Each country has its well-known and loved literary characters whose essence is deeply connected to the identity of a nation or region. This exhibition is about those characters, introducing the fictional world, authors and cultural surrounding of smaller European states. Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg are represented with their literary characters. Learn about the project


Αλέξης Ζορμπάς (Alexis Zorbas)


The hero of Nikos Kazantzakis’ best known and most widely translated novel. Though the original Greek title was The Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas, it became known internationally as Zorba the Greek. Renamed Alexis in the novel, Yorgis Zorbas was a real-life person and friend of Kazantzakis, who taught him how to love life and not to fear death.

Those who met him speak of a person free of social conventions, illiterate yet ingenious, and profoundly philosophical, which is why he touched Kazantzakis’ soul.

The fictional Zorba embodies the very essence of life in all its manifestations. His main traits are an indomitable life force and intuition. A life force that propels him forward, enabling him to overcome listlessness and inertia, with a deep-running instinct that guides him and keeps him in immediate contact with the essence of things.

As to the major philosophical questions that preoccupy the narrator, through plain thinking and the experience of a tumultuous life, Zorba shows him that the answers - if they do exist - are not to be found in books, but in life itself, as long at it is lived passionately, free of hopes and expectations..

As Zorba himself says of death:

“Act as if death did not exist, and act with death in mind at every moment…”

“…I look on death every moment and I’m not afraid; yet I never say I like it. No, I don’t like it at all! Am I not free? I refuse to sign up!”


Nikos Kazantzakis

Nikos Kazantzakis


Nikos Kazantzakis was born in Heraklion, Crete, when the island was still under Ottoman rule. He studied law in Athens (1902-06) before moving to Paris to pursue postgraduate studies in philosophy (1907-09) under Henri Bergson. It was at this time that he developed a strong interest in Nietzsche and seriously took to writing. After returning to Greece, he continued to travel extensively, often as a newspaper correspondent. He was appointed Director General of the Ministry of Social Welfare (1919) and Minister without Portfolio (1945), and served as a literary advisor to UNESCO (1946). Among other distinctions, he was president of the Hellenic Literary Society, received the International Peace Award in Vienna in 1956 and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Kazantzakis regarded himself as a poet and in 1938 completed his magnum opus, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, divided into 24 rhapsodies and consisting of a monumental 33,333 verses. He distinguished himself as a playwright (The Prometheus Trilogy, Kapodistrias, Kouros, Nicephorus Phocas, Constantine Palaeologus, Christopher Columbus, etc), travel writer (Spain, Italy, Egypt, Sinai, Japan-China, England, Russia, Jerusalem and Cyprus) and thinker (The Saviours of God, Symposium). He is, of course, best known for his novels Zorba the Greek (1946), The Greek Passion (1948), Freedom or Death (1950), The Last Temptation of Christ (1951) and his semi-autobiographical Report to Greco (1961). His works have been translated and published in over 50 countries and have been adapted for the theatre, the cinema, radio and television.


Nikos Kazantzakis wrote Zorba the Greek in 1941, while living in isolation on the small island of Aegina, close to Athens. In a climate already made oppressive by the German occupation, the news of Zorba’s death filled Kazantzakis with despair, and made him want to resurrect his friend by writing the novel.

“Let us give him our blood so he comes to life. Let us do what we can to make this wonderful trencherman, drinker, hard slogger, womanizer and vagabond live a little longer. The broadest soul, surest body, freest cry I ever knew in my life,” as Nikos Kazantzakis writes in the book’s prologue.

First published in 1946, the work has been translated into all but a few languages, and in 1954 won the best foreign novel prize for a work published in France.

In 1964 the novel was adapted for the cinema by director Michael Cacoyannis. Entitled Zorba the Greek, it won three Oscars and became a global box office sensation. The soundtrack was written by acclaimed Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis.

Following the release of Cacoyannis’ film, the specially choreographed “Zorba’s dance” (syrtaki) came to be known abroad as the Greek dance par excellence. The soundtrack LP by Mikis Theodorakis was enormously successful overseas, boosting the influx of tourists to Greece.

Zorba has also been made into a musical, while stage adaptations have been produced by various troupes in Greece and abroad.

An excerpt from the film “Zorba the Greek”

Mikis Theodorakis, composer of the film soundtrack, conducting a performance of the Zorba theme (live 2005)

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