Now there’s a thought
Adam Mars-Jones finds Paulo Coelho hurtling towards stupidity as he reaches for wisdom in The Zahir
Sunday June 19, 2005
Buy The Zahir at the Guardian bookshop
by Paulo Coelho
£14.99, pp342Paulo Coelho writes because he wants to be loved. I read because I want to be interested. At this point it’s hard to say which of us is the more disappointed.
A man asks his doctor, an old friend, if he’s out of danger after a recent road accident. The doctor replies: ‘In the world we live in, if a boy goes out to buy five apples but arrives home with only two, people would conclude that he has eaten the three missing apples. In my world, there are other possibilities: he could have eaten them, but he could also have been robbed; the money he’d been given might not have been enough to buy the five apples he’d been sent for; he could have lost them on the way home; he could have met someone who was hungry and decided to share the fruit with that person, and so on. In my world, everything is possible and everything is relative.’
A woman is concerned that her lover is going back to his wife. He explains: ‘Marie, let’s suppose that two firemen go into a forest to put out a small fire. Afterwards, when they emerge and go over to a stream, the face of one is all smeared with black, while the other man’s face is completely clean. My question is this: Which of the two will wash his face?”That’s a silly question. The one with the dirty face of course.’
‘No. The one with the dirty face will look at the other man and assume that he looks like him. And, vice versa, the man with the clean face will see his colleague’s grime and say to himself: I must be dirty, too. I’d better have a wash.’
‘What are you trying to say?’ ‘I’m saying that, during the time I spent in hospital, I came to realise that I was always looking for myself in the women I loved. I looked at their lovely, clean faces and saw myself reflected in them. They, on the other hand, looked at me and saw the dirt on my face and, however intelligent or self-confident they were, they ended up seeing themselves reflected in me and thinking that they were worse than they were. Please, don’t let that happen to you.’
In any sensible part of the planet, the patient in the first conversation would look for a doctor who wasn’t so fond of the sound of his own voice, and the woman in the second would look for a lover less in need of poking with a stick. In Coelho’s world these discussions pass for illuminating, and the next fatuous parable is just around the corner. Nothing hurls a writer into stupidity more rapidly than the desire to be thought wise.
The unnamed narrator-hero is a world-famous writer about spirituality, who has written a novel about a shepherd who goes in search of his dream, a treasure hidden in the pyramids of Egypt (the story of Coelho’s The Alchemist), and also a memoir of walking the road to Santiago – like Coelho’s The Pilgrimage. Coelho has subtracted, though, from this self-portrait (and in fact the whole book) any lively detail. The narrator is from an unnamed country rather than Coelho’s Brazil. He lives in Paris, but it is a Paris stripped of anything specific. The book eventually relocates to the featureless steppes of Kazakhstan, but the contrast isn’t as strong as it needs to be. The narrator maintains that ‘the visible world always manifests itself in the invisible world’, but it’s actually the visible world which gets short-changed here.
Coelho gives his narrator a war-correspondent wife, Esther, who disappears. Gradually he realises that her disappearance is a sort of message, a challenge to him to rethink his emotions and make them worthy of hers. She becomes the ‘Zahir’ of the title, a blinding obsession. Unfortunately, simply repeating the words ‘Esther’ and ‘Zahir’ in close conjunction can’t make this persuasive. Lost socks have been sought with more passion than this lost wife. On balance, there’s more psychological depth in Calvin Klein’s Obsession than in Paulo Coelho’s Zahir.
One clue to the awfulness of this book may be that Coelho writes a weekly syndicated column. Anyone who has written a regular column knows that making bricks without straw is an occupational hazard. Coelho seems to have reached a stage where he would hardly recognise straw if he fell over a pile of it.
In his central figure, not-quite-Paulo, he has created (I imagine by mistake) a devastating portrait of a man whose stock in trade is spirituality but who is worldly to his very toenails, exquisitely attuned to his own status. He is constantly reminding himself how many books he has sold, how many languages they have been translated into, and that he is ‘despite all the adverse reviews, a possible candidate for a major literary prize’. When he takes up with another woman (strictly to dispel the Zahir, of course), he chooses a successful French actress of 35, on the grounds that she was the only candidate to enjoy his status, ‘because she too was famous and knew that celebrity counts’. Celebrity is an aphrodisiac. ‘It was good for a woman’s ego to be with a man and know that he had chosen her even though he had had the pick of many others.’ And the man’s ego, does that come into it? Not-quite-Paulo is too gallant to reveal his own age, but if he is indeed a refraction of the author then he is 20 years Marie’s senior. It’s adorable that he should regard himself so solemnly as the trophy in this pairing.
The grotesque climax of this portrait comes at a formal dinner which has no bearing on the plot (but then padding can become second nature). Some of the guests give him a smile of recognition, ‘others merely smile and don’t recognise me at all, but pretend to know who I am, because to admit otherwise would be to accept that the world they’re living in doesn’t exist, and that they are failing to keep up with the things that matter’. People can be so shallow sometimes!
At his table he tries to jolt conversation out of its usual ruts: ‘Try doing something different every day – like talking to the person on the next table to you in a restaurant, visiting a hospital, putting your foot in a puddle, listening to what another person has to say, allowing the energy of love to flow freely, instead of putting it in a jug and standing it in a corner.’ If his literary career doesn’t work out, not-quite-Paulo might have a future in greetings cards. When this approach doesn’t work, he challenges his fellow guests to reveal how much money they earn in a year.
An Arab prince says that he earns 20,000 euros a month, but has an unlimited entertainment allowance. Others testify to comparable amounts. Only one young woman refuses to play the game. ‘Afraid of feeling humiliated by her miserable salary, she had, by acting all mysterious, managed to humiliate everyone else, not realising that most of the people there lived permanently poised on the edge of the abyss, utterly dependent on those entertainment allowances that could vanish overnight.’
Not-quite-Paulo reveals that he earns five million dollars in a year in which he publishes a new book, and two million otherwise. Then the young woman has the nerve to say: ‘You only asked the question so that you could say how much you earned.’ She just doesn’t get it. She badly mistakes her position in the pecking order. The poor shouldn’t exploit their advantages to humiliate the rich.