Kazantzakis’ iconic novel Zorba the Greek gets new life with a new translation.
Introducing Book Reviewer Peter Karamitsos, who will share occasional musings about books.
Zorba Book vs. Film
Usually when a beloved book is made into a film, people are inevitably disappointed in the film. The obvious reason for this is that when you read a good book you have to create the characters and the story and scenes in your mind. Once it is put to film, it never conforms to your initial vision and the result can be disappointment. With Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, Zorba the Greek, it is quite possibly the opposite; many people have seen the film and few actors ever embodied a role as Anthony Quinn did with Zorba. I have seen the film at least a dozen times and never tire of it. If there were ever a Greek filmmaker with the talent and skill to bring this film and character to life it was Michael Cacoyannis. I love everything about the film—the direction, the performances, the music. Everything.
Zorba the Greek was written in 1946 — so you may wonder why review it now? A new translation by Professor Peter Bien was published in 2014. Professor Bien has written extensively on Kazantzakis’ life, has edited his Selected Letters and has translated a number of the author’s other works including the semi-autobiographical Report to Greco (which I am currently reading).
The previous English version (published in 1952) was translated from French and not from the original Greek. The translator had no knowledge of Greek and while it is still a good read, there were several errors of omission, addition of language not in the original, and other mistakes. In the skillful hands of the Professor Bien, we get much closer to the heart of Kazantzakis’ tale, without reading the original Greek.
Zorba the Novel
If you have never read the novel but have seen the movie, there will be sections in the book very familiar to you. The narrator is the character that was played in the movie by Alan Bates—the boss: a bookish Englishman (a native of Crete in the book) who returns to Crete to explore a lignite mine and to try to become more connected with the physical world. At the same time he’s writing a play about Buddha and examining the larger issues of life.
In the opening chapter he meets Zorba, the epitome of a person living life at a very physical level. Zorba could live a thousand years and still not get his fill of laughter, good food, wine, women, sunsets, and all the wonders of life; yet he’s intimately familiar with the horrors of war, the petty jealousies of people in a small village, and the seemingly random cruelty that people and nature can exhibit.
There are other parts of the book that will also be familiar—some of the lines from the film and several of the characters—Madame Hortense; the widow (played in the film by Irene Papas); and others. As much as I love this book, it really makes me appreciate how Cacoyannis boiled it down to its essence.
Review of Zorba the Greek – new translation
I love this novel. I loved the original version and while I read it years ago, I remember how it made me such a huge fan of Kazantzakis. The first time I read the novel, I did not speak Greek (I learned it in my mid 30’s), so the various idioms and ways of speaking were not top of mind. After reading it this time, I want to read the original Greek.
For fans of the film, reading the book will reward you as Kazantzakis has more time to delve deeper into questions about life. For example, in the first chapter, you’ll be introduced to a friend of the narrator — he does not appear but is mentioned — he exchanges letters with the narrator but his life and experience lend to the narrative.
Seventy years later, this remains one of the great works of modern literature — and it introduced a character as big and full as any who came before or since — and he’s Greek! If you haven’t read it, do so and soon. This is a timeless work.
I caution you—don’t read it expecting it to be just like the movie. Of course you’ll picture Zorba as Anthony Quinn even if the physical description doesn’t always match—just go with it and let yourself be taken on the journey. This new translation makes this masterpiece accessible to yet another generation. And remember—as the Boss/narrator says:
“To hasten eternal rules is a mortal sin. One’s duty is confidently to follow nature’s rhythm”.
Available at Amazon.com
Translated by: Peter Bien
Publisher: Simon & Schuster