Friday, March 14, 2014

[Review] The Zahir by Paulo Coelho (trans. Margaret Jull Costa)

"No one should ever ask themselves that: Why am I unhappy? The question carries within it the virus that will destroy everything. If we ask that question, it means we want to find out what makes us happy. If what makes us happy is different from what we have now, then we must either change once and for all or stay as we are, feeling even more unhappy."
Rating: 2 Stars
Genre: Literary Fiction
Setting: Somewhere between Milan and Paris
Timeline: Close enough to present day
Synopsis: A successful author's life disappears. He looks for her, and along the way makes some discoveries about love and life.

The synopsis of the book is rather misleading. It appears on the surface to be a love story, but it's actually one of those inspirational stories about spirituality that doesn't make as much sense as the characters want you to believe. Yes, there is a lot of moaning and groaning from the narrator about how much he loves his wife and how much he obsesses over her for every second of his waking life (even though he is a serial adulterer), but the wife seemed more like a plot device for the narrator's self-discovery than an actual autonomous character. For one, she is missing throughout almost all of the book, only appearing in random flashbacks when it is most convenient for the narrator to make some supposedly poignant observation about humanity's many flaws.

I mean, look at the cover of this book. Beautiful right? Check out that subtitle, "a novel of obsession". HMMM, let's think about that one for a second. Who is the narrator obsessed with? His wife? Well he certainly seems to think so. He calls his wife the Zahir.

Now what in the world is a Zahir? Well, some may be familiar with the Islamic concept of zahir, but the zahir that Coelho's protagonist is obsessing over has little to nothing to do with the Quran, but with a short story with the same title by Jorge Luis Borges. How do I know this? Three reasons, the first being that he quotes Borges in the beginning of the novel; the second reason is because Coelho releases another book called Aleph, another Borges story, that is the conceptual polar opposite of the zahir. And finally, the third reason is because of the whole obsession theme (if you read the original short story you will know what I mean).

So the story is not so much about the man's wife, as much as it is about the man's obsession. So let's talk about the obsession, the zahir. In Borges story, the zahir is a concept that materializes into an object, and in his case, it is a 20 centavos coin. However, the object of which the zahir takes is arbitrary. It can be the stripes of a tiger, a painting on the wall, a hole in your shoe, whatever. The whole point is obsession, but where it differs between Borges in Coelho is that in Borges story, there is an element of the absurd in the obsession. After all, anyone who is obsessed with a coin to the point of thinking about it constantly is considered mentally insane, while in Coelho's case... it's more that of a heartbroken man. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some people thought it was sweet.

Now that's where it started to rub me the wrong way. Coelho is romanticizing Borges' concept of the zahir by applying it to the protagonist's pathetic wallowing over his own failed relationship.
"But the Zahir, about which I initially used to think with either irritation and affection, continued to grow in my soul. I started looking for Esther in every woman I met. I would see her in every bar, every cinema, at bus stops."

On another note,  I usually don't talk about authors, but Coelho mainly writes about spirituality and this book is no different. Throughout various points of the novel, he recycles ideas from his previous works (the narrator will refer to the Alchemist in the story). If you have read Coelho before and have enjoyed his works, you had better avoid this one. There's nothing particularly new here. At the very least, the other works are a little more entertaining.

So back to the the novel. The prose flows well, typical Coelho who believes that if the reader doesn't understand what you're writing, than you're not doing your job right. However, I didn't find the prose particularly inspiring, so I can't praise it in that aspect. On a more positive note, Coelho does have interesting ideas, and the narrator thinks and talks a great deal about things like love, happiness, success, work, and other important topics. At times, it does get a bit preachy, and at other times, it seems Coelho gets a little confused about what sort of message he wants to get across.
"'As long as I'm in a war zone, my life has meaning... I know that at any moment someone could lob a grenade into the place where we're sitting, and that makes me live, do you see? Really live, I mean, loving every minute, every second. There's no room for sadness, doubts, nothing; there's just a great love for life.'"
Wait. What? Yes, I understand that people can become addicted to the adrenaline of war. During war, living is reduced to its essence, anything superfluous stripped away as you stand before the massive gulf of oblivion. But to wage war in order to know oneself is selfish. I don't understand this glamorization of war. Yes, you realize what is important in life and you develop bonds that go deeper than blood, but at what cost? To the suffering of millions of others and to the desecration of miles after miles of land that was meant to sustain life? I just can't reconcile with it. People who go on spouting this nonsense that humans need war for peace need to just sit down and cram it. It seems that everyone just keeps throwing the word "love" around and I have no idea what they mean by it anymore.

Unfortunately, the narrator is not a likable person. He spends a great deal of time whining about how miserable he is and then goes off to brag about all his accomplishments. And then, near the end, he supposedly discovers the love of the universe, the ultimate love of God that is everything at once, but he gets extremely critical and judgmental for someone who has supposedly "seen the light".

At no point in the novel does it explicitly say that the narrator is Paulo Coelho, another trick, might I add, along the lines of Borges, who delved heavily into metafiction. It's a turn off for most readers, and probably for myself as well (I do not quite know what to make of it actually). Normally, I would chastise myself for judging a work by comparing it to another work by the same or a different author, but the title, all the quotations that appear before the book even begins, and the constant reference to his own literary life begs for it to be examined that way.

He's no Borges, though that is hardly an insult since I esteem Borges as one of the greats of the greats, a literary monster so to speak.

So anyone who is reading this review who has not already read the story will look at this and wonder what the hell I am going on about and what the hell this all has to do with the story. Everything and nothing. Like I said before, the synopsis is misleading, the work is more like a flirtation with form and existential theorizing than about the actual plot. I found the details hardly consequential. Whether the narrator is sleeping with one woman or another, whether he is in Paris or Kazakhstan, whether his wife is a regular journalist or a war correspondent, whether she is having an affair or murdered, whether he is writing lyrics or novels, none of it matters. It's more like literary masturbation, a kind of self-indulgence for the sake of self-indulgence. He takes Borges story and inappropriately rubs himself all over it. It's seriously a waste of time. I don't even know why I forced myself to finish this book.

In conclusion, I give it 2 stars because it was easy to read, and he made some good intellectual points. The novel did not rise to expectations, given its title, and if you never ever read this work, you wouldn't be the worse off. For the most part, some of the stuff the characters were spouting made no sense (Coelho, you said it yourself. It's not the reader's fault if she can't understand the book, but the author's). If this is your first Coelho novel, or the first time you have ever encountered magic realism and metafiction, you might be impressed, but I say let's just read Borges' version instead.

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