By Marietta Papathanasiou

At the sound of each word, images may come to mind. When “Greece” is mentioned, people tend to think of the Aegean sea, the sun, the clear blue skies, the islands… There might be thousands of images that spring to mind but there is only one music that fits perfectly: the music of Zorba the Greek!!

It may come as a surprise but Zorbas is not a fictional character: George Zorbas was born in 1865 in Northern Greece, at the time still part of the Ottoman Empire. Son of a wealthy sheep- owner, he finds work in a mine, where he falls in love with the daughter of his supervisor.  When she gets pregnant they elope in fear of her father who did not approve of Zorbas. They soon get married and have twelve children but unfortunately only eight survive.  After the death of his wife, at age 50, Zorbas decides to become a monk and heads for Mount Athos. During his stay, he meets the author Nikos Kazantzakis and they form a strong bond. Together they head to Peloponnese for a new mining venture. In time they drift apart as Zorbas moves abroad and gets married again. When he dies in 1941, Kazantzakis decides to pay a tribute to his old friend and their adventures together by writing “Zorba the Greek”. Through the pages of the book one can’t help but sympathize with Basil, the English introvert writer that turns away from love and life and finds shelter in the words of Nietzsche and Buddha. But mainly, no one can resist Zorbas’ lust for life, his plain philosophy and his ability to express himself freely, even in rough times. The story of their friendship takes place in a small village in Crete where life is hard and people don’t have any mercy to spare. There, secret passion is fatal, morality can be inhuman and human weakness will be widely ridiculed.  “Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas” was published in 1946. It has won the award of “best foreign novel” in 1954 and has been translated in dozens of languages. More than fifty years later, it still remains Kazantzakis’ most popular work.

In 1965, Alexis Zorbas hits the big screen as “Zorba the Greek”.  The leading role is played by Anthony Quinn and the character of Basil by Alan Bates. The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won three. Lila Kedrova won the well-deserved Oscar for the best supporting actress as the tragic figure of Madame Hortense, the “foreigner”. The original score of the movie by composer Mikis Theodorakis may not have won any awards, but it still is the music that defines Greece. What few people know is that the famous Greek “syrtaki” dance at the end of the movie originated from that film as it was created especially for the “Zorba dance”. Everybody knows it: It starts with small steps, gradually getting faster and at the end you are almost out of breath but with a big smile on your face. Just as life should be…