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 prolificwriter in almost all genres. He studied under Henri Bergson, won the LeninPeace 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, hismost famous novel, Zorba the Greek isa rejection of intellectualism and a return to his birthplace—though Zorba maybe a Cretan like no other. By precept and example, Zorba educates a Britishacademic to folly, passion, and the Arcadian basics: “How simple andfrugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretchedlittle brazier, the sound of the sea.”
Kazantzakis wrote Zorba during World War II, when he wasin his sixties and Greece was under German occupation—enduring starvationconditions 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 hisdeath in 1957, was written to show man “that he must not fear pain,temptation or death”; his tombstone inscription in hometown Heraklionreads, “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”
These are pretty muchZorba’s last words too. Zorba the movieends with the famous beach dance, the Boss now evolved to “a man with warmblood 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 thefine sieve of metaphysics.” But in the book, Zorba moves on to furtheradventures and a final, reiterating postcard:
I’m still alive, I’m eatingmamaliga and drinking vodka. I work in the oil mines and am as dirty andstinking as any sewer rat. But who cares? You can find here plenty of all yourheart and belly can desire. A real paradise for old rascals like me. Do youunderstand, boss? A wonderful life … plenty of sweetmeats, and sweetheartsinto 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.