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.

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