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Letter from Athens: “You Can Knock on a Deaf Man's Door Forever”

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Photo from the outtakes of movie Zorba the Greek. (Photo by Eurokinissi)

I read a lot in high school in Chelmsford, Massachussets but one book was the most captivating and inspiring, so much so I read it again and again, even carrying the paperback with me for an after school job at the Demoulas supermarket.

So when it was made into a movie and showing right across the street at a late night showing I walked right through the rain in 1964 and sat through it enthralled, finding to my delight a perfect portrayal of the protagonist.

Anthony Quinn was Zorba the Greek, absorbing the DNA of writer Nikos Kazantzakis’ bigger-than-life anti-hero in a way even a great Greek actor could not have.

He was robbed of the Best Actor Award given to Rex Harrison in the goofball, lightweight role of Prof. Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. It wasn’t fair at all.

The book – and film – stand the test of time although, sadly, it's slipping off the radar for too many of today’s young Greeks who think literature is the latest version of the Minecraft video game.

And the world, more than ever during the COVID-19 long-running horror show, needs the intrinsic lessons that rolled off Zorba’s tongue like liquid honey, providing a balm for the soul, and the book should be mandatory reading in Greek high schools.

While we’re locked down and locked in and not going out so we don’t get locked up, returning to the book shows it’s just as riveting as a first read, as is the movie that can be watched over and over to see Zorba shoring up the insecurities of the Englishman Basil, played by Alan Bates, a man afraid of life.

“This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition,” said Zorba blithely as Bates looks around like a lost child, meeting his new  Greek friend in Piraeus and winding up on Crete in a lumber scheme.

As we wonder today whether there will be a next day, which there won’t for too many people taken by the silent killer in the air that makes every breath a worry, it’s soothing to retreat to what Zorba knew provided happiness.

“I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else,” he said, and he meant it and lived it.

But he asked questions too, not content otherwise, giving Bates another query. “Look, one day I had gone to a little village. An old grandfather of ninety was busy planting an almond tree. ‘What, grandfather!’ I exclaimed. ‘Planting an almond tree?’ And he, bent as he was, turned around and said: ‘My son, I carry on as if I should never die.’ I replied: ‘And I carry on as if I was going to die any minute.’ Which of us was right, boss?”

There are more great lines and thoughts in this one book by Kazantzakis than the combined works of other greats of literature. And while Zorba – especially through Quinn, who personified him - said them, they were the words of the writer.

Kazantzakis was nominated nine times for the Nobel Prize in Literature and wrote other giants of thought, especially The Last Temptation of Christ, also made into an electrifying film.

In 1957, he lost the Prize to Albert Camus by one vote, the famed French writer and philosopher having the grace to say that Kazantzakis deserved the honour "a hundred times more" than himself, although he still accepted it in the year that Kazantzakis died.

Kazantzakis also wrote plays, travel books, memoirs, and philosophical essays and was noted in one especially telling line in the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers when a terrified Jack Bellicec, played by Jeff Goldblum, asks out loud, “Where’s Kazantzakis?”

Deeply spiritual but questioning religion, he found the Greek Church unhappy he did and a move was made to excommunicate him, which failed and his reply said it all: "You gave me a curse, Holy fathers, I give you a blessing: may your conscience be as clear as mine and may you be as moral and religious as I.”

Modern scholars believed he was just acting in accordance with Christians who struggled with their faith but grew closer to God through their doubt.

The true beauty of what Kazantzakis believed lived through Zorba, an indelible character who taught a befuddled Basil how to dance on a beach at the end, to Mikis Theodorakis' soulful Sirtaki.

Before that though, he also told him – when Basil feared approaching a widow he longed for, played impeccably by Irene Papas – not to wait, Basil saying he just didn't want any trouble.

Zorba spit out, exasperated, “Boss, life is trouble, only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.” Besides the obvious, it's a typical Zorba-Kazantzakis double entendre, urging you to live before, as Thoreau wrote that he did not, “when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

So while COVID-19 seems like a shroud, it will be beaten by science but also by thought and hope – and Zorba's simple advice. As for me, I'm off to get into some trouble, boss.