Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Zorba the Greek - Nikos Kazantzakis

ISBN: 0-571-05265-7

What a man! If the world could be lived according to Zorba, then what a better place it would be...I think.

Written in the middle of the forties, but set in the Thirties, we are transported to the island of Crete, where our hero has travelled with his new found companion and employer, our narrator. Over the period of the novel, we are regaled with the philosophies and ideals of this well travelled Macedonian; he has been a fighter for causes, a lover of women, a callous handed worker and an international drifter. But he exudes confidence and trust wherever he goes. His ability to compartmentalise the various parts of his history, as well as his present day affairs makes him somebody that you could confide your innermost thoughts to.

The story is based around the opening of a disused mine on the island by our narrator, which will give our narrator, an intellectual, a chance to get amongst the working classes and the peasants. Zorba becomes his manager of the mine, working alongside and leading the workforce, spending the evenings in the same accommodation as his new found Bhudda studying owner. It is during the evenings, over simple foods that they discuss the philosophies of the world at large, people in general and the two of them in particular. As the story advances, they discover that although their lives have been lived in totally different ways; with different upbringings, ideals and beliefs, they are not so far apart after all. All this, and set against the coastline of the island, facing south.

In the writing of this work, Kazantzakis has split the text into two at many levels. He has two conflicting outlooks that come together, realising that the Bhuddist way of seeing the world is not that far different from the coarse but honest way of Zorba. There are the social differences between our two protagonists that eventually meet in the middle, the immediacy of Zorba as opposed to the considered approach from the owner of the mine. Finally, and with equal importance, there is a different approach to love, with Zorba becoming emotionally attached to a lady with a colourful past that included many gentlemen of military standing and the owner becoming attracted to a local widow in a much more genteel way. Both relationships will end in the same way, but by totally different routes.

The final parting of company by these two men comes across as inevitable, but is quite sudden and final when it does come. They both will take a little of each other’s outlooks, views and teachings with them, and although they will never meet again, there is a small twist at the end. As with the rest of the text, two conflicting approaches to the same subject; the end is both bitter and sweet.

It is, then, a fine tale of companionship, honour, belief and manliness. Clearly there are indications that date the work, but the ideals, ethos and ultimate message from Kazantzakis remains as true today as it did when it was written some 70 years ago. Well worth seeking out and reviewing your lifestyle to see if you can be a little bit more like Zorba. I will! 

Sunday, 4 May 2014


The Famished Road
  Ben Okri
                                         ISBN: 0-9-992930-9                                            

This book was the winner of the Booker Prize in 1991,

A tome of a book, it takes us to Nigeria, to a time when democratic (and I use that term lightly) government is on the horizon, and the demise of colonial power is imminent.  The tale takes us to rural countryside rather than the city, and concerns the young life of a boy and his upbringing within a poverty stricken background.
But this only describes a small part of the story; you see, our main protagonist, Azaro, is a ‘spirit child’. As such, he is a part of, and in direct conversation with the spirit world, who want him to return to their world, rather than remaining with his earthly parents. He has encounters at all sorts of times, generally within a forest environment and generally alone, only becoming aware of their importance as he gets older. His ability carries an aura, which can be seen, or felt, by one or two others as we go through the story.

So it seems that we have two complete stories threading through the book, with the spiritual encounters taking more prominence as the text continues. I think Okri uses this device to allude to the future for his country; the forests disappearing, the lives of people changing in future years. The real problem I had were the ‘other world’ parts, where monsters appeared, strange beings, spurting green blood one occasion and having several heads which all need to be chopped off...I’m sure you all get the idea. All this is great if you like that sort of thing, but I found myself starting to skip passages, at the risk of missing an important message for me, as a reader.  I found myself quite relieved each time that Azaro returned to the real life, and the history could continue; his hard working, drunken, violent father, his long suffering but loyal mother, and the landlady of the local bar, where Azaro found a sort of employment. While in the real world, fear of voting for the wrong party, the thugs, the politics and the abject poverty all come out of the pages to instil a powerful dread for the future of this family. In a non-committal fashion, the parties are known as the party for the rich and the party for the poor. The rich party offer all manner of glitter to the poor, and try to overtake the parish, and Azaro’s father chooses the party of the poor. The resulting conflict comes in many different guises. But, how will he resolve this?

I think the book could be a hundred pages shorter and the parts about the spirit world less frequent. However, overall, I am glad I read this book, even though it has been at a second attempt. Although it will not be the first book I pack for a stay on a desert island.