The narrator, a young Greek intellectual, resolves to set aside his books for a few months after being stung by the parting words of a friend, who has left for the Caucasus in order to help some ethnic Greeks who are undergoing persecution. He sets off for Crete in order to re-open a disused lignite mine and immerse himself in the world of peasants and working-class people. Just before his departure he makes the acquaintance of a mysterious 65-year-old man, Alexis Zorba, who persuades him to take him on as foreman. On arrival in Crete, they lodge at the ramshackle hotel of Madame Hortense, an old French courtesan, and start work on the mine — although the narrator cannot resist using spare moments to work on an unfinished manuscript about the life and thought of Buddha. Over the next few months Zorba profoundly influences the man he calls "Boss", and he comes to see this book as an exorcism rather than a celebration of the religious figure it describes. The narrator absorbs a new zest for life from the people around him, but reversal and tragedy mar his stay, and, alienated by their harshness and amorality, he returns to the mainland.