The Zahir by Paulo Coelho ~ a Book Review

This is a new kind of experience for me as I’ve never written any book reviews before – but then again, I’ve done something somewhat similar on plays and dramas and journals for my university classes and felt like this is a way of expanding my horizons, so to speak.

 

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This is my 3rd book by Coelho. The first was of course, The Alchemist (I might do a review of it sometime later) and the 2nd was Veronika Decides to Die. The Alchemist is undoubtedly Coelho’s calling card, as it had shot him towards stardom and is well represented amongst Hollywood celebrities. However, as all Coelho’s books, it is a bit difficult to digest his book during the first try itself. I had bought the Alchemist as an eighteen year old, only to donate it to my college when I was 22 without even flipping through the first chapter. His books are undoubtedly marked as ‘heavy readings’.

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The back cover of the Zahir offers a brief synopsis of the book.

“It begins with a glimpse or a passing thought. It ends in obsession. One day a renowned author discovers that his wife (Esther), a war correspondent, has disappeared leaving no trace. Though time brings more success and new love, he remains mystified – and increasingly fascinated – by her absence. Was she kidnapped, blackmailed, or simply bored with their marriage? The unrest she causes is as strong as the attraction she exerts. His search for her – and for the truth of his own life – takes him from France to Spain, Croatia and, eventually, the bleakly beautiful landscape of Central Asia. More than that, it takes him from the safety of his world to a totally unknown path, searching for a new understanding of the nature of love, the power of destiny and what it really means to follow your heart.”

Seems pretty straightforward, isn’t it?

“In Arabic Zahir means ‘visible, present and unable to go unnoticed.’ It refers to something or someone that ends up being the only thing we can think of. This state of ‘possession’ can be understood as saintliness or insanity, with a fine line between the two.”

And this leads to the whole premise of the book. It is in a sense a spiritual journey of sorts towards a better understanding of himself and his love for Esther.

The book begins with the classic suspense of the disappearance of Esther and a brief explanation of the police investigation that was taking place and also a brief background was given about her – her occupation, her relationship with the narrator. We are then introduced to the narrator, who then goes on explaining about his relationship with Esther.

Throughout the story, we are introduced to the concept of Zahir, or obsession, and in this story, the narrator is obsessed with Esther. He was desperate to find her, to know of her whereabouts, and to know why she had left him. He was convinced that he can’t live without her, that she was the only one who understood him and could be with him. He realized then that he actually loved her to that very brink and yet, at the same time, there was always something that held him back before. He became content with the relationship that he had with Esther, while she began to feel suffocated in that marriage which appeared to only served his purposes.

Of course, the narrator was not someone who could promise fidelity; in fact he had often slept around. Even during the course of finding his wife, he had stayed together with Marie, an actress who was painfully in love with her married neighbour previously but the relationship was not fruitful in the end. Marie ends up with the same kind of disappointment with the narrator, as even though she had professed her love for the narrator, he was still ‘obsessed’ with the notion of finding his wife.

We are also introduced to a kind of spiritualism in this book – of course, one who is accustomed to Coelho’s book knows that his books are littered with such instances. While this book might have been labelled as a man’s spiritual journey towards understanding his life and his love for Esther, in truth is more about understanding love as a whole, and the impact that it has on our lives, when we desire it the most.

In a way, the book is bland, unlike Coelho’s usual writings. The plot is somewhat predictable, the literary devices used are, once again, predictable and however much you love Coelho, you cannot deny that his books are the kind of books that you’d have a love-hate relationship with. I mean, if you look at it at another angle, you could say that the narrator’s problems are his own doing, and well, his problems are the kind that only a leisurely man such as the narrator could afford to have. Most of us are too busy trying to stay afloat against the currents of life, whereas the narrator is a man undoubtedly has what most of us are looking for yet his foolish, self-centredness had cost him dearly.

Certain aspects of the story are also predictable, as in the instance when the narrator finds a girlfriend to replace his missing wife, and how he comes across Mikhael, the only person with any clue as to his wife’s whereabouts and how it took an accident to happen for him to have a shift in his personal Zahir. Yes, towards the third quarter of the book, the reader will discover that the narrator is slowly undergoing some changes as his obsession towards finding Esther lessens a little, as if he had finally understood what it meant to love someone and want to be with them dearly.

At the beginning of the book, we are shown that the narrator wants to find his wife because, 1. He loved her and 2. He felt no one else understood him the way she did, as evident in this quote, “…I had convinced myself that I could only be happy with her, not because I loved her more than anything and anyone in the world, but because I thought only she could understand me; she knew my likes, my eccentricities, my way of seeing the world…….I was used to seeing the world through her eyes.” Yet after his accident, he suddenly had this epiphany as to why his previous marriages never worked out and why Esther had left him.

