Books and Code · A Miscellany

Zorba the Greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis (A Review)


This summer my wife and I took a cruise through Greece. When I travel I try to read quality books from the place I’m visiting to try to get a feel for the culture and its mindset. As is my wont, I bought some Greek books including Kazantzakis’ famous novel Zorba the Greek.

The novel follows the experiences of an idealistic intellectual as he moves to rural Crete to re-open a lignite mine with the help of an eccentric older man–the eponymous Zorba–who he meets in Piraeus on the way. Zorba is a “salt of the earth” type, an everyday philosopher king who makes it his mission to impart his hedonistic world view to our narrator. The plot of the lignite mine is little more than a backdrop for a series of philosophical discussions between the two men and vignettes of their interaction with the local rustics.

Although written earlier and through a different cultural lens, the book reminded me very much of On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Both books glorify a certain disregard for traditional social responsibilities, idealize male relationships to a point bordering on homoeroticism, and dehumanize the feminine. But whereas On the Road is grounded in an ethos of American individualism, Zorba is mired in a Mediterranean nonchalance that I couldn’t help but find distasteful.

Now, I consider myself a lazy man, but my laziness is born out of a conviction that my actions matter and that therefore must not be wasted on undesirable activity. The Mediterranean view from which I recoil feels like the opposite: a fundamental belief that individual action is unimportant.

That said, Kazantzakis’ writing, which I enjoyed immensely even in English translation, is evocative of the Greek islands as a place with a rich, if flawed, cultural memory.

Panorama of Santorini