Tuesday, December 2, 2014
My favorite books of all time? That compilation changes faster than New York Times Bestsellers, but there are always a few constants, a few books so great they're always on my list with one book is so wonderful it never leaves my Top Three - Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis.
The book has been a favorite of mine for as long as I can remember having favorite books. Zorba is one of those characters - created by a writer, never flesh and blood except on the page - who is more fervently real than most of the people I meet every day. That's why he gets this month's drink in our newsletter.
"What's happening today, this minute, that's what I care about. I say: 'What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?' 'I'm sleeping.' 'Well, sleep well.' 'What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?' 'I'm working.' 'Well, work well.' 'What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?' 'I'm kissing a woman.' 'Well, kiss her well, Zorba! And forget all the rest while you're doing it; there's nothing else on earth, only you and her! Get on with it!'"
Karen gave me a leather-bound journal on Valentine's Day, 1986, and that quote was one of the first I entered. I'd read books, or articles, or attend a lecture, and if something jumped out at me - into the Journal it went. Books usually got only one entry, and so that was the first entry from Zorba that resonated - then. But then...
...but then, in 1989, I went to Greece for the first time. And took Zorba with me. And we traveled through Greece together, Zorba and I. But reading Zorba? In Greece? It was no longer a passage that resonated - pages resonated. I was overwhelmed.
Happy is the man, I thought, who, before dying, has the good fortune to sail the Aegean Sea.
'The idea's everything,' he said.
Zorba sees everything every day as if for the first time.
It is a great pleasure to enter a Cretan peasant's home....The house appears empty, but it contains everything needful, so few in reality are the true necessities of man.
My Journal, for a time, was taken over by Zorba the Greek. So many of the passages weren't merely a mirror held up to life - they were Life. My Life. That entry about a Cretan peasant's home? My cousin, Geó̱rgios, living in a horio (village) in Crete, owned so few things - but I've not met many men who were happier than he.
My memories of Geó̱rgios: the glee with which he showed me the baby owl nesting in the small courtyard outside his house. He spread its wings wide before returning it to safety.
Katina, his wife, bringing out the tray of Ouzo for the men to share. I dutifully took the shot glass she offered and - having learned during those summer months that the easiest way to drink the Ouzo thus offered was to shoot it, quick - I shot it, quick.
But - when the liquor hit the back of my throat I knew this wasn't Ouzo. It was a strong home brew, Raki, or Cretan Tsikoudia - the Greek version of White Lightning. And Geó̱rgios and the rest of the men gathered there in Kaina, that village in Crete, looked at the crazy young American as he swallowed the undiluted drink - while they merely wet their upper lip with the booze before tossing the rest of the shot onto a dead bush crinkled brown near where the owl nested.
Geó̱rgios would give me a flask of my own when I left - with the admonition that even though I liked it so much, I had to promise to cut it with water. To cut it with a lot of water.
He leaped into the air and his feet and arms seemed to sprout wings. As he threw himself straight in the air against that background of sea and sky, he looked like an old archangel in rebellion. For Zorba's dance was full of defiance and obstinacy. He seemed to be shouting to the sky: "What can you do to me, Almighty? You can do nothing to me except kill me. Well, kill me, I don't care! I've vented my spleen, I've said all I want to say, I've had time to dance....and I don't need you anymore!
Faces change, crumble, return to earth; but others rise to take their place. There is only one dancer, but he has a thousand masks. He is always twenty. He is immortal.
I was about twenty, then, immortal then. Dancing then - lots of dancing, then, with my Theo Niko. My Theo Niko singing - drinking and singing and dancing.
My Theo Yanni - knocking on my door at five in the morning after I left my cousins at three, knocking because I said I'd go with him and milk his goats and check on his olives and water the few crops he had growing all over the island. Little patches of land, some not much bigger than your living room, enough to keep one goat tethered - and so we drove and fed them and milked them and he'd make cheese, later, with this fresh milk.
Or he'd turn on a spigot, in a different area, above a different patch of ground, and the water would run down the small rows where he'd grow feed for his goats, and we'd talk in the cool of the morning and then Theo Yanni would kick a few pebbles with his scuffed boot and the water would change course. The few rocks he dislodged would change the course of this trickle we were following and it would feed another row, and he'd do that - as the water wet the earth - he'd kick a few more rocks, taking his time. There's no rushing in Greece. Everyone takes their time - at least they do on the islands.
And later as the sun rose we came across one goat, just a kid - a runt - and it had been attacked by a billy goat and Theo Yanni knew the kid was in trouble so he threw it into the back of his truck with me, and after we finished our rounds he put it in the cool shed where the milk would ferment. Soon after, though, his son - my cousin, Taki - went in to see how the kid was doing...
And then Taki shot out of the shed screaming, Afto pethane! It's died! It's died!
