By Paulo Coelho
HarperCollins. 298 pp. $24.95
The unnamed narrator at the center of Paulo Coelho's "The Zahir: A Novel of Obsession" is an international best-selling novelist who lives in France and brings in $2 million a year from royalties even when he doesn't publish a book. When he publishes a book, he earns about $5 million. This may be a multimillion-dollar year for Coelho himself, who will be publishing an estimated 8 million copies of "The Zahir" in 83 countries. He is a publishing giant, the author of the self-help spiritual fable "The Alchemist"; his publisher claims he broke a Guinness world record when he signed 53 different language editions of "The Alchemist" in one sitting at the 2003 Frankfurt Book Fair.
Coelho's "Alchemist" was a lean book about a shepherd boy's journey to find treasure buried in the Pyramids; he discovers instead the treasures within himself. In "The Zahir," the shepherd boy is transformed into a celebrity novelist, and the treasure he's searching for is his wife, Esther, a war correspondent who has disappeared. Was Esther kidnapped or killed, or did she simply abandon a marriage that left her unfulfilled? It's a premise rich with inherent drama, but despite the claims on the dust jacket, it's not really the story of this novel.
This novel is about the novelist. He's a man who, since he was a child, has "fought to make freedom [his] most precious commodity," who writes "pages of such genius that even [he] couldn't understand them." And he's not like ordinary people -- the ones he sees walking down the Champs-Elysees -- who are "immersed in their miserable little lives that only happen on weekends." The novelist's life may be empty, but it's the emptiness of book signings in mega-stores, lunches with representatives of the film industry and interviews with journalists asking the same tired questions. When he's not thinking about his fame and success, he's thinking about Esther -- his Zahir -- a concept that roughly translated means his obsession. Should the novelist go in search of a wife who is somewhere in the interior of Kazakhstan? Halfway through the book, he still can't decide: "Before I could find her, I must first find myself."
Coelho's narrator "finds himself" through a host of characters who serve as the author's mirror or mouthpiece. There is little detail to distinguish one character from another. You know them simply through their dialogue, which is indistinguishable from the novelist's first-person narration. There is his girlfriend, Marie, a 35-year-old French actress who encourages him to write his next book, "A Time to Rend and a Time to Sew." The book is about his lost wife, and it becomes an instant bestseller, and Marie isn't even jealous. She's a celebrity, too, so she understands about success, and she's also a fan. She likes to ask the novelist big, self-aggrandizing questions such as: "How is it that you can pass on to your readers things that are beyond your own knowledge?" Or "What about the spirituality that appears to be present on every page of your books?"
Then there is Mikhail, the man with whom Esther has disappeared. He surfaces in France to offer the narrator his special brand of spiritual guidance. He's a performance artist who does group therapy with unhappily married people in an Armenian restaurant, and he travels around with a band of homeless bohemians. Mikhail is also an epileptic, which brings the novelist -- who suffers a spiritual crisis when he is hit by a motorcycle and ends up in the hospital -- into a digression about epileptics.
There are other digressions as well. The origins of the Christmas tree, the symbolism of wearing a crucifix as jewelry, the Italian Renaissance and the Mongolian creation myth are just a few of the subjects Coelho strives to illuminate.
When, in the final pages of this meandering book, our narrator finds his wife, it's a scene meant to be poignant, but it's cringe-making in its grandiosity. Here is Esther, the Zahir, conveniently transported to where the author wants her, fitting too neatly into the narrator's life.
This is the age of the blog, of instant hit-and-run publishing. It's easy to put your blah-blah-blah out there for a reading public. But novels are different; they demand some sort of narrative thread. Coelho, whose eight books have been translated into 59 languages and published in 150 countries, knows this. In one of many asides in a novel of asides, he writes, "When I used to read biographies of writers, I always thought they were simply trying to make their profession seem more interesting when they said that 'the book writes itself, the writer is just the typist.' " "The Zahir" feels a lot like typing.