48 pages 1 hour read

Nikos Kazantzakis

Zorba the Greek

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1946

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Zorba the Greek is the first novel of Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis. Published in 1946, the story chronicles the narrator’s friendship with Zorba, who accompanies the narrator on an extended trip to Crete. The novel revolves around their disparate personalities and perspectives; while the narrator is a young, bookish intellectual with a penchant for abstract thought, Zorba is a sixty-year-old man with an enthusiastic appreciation for life and authentic lived experience, something the narrator yearns to attain for himself.

Zorba the Greek begins with the narrator at a cafe in Piraeus waiting to take a boat to Crete, where he has rented a lignite mine. While he is waiting, he thinks of his friend, Stavridaki, who recently left to fight for the Greeks in the Caucasus. Before leaving, Stavridaki called the narrator a bookworm for his intellectual inclinations. Through his venture with the lignite mine, the narrator means to escape this existence as an intellectual. Alexis Zorba’s entrance to the cafe interrupts the narrator’s thoughts. Zorba approaches the narrator and asks to go with him, offering to cook for him. The narrator finds himself drawn to Zorba’s boldness and simplicity. He agrees, and they set off for Crete.

In Crete, the narrator and Zorba first stay at the inn of Madame Hortense, a French woman who was a cabaret singer in her youth, as well as the paramour of the Italian, Russian, English, and French admirals who ruled over the Greek island. She claims that her intervention on behalf of Crete saved the island many times. Zorba woos her and begins an affair with her.

He and the narrator build a hut near the sea where they spend their evenings. After work at the mine, Zorba regales the narrator with tales of his experiences. On Sundays, the narrator and Zorba visit Hortense. The narrator anguishes over his tendencies toward intellectualization and abstract thinking as they interact with the villagers, despite enjoying Crete’s nature and landscape. He admires Zorba’s authenticity, which is evident through his way of thinking and dancing. Because things are not going well with the mine, Zorba comes up with the idea to build an overhead cable from the top of the mountain to the coast. The narrator gives Zorba permission to do so. Meanwhile, he continues working on his manuscript.

One afternoon as winter approaches, the narrator is with Zorba and the other village men. They all catch sight of an attractive widow who has drawn the attention of Pavli, the son of village elder Mavrandoni, who owns the mine the narrator is renting. The widow has refused to marry Pavli and left the youth distraught. The narrator finds he is attracted to the widow, which causes him great anxiety and challenges his ascetic tendencies. He believes this attraction is an obstacle to his spiritual journey, so he doubles his focus on his manuscript, much to Zorba’s consternation and disapproval.

At the mine, Zorba’s instincts save the men and the narrator from a collapsing gallery, another event that intensifies the narrator’s internal conflict and his admiration for Zorba. With the passing of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, the narrator only feels more tormented by the clash between the material—work, food, women—and the spiritual. He grows disenchanted with literature and presses Zorba to build the cable railway quickly since his money is running low. He sends Zorba to the town of Iraklio, the capital of Crete, for three days to acquire the materials they’ll need.

During Zorba’s absence, the narrator hears from his friends in distant lands, but days pass without Zorba’s return. Finally, on the sixth day, the narrator receives a letter in which Zorba admits to spending his time in Iraklio with a young woman (instead of buying and returning with the supplies). While Zorba is away, Hortense inquires about him, and the narrator, feeling pity for her, pretends that Zorba wrote to her, making up the contents of the letter and eventually saying that Zorba has asked her to marry him. Moved, Hortense accepts. As she leaves, they discover the villagers in tumult. Heartbroken by the widow’s rejection, Pavli committed suicide, and his body has washed ashore. The mourning villagers blame the widow for Pavli’s suicide, and the narrator scolds them.

Zorba returns, bringing everything needed for the cable railway. He and the narrator visit the monastery to get approval to use the forest during construction. There the two encounter Zacharias, a monk, and discover that the monastery is mired hypocrisy and corruption. Still, Zorba gets permission to use the forest at a good price, and he and throws himself into work to make up for the twelve days lost while he was in Iraklio. Hortense comes to talk to him, and the narrator reminds Zorba that he told her that Zorba would marry her.

During Easter, Zorba and the narrator prepare to host Hortense, but she has fallen sick. After dinner, Zorba and the narrator talk, and Zorba leaves for the village while the narrator feels compelled to walk alone. He runs into the widow and, drawing courage, spends the night with her. He finishes his manuscript the next day. Later, the widow is sighted entering the church, and the villagers assault her. Zorba intervenes, but Mavrandoni kills her. Saddened, the narrator and Zorba retreat to their hut. The narrator and Zorba visit Hortense and see that her condition has worsened. Her death unleashes the villagers’ rapaciousness as they hurry to loot her home.

Several days later, Zacharias the monk returns after burning down the monastery as Zorba had suggested. He dies on the beach shortly after. The narrator and Zorba inaugurate the cable railway the next day, inviting the villagers. The monks arrive, speaking of a miracle in finding Zacharias dead in the chapel, killed by the Virgin for having set fire to the monastery. Unbeknownst to the monks, Zorba was the one who moved the body.

Zorba tests the cable railway, which ends in disaster. The villagers and workmen flee, leaving Zorba and the narrator to eat and talk alone. Far from being angry, the narrator asks Zorba to teach him how to dance. He feels satisfied by the experience despite its failure. The narrator feels a premonition after receiving a letter from Stavridaki, but he ignores it.

The narrator leaves Crete a few days later, saying goodbye to Zorba. When he arrives in Iraklio, he receives word that his friend Stavridaki has died. Five years pass in which the narrator occasionally receives letters from Zorba. Zorba has continued traveling and finally remarries in Serbia. He asks the narrator to come see a beautiful stone, and while the narrator is tempted, he does not go. The narrator keeps Zorba and Stavridaki in his thoughts. One day, the narrator feels another premonition that compels him to write about his experience with Zorba. When he finishes, a letter arrives and reveals that Zorba has died and left his santuri (instrument) to the narrator.

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