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  • Prologue to Zorba the Greek
  • Nikos Kazantzakis
    Translated by Susan Matthias1

I have often felt the urge to write about the life and adventures of Alexis Zorbás, an old workman very dear to my heart.

Travels and dreams have been the greatest benefactors in my life; very few human beings, living or dead, have helped me in my struggles. Yet if I were to select three or four who left their imprint most deeply on my soul, perhaps I would pick Homer, Bergson, Nietzsche, and Zorbás.

The first has been for me the serene, wondrously radiant eye—like the sun’s disk—that illuminates everything with a redemptive splendor; Bergson freed me from unresolved philosophic worries that were oppressing my early youth; Nietzsche enriched me with new worries and taught me to transubstantiate misfortune, bitterness, and uncertainty into pride; and Zorbás taught me to love life and not to fear death.

If today I were to choose from the whole world a single spiritual guide, a “guru,” as the Hindus say, a as such a guide is called by the monks on Mount Athos, without a doubt I would choose Zorbás.

For he possessed all the qualities needed to save a pen-pusher: the primitive glance that catches its prey from on high like an arrow; the creative ingenuousness, each morning renewed, that enables him ceaselessly to look upon everything as if for the first time and to impart virginity to the ageless daily elements—wind, sea, fire, woman, bread; the steadiness of hand; the freshness of heart; the bold manly confidence to poke fun at his own soul, as if he had within him a power higher than the soul; and finally his wild gurgling laughter coming from a deep inner source, deeper than a person’s entrails, a redemptive laughter that at crucial moments sprang out of Zorbás’s aged chest, sprang out and was able to demolish, did demolish, all the barricades—morality, religion, nation—that miserable, cowardly people erect around themselves in order to limp safely through their smidgen of life.

When I ponder what nourishment I was fed all those years by books and teachers to satisfy my starving soul and what a leonine brain Zorbás fed me as nourishment in the course of a few months, I can barely endure my anger and sadness. By a mere coincidence, my life was [End Page 241] ruined: I met this too late, when whatever inside me could still be salvaged was insignificant. The great turn-around, the radical change of battleground, the “purification by fire,” and the “renewal” did not happen. It was already too late. And so Zorbás, rather than becoming a lofty, commanding model for my life, was debased and, alas, ended up a literary topic enabling me to smudge quite a few sheets of paper.

This distressing privilege of turning life into art reduces many carnivorous souls to ruin. Having found an outlet in this way, the vehement passion flees from the breast, the soul is lightened; it no longer roams, no longer feels the need to wrestle breast to breast, to intervene directly in life and action. Instead, it rejoices as it admires the way its vehement passion becomes smoke rings that evanesce in mid-air.

The soul not only rejoices, it is also proud, fancying that it is accomplishing something really lofty by transforming an ephemeral, irreplaceable moment in life—indeed the only such moment in all eternity that is made of flesh and blood—and supposedly turning it into something everlasting. And that is how Zorbás, full of flesh and bone, was reduced in my hands to paper and ink. Unintentionally, indeed contrary to my intentions, the myth of Zorbás started to crystallize within me long ago. The mystical process of transformation was set in motion deep within me: at first a sort of musical agitation, a feverish voluptuousness and malaise, as if a foreign body had entered my bloodstream and my system were struggling to subdue and annihilate it by assimilating it. An onrush of words began to encircle this nucleus and to nourish it like an embryo. Hazy...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3265
Print ISSN
0738-1727
Pages
pp. 241-245
Launched on MUSE
1998-10-01
Open Access
No
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