This month the Waterloo Library Reading Group focused on a book written in 1952 by a Cretan philosopher and adventurer. Nikos Kazantzakis was born in 1883 and studied law at Athens University and philosophy at the Sorbonne before travelling for two years with Angelos Sikelianos, a poet, playwright and enthusiastic nationalist. While travelling the two writers poured their energies into finding ways to ‘elevating the human spirit’ through religion, art, writing and travel.
While not an autobiography, Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek is quite obviously influenced by the writer’s life, in particular the time the author spent running a lignite mine on the Mani Peninsula with a miner named Georges Zorba. The book tells the story of an intellectual who, having recently said goodbye to a close friend and fellow academic, meets a miner named Alexis Zorba and decides to experience the life of the ‘working man’ by mining for lignite in a Cretan village. It is written from the perspective of the intellectual, who is consistently in awe of the ability of Zorba and the villagers to live in the moment.
There is an irony to this, which our group talked about; the book tells its readers to get out of the book and into the sunshine, which is tempting in this weather, but also for other reasons. The book idolises the rejection of formal ceremony in favour of a different code of honour. If Zorba is insulted, rather than rationalising he will fight to the death. The reading group preferred this approach to the narrator’s – we were not impressed by the philosopher’s distance as a vulnerable woman he cared for was killed – but we wondered why there had to be a ‘code of honour’ at all.
This might sound like a strange thing to say – honour and justice are of course important. Our problem was that the book fixated on glamourous, heroic, transcendent kinds of ‘justice’ – fights to the death, lines in the sand, higher planes of consciousness – rather than on actual justice. This is illustrated over and over again with the book’s treatment of women. In one storyline a widow refused the advances of a young man, who committed suicide. The village groups together to punish the women for insulting the honour of the young man and his family, form in a circle around her. Zorba pushes away a man who attacks the widow and makes space for her to escape. Just as she is about to get away, she is killed by another man. Throughout the episode the narrator ponders not how to help the woman, but why he does not intervene – the group was extremely unimpressed with this self absorption.
Throughout the book, women are treated as alien creatures, simultaneously on pedestals, eager only to please men, and disposable. Justice, morality and transcendence seem mostly to be framed as male terrain – there is one female character whose inner life is described, but for her nirvana is her own youth and beauty and the men she used to court. We talked about this book as a way to think about attitudes to women throughout history and throughout the world. We also agreed generally that books like this should not be discarded due to political correctness. While Kazantzakis accords too much importance to male honour in the form of the warrior (Zorba) or the intellectual (the narrator), one of the book’s underlying preoccupations is with the futility or ephemerality of any ‘code of honour’ – the book dwells on its own tendency to live life according to a rule book. This book, it seems, is an illustration of mid 20th Century male anxieties. It is also a book that thinks itself into a corner. With that in mind, having read this book we are all quite keen to stop reading and to live life instead.
Samantha, Waterloo Library reading group