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This Side of Awe
a review of Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

a book review by Kristianne Huntsberger

I  went first to Piraeus and booked a deck seat for the overnight ferry to Crete, a voyage I had no trouble sleeping through, having been in planes, busses and trains for forty-eight hours. Other than the trusty Lonely Planet Guide to Greece, I had brought only Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek. Though my friend Paul, hoping to save me from embarrassment, had made me promise I would not take this book on my trip, I disregarded his advice and embraced my tourist cliché. Even at the beginning of the trip, waiting at that ferry port in Piraeus, it became clear that I was of two and conflicted minds. Part of me felt the grave obligation to visit every possible monument and archeological site. Part of me needed to take a long overdue vacation. It is partially my American inheritance, but I am notably reluctant to let go and relax on vacation. I came prepared to research and work on a fieldwork assignment I gave myself in order to have something productive to show for my time. Little space was made in my scheduled to sit and watch the sea or the sunrise. I had nobody to resent for this but myself. This may be why Kazantzakis’ pair of characters in Zorba the Greek felt immediately familiar. True to my embrace of cliché tourism, I followed the story like it was a key to my own condition and searched the conflicting motivations of the staunchly self-motivated narrator and the impulsive and earthly Zorba as though they were my own.

The novel is driven by a model of Cartesian dualism played out in the conversations and activities of Zorba and the narrator. Their opposing qualities unexpectedly unite them as the two men go into business together, maneuver social interactions with the local villagers and share fireside conversations about belief, pleasure, politics, war and other topics that highlight their conflicting approaches to life. Zorba’s wisdom is immanent and comes from life experience as varied as the narrator’s is limited. The narrator is stoic and intellectual and expresses fascination, if not envy, for Zorba’s visceral connection to the physical world and the human condition. It is Zorba who engenders hospitality from their neighbors and respect from their workers. Zorba’s celebratory hedonism connects him to the world that the narrator feels removed from. Of himself, the narrator says, “I alone was impotent and rational, my blood did not boil, nor did I love or hate with passion. I still wanted to put things right, in cowardly fashion, by laying everything at destiny’s door.” He questions the value of his knowledge and the extent of his inaction under the influence of Zorba’s genuine curiosity and passion: “[Zorba] interrogates himself with the same amazement when he sees a man, a tree in blossom, a glass of cold water. Zorba sees everything everyday as if for the first time.”

By living with undisguised sensuality Zorba’s innate understanding is romanticized throughout the first half of the book. Only when conflicts with business, village politics and emotional responsibility crop up, do we begin to question the ethics and the sustainability of Zorba’s style of reasoning. His own disillusionment comes furiously, full of the same childlike vitality as his curiosity. He demands of the narrator, “I want you to tell me where we come from and where we are going. . .you must have chewed over about 50 tons of paper! What did you get out of them?” The narrator is wrought with Zorba’s distress and says, “How I would have liked to be able to answer him! I felt deep in me that the highest point a man can attain is not knowledge or virtue or goodness or victory, but something even greater, more heroic and more despairing: Sacred Awe!” He had seen Zorba’s potential to achieve this awe. Like the narrator, our opportunity to aspire to this awe, comes through the strategies of release garnered from Zorba’s life. Consciously or not, it was for the exchange between Kazantzakis’ characters that I was able to finally relax the pacing urge to see every site and artifact of Greece and instead chat with a Cretean man over cold cups of Retsina, stand in the still blue water or lie in the sun and go at dawn to sit among the Chamomile, and the strawberry red poppies and watch the sun rise over Athena’s temple in Delphi. I wonder if it becomes easier to mediate this dissention between drive and leisure, between thought and feeling. Standing on the coast of Crete the narrator suddenly recognizes that he is happy and he notes, “While experiencing happiness, we have difficulty in being conscious of it. Only when the happiness is past and we look back on it do we suddenly realize-sometimes with astonishment-how happy we had been. But on this Cretan coast I was experiencing happiness and knew I was happy."

 


 

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