Book Reviews

‘The Zahir’ by Paulo Coehlo

I have just read ‘The Zahir’ by Paulo Coelho.  In the normal run of things, it would not be a book that I would read, since I think he is the kind of author who subverts the plot to his own philosophies; nonetheless, I did find it very interesting and I imagine that the parallels and messages that I saw are the same ones that anyone who has experienced a disintegrating relationship sees.  Some of the thoughts and conversations are thought provoking. I did not particularly like the style though, however I realise it is a very considered one, aiming to be non-pretentious, but still, it didn’t quite ring true for me.

It’s a difficult book, since it specifically examines and questions the nature of obsessive love of one human being for another and yet one feels that the only truly manifested obsessive love in the book is the love the anonymous protagonist feels for himself.  One never entirely believes in his overwhelming love for Esther [possibly a pun on ‘is her’], she is rather more a vehicle/mirror for revealing his own inadequacies and shortcomings.  The gradual change in his own perception of himself and his subsequent behaviours, which both Marie and Mikhail comment upon, are not particularly deep or life changing e.g. the walking on ice [possibly a take on Jesus walking on water?] and the dinner party conversation about banking [possibly a take on Jesus routing the money lenders in the temple?] are a bit weak, in my view.  But then perhaps they are deliberate, since he is a bit of a fool really and he knows it.  As the young girl at the dinner table says, “You only asked the question so that you could say how much you earned.”

 There are some lovely lines in the book and it is full of lots of quotable quotes, but again when I examined the bits I liked, the more I thought about them, the slightly less penetrating they seemed.

 For example:

“My heart might be bruised, but it will recover and become capable of seeing beauty of life once more. It’s happened before, it will happen again, I’m sure. When someone leaves, it’s because someone else is about to arrive–I’ll find love again.”

I don’t really buy that, but it sounds great, but because the protagonist moves from one lover to another so easily, lines like that are undermined.

 However, this I thought more interesting:

“Writing is one of the most solitary activities in the world.”

And I enjoyed the examination of what it is that makes a writer a writer.  The fact that Esther’s author husband can never really explain what it is that inspires him, that writing is always an organic process, the writer often writing things that he doesn’t understand until he actually writes them.  The book perceived as an extension of the ego.  Of course, we are not meant to forget that it is Esther who managed to give him the security and space to begin to write.  She is his alter ego and I liked this aspect of the book.  It reminds one of the saying ‘that behind every great man is an even greater woman’ [or something like that, I can’t quite remember].

And of course, there is this bit:

When I had nothing more to lose, I was given everything. When I ceased to be who I am, I found myself. When I experienced humiliation and yet kept on walking, I understood that I was free to choose my destiny. Perhaps there’s something wrong with me, I don’t know, perhaps my marriage was a dream I couldn’t understand while it lasted. All I know is that even though I can live without her, I would still like to see her again, to say what I never said when we were together: I love you more than I love myself. If I could say that, then I could go on living, at peace with myself, because that love has redeemed me.”

I cannot honestly say what I think about it.  For me it seems a selfish and indulgent thought totally lacking true humility and thus ultimately, I am unable to believe in it or the character.  What use is his telling Esther he loves her more than himself, if he still plans to continue to live in his own materialistic world, quite content with his newly gained redemption achieved only through her?  Her love has redeemed him, but what has it done for her?

The ending I liked, and again I think a ‘Jesus thing’ is going on.  Esther pregnant [by a sort of holy man] and poor old Nobody [recently naked and blessed] comes to collect her and she requests a horse to take them back to civilisation.  Mary, Joseph, donkey and the Christ Child born again, perhaps?  It certainly fits the pilgrimage and redemption themes of the book.  Pure new love envelops the world and aims to save all the poor old sinners.  I like it that the love emanates from Kazakhstan, a very bleak location and a deliberate juxtaposition to the city of Paris.  Kazakhstan is a land damaged by Soviet Communism, ecologically, economically and also spiritually.  And yet love and hope are still conceivable, even in such a raped and inaccessible land still recovering from a tyrannically imposed atheism.

This is an interesting book and I am glad it was recommended to me.  The treatment of the question of how to deal with a difficult past and move on to a new and more happy future is a thought provoking aspect of the book and I found some of the ideas and concepts helpful.

Ultimately, however, I will not be placing this book on the top of my pile of obsessive-compulsive comfort-reading books.


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