Z is for Zorba the Greek
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