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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Zorba the Greek

Nikos Kazantzakis

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To purchase Zorba the Greek

Title: Zorba the Greek
Author: Nikos Kazantzakis
Genre: Novel
Written: 1946 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 349 pages
Original in: Greek
Availability: Zorba the Greek - US
Zorba the Greek - UK
Zorba the Greek - Canada
Zorba the Greek - India
Alexis Zorba - France
Alexis Sorbas - Deutschland
Zorba il greco - Italia
Alexis Zorba el Griego - España
DVD: Zorba the Greek - US
Zorba the Greek - UK
  • Greek title: Βίος και Πολιτεία του Αλέξη Ζορμπά
  • The Saint's Life of Alexis Zorba
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Peter Bien
  • Previously translated by Carl Wildman (1952)
  • With an Afterword by Niki P. Stavrou
  • Zorba the Greek was made into a film in 1964, directed by Michael Cacoyannis and starring Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good rollicking fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 19/4/1953 Edmund Fuller
Sunday Times* . 14/9/1952 J.W.Lambert
Time* . 20/4/1953 .
The Times* . 13/9/1952 .
TLS* A 3/10/1952 Alan Ross

(* review of previous translation)

  From the Reviews:
  • "The sense of life as a feast top be savoured is strong in this enjoyable book, so full of pleasure in rain and sunshine, dawn and dusk, food and drink." - J.W.Lambert, Sunday Times

  • "Mr. Kazantzakis has achieved a remarkable study of a character and and a conflict and has made Zorba not only credible but convincing." - The Times

  • "For the connoisseur of fiction, whose tastes runs to banquets rather than utility snacks, Mr. Kazantzaki's book, excellently translated, cannot be too highly recommended." - Alan Ross, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Despite the fame of Zorba the Greek -- in no small part thanks to the 1964 film-adaptation -- for more than half a century the novel was only available in English in Carl Wildman's translation -- problematic because, as Peter Bien explains in the Introduction to his new (2014) translation:

The earlier translation was made by someone who did not know Greek and who worked from a previous translation into French.
       Bien notes: "omissions sometimes of many sentences, obvious errors, even commissions" (material not in the original) in the previous translation, and offers what one would have hoped for from the start: a complete translation of and from the original, rather than a Zorba the Greek refracted through a French lens.
       The novel's thirty-five-year-old narrator, self-conscious about being described as a "paper gnawer" by a close friend of his who sets off on greater adventures decides to shake up his life a bit as well, setting forth to Crete to mine for lignite (brown coal). Before his departure he encounters Alexis Zorba, already well into his sixties but still full of life. Zorba seems to have seen and done it all, but still itches for new experiences, and easily convinces the narrator to hire him on. From the first, the narrator is taken by the old man:
Using the simplest human speech, this workman made clear for me the meaning of art, love, beauty, purity, passion.
       The narrator understands that he could use the company and influence of someone who lives for the moment and has such genuine love of life (and women), to get out of his own rut:
My life had taken the wrong path; my contact with fellow humans had ended up as an internal monologue. My degeneration was so great that if I were to choose between loving a woman or reading a good book about love, I would choose the book.
       Zorba, on the other hand, knows that life is for living -- and though the narrator has difficulty imitating Zorba's ways, he is convinced:
"He has discovered the truth," I kept thinking; "he is the way forward."
       Nevertheless, the bookish man continues with his own writing-work. Buddha-obsessed for several years now, he's working on a play -- and continues to do so while in Crete:
     Writing my play Buddha ceased to be a literary game now; it became a struggle against a cataclysmic force inside me, against the massive denial consuming my heart. Upon this struggle my life depended.
       [Kazantzakis did, in fact complete a Buddha-play; see the good overview here. He also went lignite-mining, in 1916-7, with the man the Zorba-character is based on, Yorgis Zorba.]
       Yet the narrator is torn, too:
"I need to escape," I thought, "to escape all the nightmares. Buddhas, gods, fatherlands, ideas. Woe to whoever does not escape Buddhas, gods, fatherlands, ideas."
       Zorba, in fact, is an almost Buddhist ideal -- albeit most definitely not of the ascetic sort:
I admired the gallant simplicity with which he and the world intermeshed, how body and soul were united in him, how all things -- women, bread, intelligence, sleep -- became happily coupled at once with his flesh, turning them into Zorba. I had never seen such a friendly connection between a human being and the universe.
       Much as the narrator admires Zorbas, he can't really emulate him. Admirable though Zorba's philosophy-of-life may be, it doesn't fit the bookish writer who can't quite get out of his own skin. He allows Zorba to lead and push him some, but can't quite follow suit.
       Zorba sees where his friend's problem lies
     "Yes, you do understand -- with your mind. You say: true/false, this way/that way, right/wrong. But what's the result ? I watch your arms, feet, chest while you talk, and they all remain silent, say nothing, as though they're bloodless. So, you do understand, but with what ? The head ? Phooey.
       Throughout, Zorba's insistence on trying to live life: "Full blast no matter what !" makes for an eventful and lively story. There are several violent deaths (and some natural ones, too), a decent amount of womanizing, and some sharp portraits of the locals, from the decadent monks of the nearby monastery to a variety of the villagers. There are also the business-ventures: the lignite mining goes reasonably well, but Zorba has grander ambitions too -- a logging undertaking -- which he plans meticulously, but which doesn't work out as hoped for. Along the way, Zorba also recounts bits and pieces from his very colorful life.
       Larger-than-life Zorba can seem too good to be true, but -- despite the original Greek title of the novel being The Saint's Life of Alexis Zorba -- Kazantzakis' portrayal isn't simply adoringly simplistic. While much about Zorba seems exaggerated, Kazantzakis adeptly humanizes the portrait with a dose of self-doubt and the occasional uncertainty.
       Wisely, the book also only goes so far with Zorba, limiting the extent to which he can dominate the life of the narrator (and reader), as the narrator and Zorba eventually part ways, the narrator understanding that he can not follow in Zorba's footsteps, and that he can't abandon his own bookish ways but rather must follow these through -- though perhaps pushing them and himself to Zorba-like limits.
       Zorba is, indeed, a very memorable character, and Zorba the Greek an entertaining, lively romp that also has considerable depth. Theory and practice, and life and art are tossed against each other, over and over, but Kazantzakis doesn't let his story bog down in the clash(es). Admirable though Zorba is, he also represents an extreme -- as does, if generally slightly less obviously, the chronicler -- and if their examples are hard to follow, they nevertheless encourage and allow the reader to at least consider broader and different horizons.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 March 2015

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Zorba the Greek: Reviews (*: review of previous translation): Zorba the Greek - the film: Nikos Kazantzakis: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Greek literature

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About the Author:

       Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis (Νίκος Καζαντζάκης) lived 1883 to 1957.

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