‘Marie, let’s suppose that two firemen go into a forest to put out a small fire. Afterwards, when they emerge and go over to a stream, the face of one is all smeared with black, while the other man’s face is completely clean. My question is this: which of the two will wash his face?

‘That’s a silly question. The one with the dirty face of course.’

‘No, the one with the dirty face will look at the other man and assume that he looks like him. And, vice versa, the man with the clean face will see his colleague covered in grime and say to himself: I must be dirty too. I’d better have a wash.’

‘What are you trying to say?’

‘I’m saying that, during the time I spent in the hospital, I came to realize that I was always looking for myself in the women I loved. I looked at their lovely, clean faces and saw myself reflected in them. They, on the other hand, looked at me and saw the dirt on my face and, however intelligent or self-confident they were, they ended up seeing themselves reflected in me thinking that they were worse than they were. Please, don’t let that happen to you.’

It was after this thought dawning upon him that his obsession slowly turned towards one of a spiritualistic sense rather than the previous insanity that he had.


“…suffering occurs when we want other people to love us in the way we imagine we want to be loved, and not in the way that love should manifest itself – free and untrammeled, guiding us with its force and driving us on.” 

I have to admit that the only reason I chose to read this book at the moment was because I have my own personal Zahir, my own obsession with someone else and while it does appeal to me to a certain extent, while his philosophies could be taken and applied onto myself, I find myself being pushed away by his carefree tone. Personally, I would have prefer if the book had invoked in me more sentiments and emotions as to how the Alchemist had.

However, I can take nothing away from Coelho. Throughout the whole book, we witness the change in the narrator’s psyche. The male masculinity that male protagonist often portray are slowly stripped away as the story progresses. Surely, how often do we see someone openly announce of their obsession towards another? Even if it was towards his own wife, such open declaration of love and obsession, as evident in the book that he writes for his wife, fills me with awe. I would like to be someone like that, one who isn’t afraid to strip herself bare in her writing, despite the judging eyes and harsh criticism that will definitely come.

At the end of the book, the narrator meets his wife, and though she mentions to him that she was pregnant with another man’s child, the narrator accepts her and the child, even if he admits to feeling as if he was breaking inside. This highlights the narrator’s journey on shedding his previous obsolete view of bias, and conventionalisms as he made his way towards finding Esther once again. The reader might feel angered towards the narrator’s characteristics at the beginning, especial towards his adulterous self, however the same feeling does not appear towards Esther even though she admits to being pregnant with the child of another.

I waited as Penelope waited for Ulysses, as Romeo waited for Juliet, as Beatrice waited for Dante.” And when he did not return to her still by then, she realized that she wanted to stop waiting for him still and move on with her life. I went to the nomad I had met before and asked him to teach me to forget my personal history, to open me up to the love that is present everywhere… One day I glanced to one side and saw that same love reflected in someone else’s eyes…”

The reader’s acceptance of Esther’s way of life, the result of her pregnancy with ease and without the judgmental mindset that she had been adulterous shows Coelho’s power of weaving his story in such a way where the readers had viewed and taken in the occurrences in the wavelength as the narrator had, thus making us experience the whole story in the eyes of the narrator.

 

 

Bonus content

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 I love the writer’s concept of the Favour Bank – I believe this actually exists in real life, it’s just that we do not view it as Favour Bank but in other words instead.

 

Other significant quotes

“When someone leaves, it’s because someone else is about to arrive – I’ll find love again.”

“In order to be able to find her, I first had to find myself”

“The energy of hatred won’t get you anywhere; but the energy of forgiveness, which reveals itself through love, will transform your life in a positive way.”

“In love there is neither good nor evil, there is neither construction nor destruction, there is merely movement. And love changes the laws of nature.”

“Love is an untamed force. When we try to control it, it destroys us. When we try to imprison it, it enslaves us. When we try to understand it, it leaves us feeling lost and confused.”

“The most important thing in all human relationships is conversation, but people don’t talk anymore, they don’t sit down to talk and listen”

“Some people appear to be happy, but they simply don’t give the matter much thought. Others make plans: I’m going to have a husband, a home, two children, a house in the country. As long as they’re busy doing that, they’re like bulls looking for the bullfighter: they react instinctively, they blunder on, with no idea where the target is. They get their car, sometimes they even get a Ferrari, and they think that’s the meaning of life, and they never question it. Yet their eyes betray the sadness that even they don’t know they carry in their soul. Are you happy?” 

“When I had nothing more to lose, I was given everything. When I ceased to be who I am, I found myself. When I experienced humiliation and yet kept on walking, I understood that I was free to choose my destiny. Perhaps there’s something wrong with me, I don’t know, perhaps my marriage was a dream I couldn’t understand while it lasted. All I know is that even though I can live without her, I would still like to see her again, to say what I never said when we were together: I love you more than I love myself. If I could say that, then I could go on living, at peace with myself, because that love has redeemed me.” 

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