Book: Zorba the Greek

***Disclaimer: this is not intended to be a review, so don’t expect one. This is just a way to share a few thoughts.***

The book: Zorba the Greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis

The edition: Faber and Faber paperback, 335 pages

Cover blurb: “A marvellous evocation of a landscape and a sketch of a temperament as validly Greek as Odysseus himself.”

Synopsis: a scholar only dedicated to philosophically  questioning life, the narrator is disturbed when his good friend goes off to fight for his countrymen while calling him a bookworm, so he decides to move to Crete and play the capitalist to demonstrate to himself and his good friend that he can be more than a pure scholar. On his way there he meets Zorba, a man full of stories and life adventures, and he hires him. The book is the story of the months they spend on Crete, trying to find their fortune by exploiting a lignite mine.

My thoughts: more than a book about the relationship between Zorba and the narrator, this is a book about the relationship between two very different ways of looking at life: as pure theory or as pure practice. The narrator is given to this kind of thoughts:

Guileful matter has chosen this body, I thought, slowly to dampen and extinguish the free flame which flickers within me. I said to myself: The imperishable force which transforms matter into spirit is divine. Each man has within him an element of the divine whirlwind and that is how he can convert bread, water and meat into thought and action.

In other words, it is a philosophical novel, and that’s not a kind of book I am too fond of.
To its credit, though, it depicts a different society, one that may be somewhat dated but where you met every kind of people and got along well. That’s one aspect that I liked.

What I liked best: that the novel is full of the little stories told by Zorba in his Sinbad-the-sailor way. Even though sometimes he bragged a little bit too much for my taste:

I noticed for the first time that almost half of the index finger on his left hand was missing. I started and felt sick.
“What happened to your finger, Zorba?” I cried.
[…]
“Did you get it caught in a machine?” I insisted.
“What ever are you going on about machines for? I cut it off myself.”
“Yourself? Why?”
“You can’t understand, boss!” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “I told you I had been in every trade. Once I was a potter. I was mad about that craft. D’you realize what it means to take a lump of mud and make what you will out of it? Ffrr! You turn the wheel and the mud whirls round, as if it were possessed while you stand over it and say: I’m going to make a jug, I’m going to make a plate, I’m going to make a lamp and the devil knows what more!
[…]
“Well?” I asked. “What about your finger?”
“Oh, it got in my way in the wheel. It always got plumb in the middle of things and upset my plans. So one day I seized a hatchet…”

What I liked in the least: sexism, a very strong vein of it. At the beginning it wasn’t too bad:

The women on board had become yellower than a lemon. They had laid down their weapons–paint, bodices, hairpins, combs. Their lips had paled, their nails were turning blue. The old magpie scolds were losing their borrowed plumes–ribbons, false eyebrows and beauty spots, brassières–and to see them on the point of vomiting, you felt disgust and a great compassion.

But it gets worse:

“Who is that widow?” he asked, feigning indifference.
“A brood mare,” Kondomanolio replied.

And worse:

“He knew a thing or two about women. He liked them a lot, poor wretch, and they led him a regular dance in his lifetime. ‘By all the good things I wish you, Alexis, my boy,’ he’d say, ‘beware of women! When God took Adam’s rib out to create woman–curse that minute!–the devil turned into a serpent, and pff! he snatched the rib and ran off with it…. God dashed after him and caught him, but he slipped out of his fingers and God was left with just the devil’s horns in his hands. “A good housekeeper,” said God, “can sew even with a spoon. Well, I’ll create a woman with the devil’s horns!” And he did; and that’s how the devil got us all, Alexis my boy. No matter where you touch a woman, you touch the devil’s horns.

And even worse:

“A woman’s human, too, a human like us–only worse! The minute she sees your purse she loses her head. She clings to you, gives up her freedom and is glad to give it up because, at the back of her mind, the purse is glittering.”

No matter what, it kept getting at me. I can only hope that its due to the book being somewhat old (first published in 1946, according to Wikipedia).

A nice bit:

“Tell me what you do with the food you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are. Some turn their food into fat and manure, some into work and good humor, and others, I’m told, into God. So there must be three sorts of men. I’m not one of the worst, boss, nor yet one of the best. I’m somewhere between the two. What I
eat I turn into work and good humor. That’s not too bad, after all!”
He looked at me wickedly and started laughing.
“As for you, boss,” he said, “I think you do your level best to turn whatyou eat into God. But you can’t quite manage it, and that torments you.

Read this if: if you like philosophical novels and if you like classics no matter how badly they may have aged.

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