Theo Yanni ran in and grabbed the kid and tied its back legs together and threw the rope over a beam and hung that goat high, by its legs, before slitting its throat - because, he explained to me while the blade sliced the goat's neck, he had to bleed the goat out. The meat would be useless to him unless he did this - and a waste like that couldn't easily be borne.
Except the goat had died and so its heart had stopped pumping - so no blood pulsed from its slit neck. So my Theo cut the goat down, fast - here was a time to rush, finally a time to rush on the island of Skyros - and Theo Yanni grabbed a bicycle pump from somewhere close, and he stuck the business end of the pump into the main artery of the goat's thigh and looked up at me and at his son, Taki, and at my cousin, Peter - Peter, like me, from California. Taki just screamed some more - Oxi! No! No! - and I looked at my Theo, confused, and so it was left to Peter who understood what needed doing.
And what needed doing was pumping the pump. The pump with its needle stuck into the artery of the dead goat at his feet. Pump pump pump - and suddenly the dirt next to my Theo's patio was awash with blood, the blood rhythmically pumping out of the goat as if by its own beating heart, when instead it gushed because of the maniacal up and down pumping being done by a man from Stockton.
Did Peter smile for the camera, for his cousin, Nick? He did. Was the meat of the goat wasted? It was not - it became souvlaki that night.
Back home? In the States? The story is met with horror, revulsion. But in Greece? On the island? On Skyros it made perfect sense.
To Zorba it would have made perfect sense.
After visiting my family on Crete - the General and his brother, Giorgios, their brother, Andoni - the only other thing I needed to do was visit the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis. He's buried on the outskirts of Heraklion because the Greek Orthodox Church wouldn't let him be buried in holy ground.
No cemetery, then, for Nikos Kazantzakis - for the author of The Last Temptation of Christ.
Anyone would be struck by the simplicity of his resting place. There's no name - no stone that reads—
Born 18 February 1883
Died 26 October 1957
—but there is a cross, wooden and tall. And a headstone, yes, but instead of his name and when he was born, when he died, it has three lines from his work, The Saviors of God. Just those lines, and nothing more.
Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα. (I hope for nothing.)
Δε φοβούμαι τίποτα. (I fear nothing.)
Είμαι λέφτερος. (I'm free.)
I sat there, warm in the Cretan sun, and thought about those words, and Zorba. And my family, near and far. I thought about my mom, who traveled to Greece with me - the first time she'd been back since she left Skyros in 1961. I thought about her reunion with her own mother. Joyous. Thought about the fact that I'd purchased a ring for Karen in Thessaloniki because I was having a wonderful time in Greece - but it would have been infinitely better with her, and so I would ask her when I returned to Berkeley from Greece, I would ask her to marry me.
So could I, too, say that I hoped for nothing when I hoped for so much?
Once more there sounded within me....the terrible warning that there is only one life for all men, that there is no other, and that all that can be enjoyed must be enjoyed here. In eternity no other chance will be given to us.
A mind hearing this pitiless warning - a warning which, at the same time, is so compassionate - would decide to conquer its weakness and meanness, its laziness and vain hopes and cling with all its power to every second which flies away forever.
Funny thing about Zorba the Greek - the book. The book that I love. When Simon & Schuster published it in the United States for the first time, they didn't actually publish a translation of the Greek. They instead published a French translation of the Greek into English.
Greek to French to English.
I'm sure it made sense - but, the problem with that is this: Kazantzakis is a son of his country, and as a son of Greece he reveled in the idiosyncrasies of the Greek language. And Cretan Greek is different from Skyrian Greek is different from Athenian Greek. I can't imagine getting the sort of wonderful detail down on the page that Kazantzakis strove for by doing the Greek/French/English thing.
Thankfully, this month, Simon & Schuster is remedying that by publishing a new translation of Zorba the Greek - their first since the book came out in 1953. I found out about it because Wendy Sheanin looks out for me - she's the Director of Marketing for Simon & Schuster, and yes, it's good to have friends in high places. So there's Wendy in New York, there's their amazing rep, Cheri Hickman, keeping me up to speed on this coast - Book People, we take care of each other.
To say thanks, I mixed up a little something I originally called the Hot Zorba. I wanted it to have rum, because that's the drink the young Greek intellectual shares with Alexis Zorba at the beginning of the novel. Our smart friend wanted to drink sage tea, but Zorba scoffed at that.
"Sage?" he uttered with contempt. "Over here, waiter! Rum!"
In addition to Zorba's preference - the rum - I would have liked to add Tsikoudia. Ouzo, though, is more readily available and I want you to try this - so Ouzo.
At first I called this a Hot Zorba because it's very close to a Toddy. But after tasting it I realized that what I had in my hands was, of course, Zorba the Drink. Please, read the book, drink the drink - and then we'll talk about it.
Zorba the Drink:
.5 oz dark rum
.5 oz ouzo
.5 oz lemon juice
.5 oz honey
3 - 5 oz tea
Mix all ingredients - except tea - in a warm mug. Top off with tea. Garnish with a cinnamon stick, lemon peel and a sage leaf.