Kazantzakis & Zorba

February 18: On this day in 1883, Nikos Kazantzakis was born in Heraklion, Crete. Kazantzakis was a philosopher, a doctor of laws, a politician, and a prolific writer in almost all genres. He studied under Henri Bergson, won the Lenin Peace Prize, missed the 1957 Nobel by one vote, translated Goethe and Dante, wrote a 33,333 line sequel to the Odyssey, and traveled the world for much of his expatriate life. Notwithstanding, his most famous novel, Zorba the Greek is a rejection of intellectualism and a return to his birthplace—though Zorba may be a Cretan like no other. By precept and example, Zorba educates a British academic to folly, passion, and the Arcadian basics: "How simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea."


Kazantzakis wrote Zorba during World War II, when he was in his sixties and Greece was under German occupation—enduring starvation conditions so severe that he and his wife would stay in bed to conserve energy. His letters convey a similar resolve and passion; his The Last Temptation of Christ, published just two years before his death in 1957, was written to show man "that he must not fear pain, temptation or death"; his tombstone inscription in hometown Heraklion reads, "I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."


These are pretty much Zorba's last words too. Zorba the movie ends with the famous beach dance, the Boss now evolved to "a man with warm blood and solid bones, who lets tears run down his cheeks when he is suffering, and . . . does not spoil the freshness of his joy by running it through the fine sieve of metaphysics." But in the book, Zorba moves on to further adventures and a final, reiterating postcard:

I'm still alive, I'm eating mamaliga and drinking vodka. I work in the oil mines and am as dirty and stinking as any sewer rat. But who cares? You can find here plenty of all your heart and belly can desire. A real paradise for old rascals like me. Do you understand, boss? A wonderful life ... plenty of sweetmeats, and sweethearts into the bargain, God be praised! All the best.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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