Sympathetic Stupid

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Zorba The Greek: Nikos Kazantzakis

See, I never realised this was an actual work of literature. My 'Zorba The Greek' was, I think, the song as used in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (great movie), and also maybe the grapevine step dance which we learned to it at school. Turns out that the song is actually from the movie starring Anthony Quinn, which won three Oscars though none of the big ones. And that the movie was based on the book.

The book is about the dynamic between two characters, the Narrator, a book-bound Greek intellectual, and Zorba, a Cretan who becomes his friend. The Narrator hires Zorba to run his coal mine on the beautifully evoked Mediterranean island of Crete, but before long the relationship is turned on its head by Zorba's gregarious nature, endless tales and vast appetites. The Narrator, in the process of writing his masterwork, has been asking all the hard questions of life, but is smitten with Zorba's attitude, which seems to answer every question without even realising.

Zorba is, as described elsewhere, Dionysian. He doesn't bother to restrain his appetites for the good things in life, especially women, who play a passive role throughout the book. He lives on instinct and bypasses all forms of rationality. He's utterly unbearable for his gluttony, and yet at the same time his lifestyle is so attractive in the age of reason. He asks me - why bother going to work? Take the day off, start drinking at 10, end up with a beautiful woman in your bed.

The Narrator is his polar opposite, the epitome of the intellectual who can tell you the logic behind everything but nothing about how it feels. He is drawn inexorably to Zorba's irrepressible spirit, and while Zorba calls him 'boss', it seems that the Narrator develops a kind of vicarious relationship with the man, doing his best writing work when inspired by a particularly sordid or scandalous tale.

The book has a nice feel, paced well, clearly written without too much artifice, though it would of course be better in the original Greek. The obvious lesson is not to waste time philosophising about life when you could be living; but this doesn't stick for the Narrator, and hasn't for me, though I'm trying to be a little more Zorba.