about your favorite Z fiction books.

 

One other book that was a serious contender for Z:

The Zigzag Kid by David Grossman

 

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Simon and Schuster

 

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Comments on: "Z is for Zorba the Greek" (27)

  1. Mine would have to be ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’. I borrowed it from a friend and read it in 1976 when I was studying overseas. I have to confess that I don’t remember much of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good choice, but completely upstaged by the question: What will you do now that you’ve reached ‘Z’?

    Hmmm…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I feel like in a round about way I have a little better understanding of your college years. Giggle
    Enjoyed, this suggestion, Shari. There are books that start with the letter Z? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • College was an enriching experience for me. I wish I could do it again.

      I also read The Zigzag Kid as indicated at the bottom of this post, and Leggy Peggy and Roughseasinthemed also suggested some worthy titles in their replies to this post. Isabelle Allende wrote Zorro, which I haven’t read but she is a terrific author. So, more Z titles than I even knew.

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  5. I have heard of this book, but never read it. Your review and description really brings it alive along with Zorba’s character! Reading about YOUR lifestyle as a young college-age Boomer in the 70s, is just so amazing to read. Our generation really changed the world as we know it. Your younger Boomer cousins (myself) who spent adolescence in the 70s weren’t that deep and we succeeded in promoting disco and yuppi-dom. I think our boomer years we a little self-indulgent happy to ride on the coat-tails of our older Boomer friends doing all the work and protests. I loved getting a glimpse of your life as you apply Zorba’s “zenith of exuberance” (love this!!) to the times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Terri. I lived during a remarkable time – I was a child during the Korean War and the civil rights movement, and a teenager and young adult during the Vietnam War. It was nearly unconscionable not to participate in helping secure equality for everyone. The lessons and gains sadly seem not to have lasted. When I read Zorba again (skimmed it actually) to write this article, it seemed a bit dated. Among the terrorism of today, the militant dictatorships, the ineptness of our current administration, the intransigence of one group or another, I’m not sure where Zorba falls. Equality is one thing – being free, healthy, and safe seem more urgent and more distant.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow! Sharon, what a lovely passionate review and I felt I was at college with you and your friends! Great to learn how excited your were about life, events, values. I’ve never read the book but seen the film many times – it is wonderful. Quite something to see the stiff Englishman learn to feel as he witnesses Zorba’s enthusiasm for life and also Darker sides of the community. The ending is one of the best ever!

    Btw, great that you went out to fight for lowering the voting age. Did you succeed? It’s still 18 in most of Europe.

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    • Thanks for your kind comment, Annika. I don’t think the movie version of the book would have made half the impact without Anthony Quinn playing the lead role. It was a part made for him.

      The 26th amendment to our Constitution was ratified in early 1971. The campaign slogan was “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote.” This was during the Vietnam War. The voting age in the US had been 21 years until then, and I worked for lowering it in 1970. Now I wish younger citizens would take advantage of their right to vote. They seem to be a laid back generation but perhaps the recent election warned them that there is no guarantee. Continued enjoyment of the privileges of a free, equal, and just society comes at the cost of participation. OK, I’m climbing down from my bandwagon now.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Sharon it is interesting how a book such as Zorba The Greek can help you recall an earlier time when there was a sense that collective action would or might lead to societal impact. It is particularly interesting to read these comments in the context of Trump’s presidency. The Obama years yielded another wave of “yes we can” idealism and most Democrats would argue that much has been achieved in the way of societal advancement under President Obama. And yet, in a flash, and a swirl and a tweet, the ideal of societal improvement has been wrecked and relegated to a sense of “how quaint.”

    There is a certain idealism that lives in Zorba’s pages that feels as though it no longer exists in American society today. Maybe Zorba The Greek needs to be put onto high school and or college curriculums to inspire the next wave of passion for societal improvement in a Trump and post Trump reality.

    There are so many causes today that require the kind of passion you demonstrated by taking college time to fight for the 26th amendment and yet one does not see the kind of societal awakening required to make headway.

    You did a really terrific job of personalizing a book review!

    Peta & Ben

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    • Thank you, Peta and Ben. It was a heady time to be young, and we really thought we were achieving something great. Maybe each generation needs its own incentive to do more each day than just entertain themselves.

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  8. Your youthful life in college also described life in Australia at that time Sharon. It made me quite nostalgic for the past but particularly for the passion. I haven’t read Zorba the Greek (I have seen the old black and white movie) so my Z’s would be Zelda by Nancy Mitford or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

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  9. Terri I must say you took the words right out of my mouth. Absolutely terrific post, Sharon, for informing me that Zorba is far more than A Quinn — and especially for yet another wonderfully warm hearted slice of your life. For sure I hope you can squeeze this one into your book ❤️

    Like

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