Saturday, March 29

Why Dr. Rieux is a Better Narrator Than Zorba’s Boss
Albert Camus’s The Plague and Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek are each told by a narrator who is a character in the story. I will argue that the narrator of The Plague does his job more effectively than the narrator of Zorba the Greek because Camus’s narrator has more valid reasons for writing his chronicle and is better at persuading me to read his tale than Kazantzakis’s narrator. I will use as my evidence the fact that the serious manner and historical aim of Camus’s narrator imbues his tale with a universal importance, thus compelling the reader to continue reading, whereas Kazantzakis’s narrator’s personal motivations do little to persuade the reader that his tale is of importance to anyone other than himself. I will also discuss the fact that the professional air of Camus’s narrator garners more respect for him as a storyteller than Kazantzakis’s narrator, who seems to have little respect for himself or his craft.
One of the most important questions one must ask when considering the narrators of The Plague and Zorba the Greek is whether it is easier to sympathize with the third-person distance of Dr. Rieux or the first-person immediacy of Zorba’s boss. The objective detachment of Dr. Rieux is colder and more impersonal than the impassioned storytelling of Kazantzakis’s narrator, but I find I’m more willing to listen to Camus’s narrator due to his clinical approach. Dr. Rieux’s clinical detachment comes from the fact that he wants to portray the “grave events” of his tale accurately and objectively, but also because he’s not seeking any glory for writing them down. On page six he says “[a narrator’s] business is only to say: ‘This is what happened’” and that “the narrator...would have little claim to competence for a task like this, had not chance put him in the way of gathering much information, and had he not been, by the force of things, closely involved in all that he proposes to narrate.” He also feels he needs to give “justification” for writing his story down. He goes about storytelling like a very professional news reporter who hones his work to give an accurate portrayal of events, similar to the way his friend Grand agonizes over writing one phrase. I see Rieux’s wish for accuracy reflected in Grand’s feverish editing, and his precise “just the facts” style of reporting represented in Grand’s statement that he has finally “cut out all the adjectives” (306). By contrast, Kazantzakis’s narrator describes his goals and reasons for writing as personal ones, “I had, without knowing how, engraved on my mind the double task I had to accomplish on this shore: Escape from Buddha, rid myself by words of all my metaphysical cares and free my mind from vain anxiety” (55). Like Rieux, Zorba’s boss sees writing as an important undertaking, but he does not have any “grave events” or ideas of important historical magnitude to convey to the reader. Why should the reader care that he needs to, as he says, “[m]ake direct and firm contact with men?”
At the beginning of The Plague, the as-yet-unrevealed Dr. Rieux gives very compelling reasons for why he wants to tell the story of Oran’s plague, the chief reason being “that it actually did happen, that it closely affected the life of a whole populace,” and that he wants to “play[...] the part of a historian” for these events (6). Describing his story as true and serious convinces me that it’s information I need to know and that I should keep reading. In contrast, the narrator of Zorba the Greek doesn’t give any reason why his story is important other than to say that Zorba helps him to understand “[t]he meaning of the words, art, love, beauty, purity, passion” and that because of this, “Zorba [i]s the man I ha[ve] sought so long in vain” (12). This statement lets the reader know why Zorba is important to the narrator, but it doesn’t make a convincing argument for me to read the narrator’s story about Zorba.
I also respect Dr. Rieux more as a narrator because the seriousness and professionalism discussed above show that he treats himself and his writing with respect, while Kazantzakis’s narrator doesn’t respect himself much and allows his friend to make fun of him for being a writer, or “bookworm.” On page five of Zorba the Greek, the narrator describes his “great friend” Stavridaki with all the tenderness of a lover: “I gazed at him intently for a long time...I wished to make a mental note of his features...his bluish-green, luminous eyes...youthful face...intelligent and disdainful expression...his aristocratic hands with their long, slender fingers.” Immediately thereafter, the beloved Stavridaki mocks the narrator, asking him “how long are you going on chewing paper and covering yourself with ink?...Au revoir, bookworm!” From this point on the narrator internalizes his friend’s mocking attitude, referring to himself as a “barbarian” compared to Stavridaki, “the intelligent, ironical, civilized man.” He goes on to describe his embarrassment at feeling upset over parting with his friend, who attempts to shame the narrator about showing his feelings, “[h]e looked at me, astonished. ‘Are you so moved?’” A short time later, the narrator makes clear the extent to which his friend’s words have affected him: “If only I could live again the moment of that anger which surged up in me when my friend called me a bookworm! I recalled then that all my disgust at the life I had been leading was personified in those words” (8). This man obviously does not have confidence in himself or his convictions if his friend can so easily make him feel bad about the life he’s chosen to lead. It’s also somewhat ironic that he’s just referred to his friend as an “intellectual” but beats up on himself for living the life of an intellectual.
The above-mentioned factors lead me to believe that Kazantzakis’s narrator is a hypocrite who is full of self-loathing, so I don’t see why I should read the story he’s telling if he hates himself for the very act of writing it. Stavridaki as much as calls him a hypocrite for not joining him in the Caucasus: “‘Don’t you preach: “The only way to save yourself is to endeavor to save others?”. . .Well, forward, master. You’re good at preaching.’” The narrator next admits his cowardice, “I was listening, passively, as if pain was a dream and life some absorbing tragedy, in which nobody but a boor or a simpleton would rush onto the stage and take part in the action” (5). He is too conflicted; he’s writing a story but hates himself for writing rather than having the guts to help his countrymen in the Caucasus. What would Rieux say to this? He tells Tarrou on page 126 of The Plague “when you see the misery it brings, you’d need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague.” Rieux compares plague to war on page 37, and when I consider this, I cannot see Kazantzakis’s narrator as anything but a coward in comparison to Rieux, who ends his tale by saying that he “resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure” (308). Perhaps if the narrator of Zorba the Greek were less of a coward, he would join his friend in the Caucasus and write about those events, which would certainly be of more historical significance than his own personal tale.
In conclusion, I feel that The Plague’s Dr. Rieux is a more professional and critical thinker in the way he approaches his writing than Kazantzakis’s narrator. Dr. Rieux makes me believe it’s essential that I read his tale because of its historical importance, while Zorba’s boss tells me he is writing for personal reasons that have meaning only for him. Most importantly, I cannot respect Kazantzakis’s narrator because when I compare him to Camus’s Dr. Rieux, he appears to be a coward with little self-respect.