I picked up “The Zahir” before leaving Tokyo airport in September. Paulo Coelho is a new author, the story line sounded adventurous and I had precious few options in the “English” or rather, foreign book section. I started reading it in Hawaii on vacation and finished it in the course of two days. Here is my experience.
Alas, try as I might, I did not find much of anything likable about Coelho’s book. He did not show true effort at either good writing or good story telling. Coelho’s writing style is dry and flat. His words and phrases hang on a page, hardly able to carry me to the next page. His phrases do not flow. They do not inspire, move, or excite me. Nor do they weave a coherent story.
The main character and protagonist, whose name is not revealed to us, is hardly a likable character. I find him hypocritical, arrogant and delusional. The plot is weak. The writer’s wife, a war correspondent, has disappeared without a trace. Her name is Esther. Two years has passed. He has written books, become famous, has at least one girlfriend and lives a rich quiet life. Yet we find him on the edge of despair and agony, apparently because he cannot pinpoint the exact reason for Esther’s disappearance: Did Esther leave him? Did she leave him for another man? Why would she not disclose the reason for leaving him, if in fact she did leave him? She becomes the Zahir for him, the obsession and the only way out of his misery and agony.
Our main character’s state of confusion is a web of thoughts that weaves itself and loses the reader’s interest in the process. The book takes us through his bizarre and twisted path in a half-attempted search of her, and along the way, a search of self. While the search for self could have made for an excellent plot, the storytelling and characters are much too weak to do it justice.
If I had to pinpoint one quality that divides me from the main character is his dichotomy between thought and action. His thoughts speak to us of his love for Esther and his constant feelings of loss. He tells us they used to enjoy an openly unfaithful and casual marriage. His relationship to her also did not admit to a high level of communication. Yet he lives a perfectly normal life, attends his social functions, enjoys wealth and tends to his girlfriend Marie. While it is hard to argue with the matters of the heart, I found it unjustified that he should miss her so much. It seems to me that he is just deeply curious as to why she left him without an explanation. His expressed agony is inexplicable so I cannot at any point in time empathize with the main character, a sad discovery for a reader.
The other players in the story portray similarly weak and uninteresting personalities. Mikhail, the presumed Russian “boyfriend” of his wife, with his unusual powers of visions and premonitions, adds to the web of bizarre events and does so without raising the curiosity of me, the reader.
Coelho’s claims of massive generalizations are boring at best. He upholds the belief that the world’s people are but lost souls all walking on the brink of despair. No one knows how to be happy, and everyone will deny it at all costs. As though that is not inaccurate enough, the encounters of our main characters with the drunk hippie beggars offers the notion that perhaps, they may know the answer to happiness. Therefore, the responsible hard-working upright citizen is cast as a lost soul, while the beggars drunk on alcohol purchased by the main character, are shown to be more in tuned with the universe. OK then!
Reading is the best pastime for an active mind! If you like to see the other book reviews, check the index of In Print.
One question I kept asking myself is why am I still reading a story I have no interest in. Is it so I can write about it and share with others a fair review of the only book I will ever read by Coelho? I assure you that I continued to read on least of all to find out what happens in the end — justifiably so, as nearly *nothing* happens in the end. I read on because I want to do justice to acclaimed novelists and expand my horizons. I will neither know nor truly appreciate really good writing until I have identified clearly what in my opinion, and mine alone, makes for a fantastic author and a fabulous read. Sometimes, the best way to identify those intangibles is to feel the absence of them. A poor book can deliver that result.
There are some notable passages that I would like to share. There is a point in the book where the main character writes about our progress in life. He signifies the definite point in everyone’s life at which forward progress stops. If we can understand the root of this, we can rise above it.
“…there is always an event in our lives that is responsible for us failing to progress: a trauma, a particularly bitter defeat, a disappointment in love, even a victory that we did not quite understand, can make cowards of us and prevent us from moving on. As part of the process of increasing his hidden powers, the shaman must first free himself from that giving-up point and, to do so, he must review his whole life and find where it occurred”. (p.241)
He goes on to tell us that sometimes, the one thing that prevents our amazing success in life is the fear of our true potential. We fear how fabulously successful and accomplished we can become, and that fear paralyzes us from reaching our true potential and realizing our own dreams. I have experienced this in my own life and never been able to identify my hesitation to fully give in to some goals, and now I can completely understand why. This alone made reading the Zahir worthwhile for me.
Perhaps we can do more reflection and examination of our own lives. Perhaps we learn, even from our least favorite books, something we did not know, the understanding of which will let us achieve more of our goals and dreams.