My favourite novelists are those whose characters went on some wild goose chases, looking for oases in the mirage of life. Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, and Dostoevsky have remained on the top of my list for long. Jose Saramago’s The Gospel according to Jesus Christ and Javier Marias’s Infatuations captured my fancy later. But one writer who has remained above them all for long is Nikos Kazantzakis. His novels explore the conflict between the body and the soul, between “god and man” as he put it. The Last Temptation of Christ, Christ Recrucified, and Saint Francis explore that conflict brilliantly. However, the author’s earlier novel, Zorba the Greek, is what strikes me as the best.
Happiness can be as simple and frugal as a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, or the sound of the sea, says Zorba. The sensuousness of life is to be relished. That is his gospel. But he is not devoid of the spirit. His santuri (a musical instrument) takes Zorba to a different plane from the merely sensuous. But not to the heavens. God and devil have no meaning for Zorba. Life is here and now. Whatever you are doing, do it with full passion. Even if it is making love to an old woman.
Zorba is the opposite of the Buddha. And yet there is something of the Buddha in Zorba too. “This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition,” the narrator learns. “To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them. To eat and drink well, yet to escape every lure and to possess the stars above you, with the land to your left, and the sea to your right, and suddenly to understand that life, having brought its final accomplishment to conclusion in your heart, has turned into a fairytale.”
Jesus in The Last Temptation nailed his body to the cross and thus overcame the temptations of the flesh. Saint Francis, the eponymous hero, transformed not only temptations but also hunger and cold, scorn and injustice, the pain of existence, into a tangible dream through love. That dream was truer than truth. Saint Francis was also converting the body into spirit in his own way.
Zorba lives the life of the body. Yet there is something of the Christ and the Saint and the Buddha in him. That makes a him a saint with a difference. It is that saint that appeals to me much more than the others. Like Zorba, I don’t go on knocking on a deaf man’s door forever. But like the narrator of Zorba, I experience the urge to knock on that door sometimes. It is that urge which prompted Kazantzakis to explore the psyche of Jesus and Francis. It is that urge which makes me look at these characters again and again.
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My previous post on Kazantzakis: Body and Soul