Review of Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

Posted by in netgalley copy

(with a new translation by Peter A. Bien)

My reason for requesting Zorba the Greek from netgalley was likely neither the best nor most auspicious. My grandmother had a copy of The Last Temptation of Christ on a bookshelf in her basement, another book written by Kazantzakis. I never read it and I can't read her copy now because I think my aunt donated it somewhere after my grandmother died. I miss my grandmother. So I requested Zorba the Greek because of a very tenuous connection to my grandmother (I don't even know if she even read The Last Temptation of Christ).

So we have a novel with a message of it's important to embrace life and not overthink it. Decent message. We have the narrator with minimal personality, which I suppose is so every man reading it can put himself as the narrator (no women, we'll get to that). We have Zorba (the Greek, although he says numerous times he's from Macedonia, but maybe Zorba the Macedonian doesn't have the same ring to it?), a sixty-five year old lover-of-life trying to impart wisdom on our thirty-five year old narrator, who has rented a Cretan coal mine and decided to hire Zorba at the ferry terminal because Zorba basically said Hey - I'd like to go to Crete. Can you hire me? to which the narrator replies Well, I just met you, and I haven't told you why I'm going to Crete, or if I have a job you'd be suitable for, but sure -- why don't you be my foreman? (paraphrasing). Obviously this isn't a modern novel, or Zorba would turn out to be some sort of psychopath and slowly destroy the narrator, chipping away at him, until the narrator can't take it anymore and we have a vertiginous descent into insanity. However, Zorba isn't a psychopath, although he does waste all the narrator's money, encourages a monk suffering from schizophrenia to burn down his monastery, leads on a bunch of women, and concocts a crazy rope-pulley-system to carry trees down a mountain, which obviously fails spectacularly and injures a bunch of people.

Oh, and Zorba's a self-admitted rapist, which he just sort of imparts like it doesn't really matter. It kind of makes sense, as Zorba's view on women can be summed up by bitches be crazy. I mean, according to Zorba "women ... don't have brains and he debates whether or not they are actually human. He redeems himself a teensy little bit, by intervening to try and stop the mob from attacking the widow (she ends up beheaded, so not much success there. She was killed for being too alluring, which is dishonourable, which about two pages later, both the narrator and Zorba dismiss as just one of those things that happen, so this book is also pro-honour killings), but he likely only does it since "woman is a feeble creature" and, thus, she can't protect herself. A more generous reader would write this off as antiquated notions of gender. I am not generous. While not the main focus -- the main focus being an idea of never losing the wonder of being alive -- I have no need to read a book of rampant misogyny. But then again, what do I know? Zorba does say that I don't have a brain in my head.

But let's say you move past the espoused views of women. There's a calm, pastoral feeling on Crete. Sunshine and oceans. Golden sunsets, pale nights with shooting stars, tables with meat and fish and olive oils, warm breezes. Currently, there are snowbanks outside my house eight feet high. I could go for an afternoon on a Cretan beach (hopefully sans Zorba, the sexist jerk). The whole book, I kept thinking of Il Postino (maybe all I should have been thinking of was the movie version of Zorba the Greek, which I've never seen). The setting had the exact same feel. But I'm scared now to rewatch Il Postino though, afraid that I'll realize it's just as problematic as Zorba the Greek is.

As for the translation, seems fine, except for a few times when we are suddenly put into present tense for a paragraph or two, usually at the start of a chapter. Don't know what's up with that. Maybe it's because I have an uncorrected proof?

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis went on sale December 30, 2014.

I received a copy free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.