The Alchemist was an enlightening and enriching read that left me with all the warm hearted, open minded emotions that good novels do. I was overcome with excitement when I got my hand onto another one Coelho’s books, The Zahir. I believe that novelists write to express themselves, and I read to learn. After closing the book for the last time, I realised that both Coelho and I had let ourselves down.
The plot of the story was weak, and at some points extremely vague. The book is littered with parables and quotations that Coelho is famous for, but instead of giving depth to the story they came across as highly fluted, sentimental drivel that danced around the meaning of love and life without ever identifying a clear definition. I appreciate that such concepts are subjective and open to interpretation, but the fog that surrounded Coelho’s themes gave the impression that he wrote this book before establishing a clear understanding of what he wanted to say.
The protagonist of The Zahir is a bestselling novelist who lives a life of luxury in Paris, wallowing in the privileges that accompany money and celebricy. I found this unnamed narrator to be misogynistic, arrogant and shallow. He unashamedly has countless affairs; the first that we learn of is with his wife’s best friend. Throughout the novel we are reminded of how many books he has sold how many languages they have been translated into and that he is a candidate for a major literary prize. If this is the behaviour and conversation his wife Esther had to endure for ten years, it is of little surprise that she disappeared without a trace.
The narrator meets a prophetic (obviously) man by the name of Mikhail, who discloses Esther’s whereabouts to him. After two years of wondering, he finally has the location, and what does this gallant character do? He makes friends with young homeless people, buys them a steady stream of vodka and continues to bed his new lover because apparently “In order to be able to find her, I first had to find myself”. As far as I’m concerned if you haven’t found yourself in these two years, quickly do it on the way to her, without the company of your mistress and gang of underage delinquents, or admit that you are too shallow to leave your comfortable lifestyle in search of your war correspondent wife, and let me find a more worthy novel. I searched for my lost earring this morning with more enthusiasm than he searched for his wife.
The narrator interprets Esther’s disappearance as a message, telling him that he needs to rethink his actions and make himself worthy of her. Just take a moment here to consider the fact that his wife, who he has not been communicating with well, disappears. She has been unhappy, she has made an informed adult decision and she has left him to pursue her own destiny. Yet somehow the narrator manages to make this about himself. Esther transforms into the mystical Zahir of the title, an agonising obsession. The words Esther and Zahir are used interchangeably throughout the novel, but unfortunately while doing so the narrator is so wrapped up in his own life that he is unsuccessful in his attempt to persuade me that she actually is his Zahir.
There were certain aspects of this book that appealed to me. As an aspiring writer, it was reassuring to see that even this self-righteous novelist had days when a single sentence couldn’t be extracted from him. However, if Elizabeth Gilbert can write about the daily struggles of a writer without sounding like a whinging teenager, then I’m sure Paulo Coelho could have managed it too.
It is very likely that this book will resonate with people in ways in which I do understand. It does have very many positive reviews. Unfortunately, I could not contribute to these reviews just because I am partial to his work. I can see what he was aiming for, but unfortunately it did not work. Let’s just say that if I lost my copy of The Zahir, I wouldn’t search too hard for it either.