The Zahir – Paulo Coelho
After many long years of marriage, the protagonist of the story suddenly and surprisingly finds himself alone. His wife has disappeared without leaving any note, any trail, or any indication of where she has gone and why. Initially under suspect by the police, he is quickly released after the police determine he has nothing to do with her sudden disappearance other than being left behind. However, he does know that his wife spent much time with a mysterious man named Mikhail. Without answers or direction, the protagonist slowly moves forward in trying to reclaim his life while forgetting his now ex-wife, but the importance and emphasis he places on moving forward prevents him from doing so. He becomes consumed with thoughts of his wife and trying to understand what caused her to leave and instead finds himself stuck. With the help of Mikhail, he begins to learn how his ardent pursuit of love prevents him from finding love. He also learns that to move forward, he must leave his past behind. Gradually he puts these lessons into action, and he finds himself released from the grip of the Zahir and once more moving with, not against, the energy of the world.
“The Zahir” by Paulo Coelho is not exactly an autobiographical novel, but is written with himself as the main character. Placing himself at the center of this novel offers a different kind of concreteness for the abstract concepts in the story and makes his usually intense personal exploration even more intimate by speaking as himself (more or less). In keeping with the theme of his other novels, Coelho explores the incredibly complex issues of love, spirituality, and the struggle to live rather than merely exist in the world. His most profound learning comes from beggars, nomads, and other vagabond types, grounding the lessons in seemingly mundane activities that are accessible to all people regardless of socioeconomic standing. In fact, he juxtaposes the artificial reality of strict adherence to social norms among wealthy people with the broad and pure experience of life shown by the tribe of beggars with whom he wanders around Paris, which calls into question the purpose and validity of supposedly polite interactions. Through critical self-reflection and full disclosure, Coelho sets the example while inviting the reader on the journey of struggling, seeking, and overcoming.
I’m a big fan of Paulo Coelho. This is the…fifth book I’ve read by him? Certain pieces of this book really struck a chord with me, particularly toward the end when he started spending more time with the beggars. Overall, though, I felt that the lessons in this book were a bit more abstruse than in some of his other books, and it was harder for me to share the learning of his characters. I also wondered whether some of his comments (particularly about living conditions in third world countries) were meant to be ironic or if they were entirely oblivious. Let’s hope for irony. In general, I would recommend this one. Especially as it gets further into the story and the lessons start to ring true.