Zorba the Greek is based on Kazantzakis’s friendship with a real person, George Zorba, who helped the author in an ill-fated scheme to mine lignite in Greece. In the novel, the first-person narrator, known as “The Boss” (a title that Zorba gives him), who is a slightly changed version of Kazantzakis himself, journeys not to Greece but to Crete to mine the coal. Zorba, who fascinates and captivates The Boss the moment that they meet, keeps urging his employer to cast aside convention and live life more fully. He demonstrates how to do this by dancing, playing his guitarlike santuri, and spouting life-affirming philosophy and declarations about the nature of God, which are usually jokes and riddles. For example, Zorba explains the chaos of the physical world by pointing out that fishers pray to God to make fish blind so that they will swim into the nets; the fish pray to God to make the fishers blind so that they will cast their nets in the wrong places. Since God is the God of both fishers and fish, sometimes God listens to the prayers of the fish and sometimes to the prayers of the fishers, so sometimes fish are caught and sometimes they are not.
Zorba is also a confidence man, but a good-hearted one; the tables are turned on him by women, for part of the way in which he affirms life is to romance every woman who seems a likely partner, sometimes getting fooled himself and in the process losing much of The Boss’s money. The most poignant episode in the book stems from Zorba’s sexual appetite. Zorba had befriended an old widow who had once been a coquette, and when she is about to die, The Boss tries to get Zorba to marry her to give her a sense of fulfillment.
At the end of the novel, Zorba’s get-rich scheme for transporting coal—a trestle system down the side of a mountain—literally collapses, and The Boss prepares to return to the mainland. Zorba says farewell to The Boss by telling him that he has a good heart but that he lacks one thing to be totally his own man—folly. One must, in other words, be a little crazy to be free.
The novel was adapted for film in 1964, with Anthony Quinn as Zorba and Alan Bates as The Boss, and directed by Michael Cacoyannis. The success of this film helped bring Kazantzakis’s work to a wider audience.
The narrator, a bookish man, decides to experience life by going into mining operations on Crete. While the narrator is waiting with his crates of books for the weather to clear so that he can board his ship, Zorba enters the café and starts a conversation with him. Enchanted by Zorba’s dynamic personality, “the boss,” as Zorba calls the narrator, agrees to hire him as personal cook and foreman at the mine. Although he is in his sixties, Zorba possesses tremendous strength and a boundless appetite for physical pleasures.
They arrive at the village near the site of the narrator’s mine, where they were welcomed by an aging woman, Madame Hortense, who reveals to them her colorful past life as a courtesan. She drinks copiously while reminiscing about pleasures and love affairs, and about being the mistress of French, Italian, and Russian admirals and princes. She is now ready, however, to live a life of reflection and repentance.
Zorba’s infectious exuberance revives the broken harlot. As they dance, she regains her old sensuality and flirtatiousness. The night continues with music, dancing, food, wine, and lust. Zorba and Madame Hortense satisfy their sexual desires. The narrator witnesses all with wonder but cannot see himself engaging in such behavior.
He is profoundly moved by Zorba’s physicality but continues his meditations on philosophy and psychology, always searching for analytic explanations. The narrator is amused by Madame Hortense’s reminiscences but is touched at the same time by the power of experience reflected in her memory. He sees the same attachment and sensibility in Zorba, but in him the narrator can see it in concrete action. As Zorba ages, he grows...
(The entire section is 1,540 words.)