Saturday, 6 July 2019

ZORBA THE GREEK by Nikos Kazantzakis

Here is a novel on the exciting subject of dealing with your philosophical problems while also mining lignite in rural Crete.  In my endless quest for something to read I often pick up books in the category of minor modern classic, having finished all the major ones long ago, and usually it’s a good call.  This one: jesus. 

Some tortured young man is off to mine lignite.  (What is lignite?  Nobody knows.  But strangely it also came up in this book that I read this year).  He spends a lot of time writing tortured letters to some friend about a set of what we would today call #firstworldproblems about the meaning of life and the nature of Greek identity.  Then he meets this man Zorba, a peasant who tells him all about his love of a musical instrument, the santuri:

If the wife says one word too many, how could I possibly be in the mood to play the santuri?  If your children are hungry and screaming at you, you just try to play ! To play the santuri you have to give everything up to it, d’you understand?
Yes, I understood.  Zorba was the man I had sought so long in vain.  A living heart, a large voracious mouth, a great brute soul, not yet severed from mother earth.

He’s profoundly inspired by Zorba’s connection to the earth and ability to live in the moment.  It’s so classist I can’t tell you.  It’s a really laughable version of the myth of the noble savage that goes completely unexamined.  Or I assume goes unexamined, because I didn’t get to the end. It was just too stupid.  And the misogyny was hard going.  Regular readers know I give a pass to lots of misogyny, because otherwise there’d be hardly anything left to read from the western cannon.  But this one was tough.  You may have noticed how unreasonable Zorba’s wife was to mention the children starving.  He has lots of other strong ideas like this.  Here is how nefarious of us it is to have children when birth control hasn’t been invented yet.
What can you expect from women? He said. That they’ll go and get children by the first man who comes along.  What can you expect of men?  That they fall into the trap.  Mark my words, boss!
And here’s the part where we enjoy getting raped in war zones. 

How they had entered Novo Rossiisk; how tey had looted shops; how they had gone into houses and and carried off the women.  At first the hussies cried and scratched their own faces with their nails and scratched the men, too, but gradually they became tamed, they shut their eyes and yelped with pleasure. They were women, in fact. . .
I just couldn’t do it.  Indeed, if this is a classic it is extremely minor.  Or perhaps it is a major classic, but of a quite different kind than I had been thinking.

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