Friday, October 9, 2009

The Zahir (Paulo Coelho)

Lately the universe seems to be conspiring towards introducing me to as many books on spirituality and self-discovery as possible. I found The Zahir on my girlfriend's bookshelf, and even though I've seen it there for months, for some reason now seemed like a good time to take a look. Paulo Coelho is a great author—I've already read The Alchemist, The Devil and Miss Prym, and By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, though several years ago now—but I'd begun to think of him as a one-trick pony. He writes books on the power of love and discovery and the way we all should live our lives. After avoiding him these past few years, as I tend to do when I overexpose myself to any writer (I did the same with Chuck Palahniuk around the same time, actually), I decided to take one more look at Coelho and see if he had anything new to offer me.


The Zahir tells the story of a man whose wife, Esther, mysteriously disappears one day from their home in Paris. All of the evidence available leads the man—a famous writer of the same kinds of books Coelho writes—and the authorities to believe that Esther was not kidnapped, but has simply run away. A small scandal erupts in the tabloids, and for a while the writer has a difficult time getting his life back on track. Eventually he writes a new book that deals with his loss. The book becomes a best seller, and the writer rejoins the world he once knew, only to find himself feeling empty without the love of his wife. Then, at a book signing event near his home, the writer is confronted by the man who he believes his wife ran away with. This man ultimately helps the writer begin a spiritual journey that will hopefully reunite him with his estranged wife.

All of Coelho's books are about a spiritual journey of some kind. The Alchemist is one of my favorite novels, because the story is so simple and the message so powerful. In The Zahir, Coelho's beliefs have seemed to evolve somewhat, and while the depth of spirituality feels like a natural evolution from his other works, I'm not yet convinced I feel he made the right choice. It's difficult to objectively critique a book that does its absolute best to make a reader question themselves and the way they live their life—in a good way—by forcing them to take a look around and think about what's really important to them. The Zahir talks a lot about things in life that people focus on too much or too little. The word "Zahir" itself refers to an object, person, or idea that someone cannot get out of their head no matter how hard they try. The Zahir takes on mythical, or even mystical properties, leading the person to believe that their life would be complete if they could just find this one missing piece. In the novel, the writer's missing wife is his Zahir, and he spends most of his time worrying about how to get her back instead of how to improve himself as a person. As is usually the case, I understand and appreciate most of what Coelho writes about in The Zahir. I think he has a tremendous gift for writing down ideas in ways that are easily accessible. That being said, I'm still not sure how I feel about this book.

As I mentioned, I love The Alchemist. It's an exceptionally well-written novel. Coelho's message is framed in such a way that the story can be enjoyed on its own, without the reader feeling weighted down by the spiritual subtext. It's subtle, beautiful, and filled with little one-line mantras that are easily remembered, like "When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too." The Alchemist reads like a fable, and a reader can take what they are ready to take from it and hopefully grow from there. The Zahir doesn't work that way, though. It's not a fable at all, it reads more like a memoir. The narrator—the writer who loses his wife—is basically Paulo Coelho, except some of the titles of his previous books are changed, along with the names of the people in his life. My main issue with The Zahir, though, is that it feels inaccessible to anyone who is not reading it at the exact right time in their life. It is at times quite preachy, and the message is heavy-handed and repeated often: give up your personal history; live in the present; let the energy of love flow through you. As you guys know from the last few weeks of reviews, I've been reading a lot lately about how, more or less, the energy to change a person's life resides within that person. The Lost Symbol was all about discovering apotheosis and the god inside of man. The Gnostic Gospels, while boring, discussed an early form of Christianity that had more to do with an individual's spiritual rebirth than with the physical resurrection of Jesus. The Zahir really dives into an aspect of this type of thinking, the idea that the universe conspires towards your happiness as long as you see the signs and do your best to keep improving yourself. It's just a little too preachy. There were too many characters who seemed to have all the answers, and while I found ways to apply some of their theories to my own life, I wasn't able to connect with them. Maybe it's because I'm young, and unmarried, and not looking back at twenty years of marriage wondering why I don't love my wife the way I did on our wedding day. Or maybe it's because I'm not spiritually ready to let go of my personal history and assume complete responsibility for my happiness. I don't know, though, I've been very happy lately. I'm on a personal journey that's allowing me to do things that I really enjoy and can see myself doing for the rest of my life, and much of that is thanks to a positive attitude I picked up from The Alchemist years ago. The Zahir just didn't hold the same power for me, not at this point in my life anyway.


The Zahir
by Paulo Coelho

This seems like the same product in a different package, and the new package isn't as good as the old package. I needed to connect with the characters a little more.

I'll give the guy props for staying on message, and for having the talent and wisdom he has to write this book as a novel instead of a work of nonfiction. The problem, though, is again that he's done this same thing in the past, but better.

It's a very interesting book, and it's a quick and painless read. I was intrigued by the narrator's journey and did want to know how things turned out in the end. It's possible this is the kind of book that takes a while to sink in, and maybe in the long run it will change my life, but I think it could have been written better.


If any of you have read this one before, please feel free to comment. I'd love to hear what others thought about The Zahir since I'm still kinda up in the air myself.

Keep reading, Genoshans!

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