A couple of days ago, I picked up this book, for no rhyme or reason, and then finished reading it over the next 48 hours. No matter how absurd it seems, time and again I have discovered that books end up being read only when the time is right.
Although I had a copy for more than a year or so, I kept putting off reading The Zahir by Paulo Coelho because I had heard mixed reactions to it. Some said it was very boring, some said it was good. But no one spoke about it in superlative terms. I should’ve known better. Because when I went by other people’s “high” opinions, and read The Alchemist by the same author, I was disappointed. Yet when I read his Veronica Decides to Die, which no one ever mentioned in the same vein as The Alchemist, I was thrilled. I thought it was a fantastic book and only an extremely sensitive person could’ve written a story like that. The Zahir too has some brilliant moments, some “a-ha!” ideas .
The way Coelho has narrated The Zahir, it appears to be his own real account. The protagonist, the narrator of the story, is a writer whose life and history is pretty much like Coelho’s own.
The Zahir is a good story. I found many flaws in the book— sketchy characters, fluctuating pace, often ambiguous dialogues, narcissism—but in spite of these, I loved it. Set partly in Paris and partly in Kazakhstan, the story is about the complexities of relationships.
The narrator is a writer who writes on spirituality (there is an indirect reference to The Alchemist too) and is expected by the world to have mastered human frailties. Yet, he succumbs to them all the time. I could relate to his humanness, his continuous struggle to be a better person, and his enormous capacity to love.
The character I loved the most is that of Esther, the narrator’s wife, who loves him so much and yet leaves him quite suddenly. I liked her attitude. I liked how she did everything she could to make him what he is…I liked her selflessness and unconditional love. And yet paradoxically, she leaves him because she wants to save her relationship with him—the man she loves so much. She leaves him in search of true happiness. She leaves him to find herself. And as she leaves, she becomes the narrator’s Zahir—an object of obsession. We learn about Esther only from the lens of narrator’s memories, because the story begins after she leaves him.
I don’t agree with many of the narrator’s (Coelho’s?) life values, but I like his candidness, his humility and also at times his arrogance. He comes across as unpretentious, even if a bit stuck-up in his celebrity status.
If you’re looking for a literary masterpiece, skip The Zahir. However, if you’re ready for some serious soul searching about relationships, you’ll find plenty of substance. It’s definitely worth a read.
© Manoj Khatri