A wonderful tale of a young man’s coming of age, Zorba the Greek has been a classic of world literature since it was first translated into English in 1952 and made into an unforgettable movie with Anthony Quinn. Zorba, an irrepressible, earthy hedonist, sweeps his young disciple along as he wines, dines, and loves his way through a life dedicated to fulfilling his copious appetites. Zorba is irresistible in this charming audio production by veteran narrator George Guidall.
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I listened to this book and loved it so much that I obtained a copy and read it as well. It is definitely a top tier Audible read. The performance is excellent, with echoes of Anthony Quinn in the inflections of Zorba.
Zorba the Greek is a clamorous ode, played with wild abandon on the Greek santori about the fundamental contradiction which is the human soul. Zorba is a character who embodies the force within the human breast to live life at full-tilt with eyes wide open, nostrils flared to miss no smell, a dog joyously hanging his head out a car window taking every sensation into his being. Zorba lives every moment in the moment, fully engaged with his experiences. He possesses a pithy, folk wisdom which cuts to the heart of every issue, but doesn’t waste time with books. He lives life, he doesn’t read about living. This is the central conflict in the book. The narrator, a bookish native of Crete, hires Zorba to run his lignite mine. He is writing a book on Buddhism and contemplates how to live: let go of human desires to reach a higher plane above human suffering. He uses reason to create a protective barrier between life and his soul. Zorba represents direct engagement with life, with the very desires and urges the narrator seeks to overcome. Over the course of the book, Zorba convinces the narrator to live more from his heart by force of example of his joyous embrace of life, but he can not change the essential nature of the narrator, the boss. Each of us has his and her own boss, their inner voice of rationality. Zorba throws up his hands and proclaims, from a heart filled with a deep and inextinguishable love, “There surely must be a hell for a few pen-pushers like the boss!” (p. 306)
Born in Crete in 1883, Nikos Kazantzakis was compelled and tormented by ultimately unanswerable religious and metaphysical questions. Kazantzakis studied law in Athens, philosophy with Henri Bergson in Paris, Buddhism in Vienna, and spent time in a Greek monastery. After traveling widely and publishing many well received travelogues, he started writing novels as he approached 60. These novels, including Zorba the Greek, Freedom and Death, and The Last Temptation of Christ, struggle to articulate ideas about God, human freedom, and human rationality warring against the basic animal nature of the human creature. Kazantzakis wrote in Demotic Greek in a Cretan dialect, creating a small audience for his works, but holding true to his passion for his roots in Crete. He was anathamized by the Greek Orthodox Church in 1955 and The Last Temptation was on the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books. He died in 1957.
This is a book told with compassion for humans pulled in opposing directions by the contradictory desires of the heart and the mind. Zorba is one of the great characters of world literature, an inherently lovable bull-like force of nature. The beauty of Greece, the sea and mountains, the smell of thyme growing wild on hillsides, the taste and texture of bread, wine and olives, the sound of the santori, Zorba’s endless sexual passion, and the wild abandon of Zorba’s animal soul expressed by his primal dance full of defiance and obstinacy, are all inseparable elements of Kazantzakis’ vision.
His prose is filled with aphoristic phrases which perfectly capture the beauty and pain of the human condition. After the death of a soul mate who dies far away in the Balkan war, the narrator writes: "Luckless man has raised what he thinks is an impassable barrier round his poor little existence. He takes refuge there and tries to bring a little order and security into his life. A little happiness. Everything must follow the beaten track, the sacrosanct routine, and comply with safe and simple rules. Inside the enclosure, fortified against the fierce attacks of the unknown, his petty certainties, crawling about like centipedes, go unchallenged. There is only one formidable enemy, mortally feared and hated: the Great Certainty. Now, this Great Certainty had penetrated the outer walls of my existence and was ready to pounce on my soul." (p. 297) The narrator’s dance through this world, as with us all, careens between moments of joy, beauty, wonder, and those of pain, sorrow, failure and death: "As if in the hard, somber labyrinth of necessity I had discovered liberty herself playing happily in a corner. And I played with her. When everything goes wrong, what a joy to test your soul and see if it has endurance and courage! An invisible and all-powerful enemy-some call him God, others the Devil, seems to rush upon us and destroy us; but we are not destroyed. Each time that within ourselves we are the conquerors, although externally utterly defeated, we human beings feel an indescribable pride and joy. Outward calamity is transformed into a supreme and unshakeable felicity". (p. 291-2)
This book is a revelation for its spiritual depth, its evocation of beauty (and its opposite) and the portrait of its passionate hero, Zorba. Listening to this, I experienced the greatest sense of well-being and the greatest heartbreak - to the point of tears. The narrator, George Guidall, is great, as always - one of the best readers I've had the pleasure to come across.