Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Book Review: The Zahir by Paulo Coelho

I picked up this book because I had read Coelho's book, The Alchemist. I very much enjoyed The Alchemist which was stunning for its simplicity. It is a fable which convinces the reader that we can achieve our truest calling if we pay attention to the ways in which the universe works in our favor. To believe in the message of The Alchemist in no way vitiates a belief in a higher power.

Coelho begins the novel with a quote that explains the novel's title. It credits Islamic tradition with the idea of the Zahir, which has come to mean an obsession which occupies every thought. The quote, from the Encyclopedia of the Fantastic, says that a Zahir "can be considered either a state of holiness or of madness." We learn that the main character's Zahir is his missing wife.

The Zahir is a love story. The narrator is a best-selling author who is initially suspected of foul play in the disappearance of his wife. The novel delineates the narrator's stages of self-discovery as he begins his quest for his wife. During the search, the narrator tackles many philosophical questions and looks deeply into his own soul. As he learns more about himself, he learns more about his wife, the nature of their relationship, and of the institution of marriage itself.

Had Coelho just written a novel that delves into questions of love and relationships, I would say that the novel was wonderful and he achieved his purpose. However, early on, he teases the reader with questions about the nature of happiness and fulfillment. The narrator remembers questions his wife posed before she disappeared. She wonders what brings true happiness and challenges the happiness she sees in the eyes of a couple who she feels are denying what they really feel:
“Look across the street: a couple with two children. They feel
intensely happy when they’re with their children, but, at the
same time, their subconscious keeps them in a constant state
of terror: they think of the job they might lose, the disease
they might catch, the health insurance that might not come up
with the goods, one of the children getting run over. And in
trying to distract themselves, they try as well to find a way of
getting free of those tragedies, of protecting themselves from
the world.”

These questions prompt Esther to take work as a war correspondent. She does not want to protect herself from the world. She wants to feel true fulfillment. Her quest is one that her husband cannot understand: to find out if there are any truly happy people in the world. Alas, in following the narrator’s quest, Coelho loses track of Esther’s quest, which I found to be much more thought provoking and relevant.

One idea, which he does see to its fruition, is that of the acomodador. The acomodador is the “giving-up” point at which we stop progressing in our lives. It might be a disappointment, a hurt, or even some good fortune that we did not understand. In order to move beyond it, and keep growing, we must go back over our lives to find that point in order to free ourselves from it. For the narrator, his acomodador was the point at which he stopped trying to accomplish anything beyond “reasonably well.” Because he feared mediocrity, he failed to master anything.
Perhaps Coelho attempted to take on too many philosophical questions in one novel. As he broached each one, I felt the excitement of being on my own quest. When his characters learned about themselves and each other, his novel succeeded. But when the characters left some questions unanswered, the reader was left with no context against which to form her own answers.

Set in exotic locales, with a very diverse set of characters, The Zahir is a thought-provoking novel. At the heart of it are two people with the courage to pursue their dreams, while advocating for each other. It is a very different kind of love story.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Gotcha Day!

Today is a very special day in my family. Today is what we call "Gotcha Day!" It is a celebration of the day when all the planets were aligned, the heavens were watching their handiwork and a miracle occurred. It is the day when my daughter, born in China, joined her brothers, her father and me. Four years ago today, after three long years of paperwork and fervent prayers, my daughter was placed in my aching arms. And now, four years later, it is so evident that she was intended for our family, but ended up in China during transport. She is our joy. Her two brothers love her fiercely. She is so like each of them in so many ways. I think today of her biological parents and hope that somehow they know that she is safe, flourishing, and dearly loved. I pray that God gives them grace and blessings. This daughter of mine who fills my life with laughter, wonder and love is such a gift. Happy Gotcha Day, beautiful girl.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Don't YOU tell ME who I am!!!!

I didn't support the war and you labeled me unpatriotic. You said I did not support the troops. I did support the troops and I wished they were better equipped, and better prepared. Then I wished they were better rested. Now I just wish they were home.

I support equal rights for everybody. When I lamented the unfair advantages of men in the workforce, you labeled me a "feminazi." When I said any two adult people should be able to form a legally recognized union, you questioned my morality. How can it be immoral to accept my fellow human beings as human beings?

I don't support our president and you think me un-American. I worried about the Patriot Act and you said I aided and abetted terrorists. It might surprise you to know that I have an abiding love and respect for the living document that is the Constitution. I fear for our liberty because of the liberties which have been taken with the Constitution, and the ramifications of such on our future.

I complained about illegal immigrants and you called me a bigot. Oh yes, I know my own ancestors were immigrants, but they were here legally and they paid taxes until they died. And many of them, because of their ethnicity, took jobs that no one else wanted.

I am an American. Generations of my family, including this one, have fought for the freedoms I do not take for granted. We pay our taxes, vote in every election, and love our country. Don't presume to tell me who I am.