Novelist Paulo Coelho divides his time between his native Brazil and the south of France. He can afford to — his works outsell even...
by Paulo Coelho, translated by Margaret Jull Costa
HarperCollins, 296 pp., $24.95
Novelist Paulo Coelho divides his time between his native Brazil and the south of France. He can afford to — his works outsell even the Harry Potter series throughout the rest of the world. But here in the United States he’s still a relative unknown.
HarperCollins is trying to change all that by touting publication of Coelho’s new book as “a global publishing event.” “The Zahir” is coming out in 83 countries and in 42 languages. Already it has scored some controversial publicity — the kind money just can’t buy — by being banned at the Tehran Book Fair.
If only this novel were worth it. A semi-autobiographical tale, “The Zahir” concerns a best-selling expatriate writer’s quest to find his war-correspondent wife after she leaves their home in Paris and vanishes in Central Asia.
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Mystery surrounds her disappearance — is it a result of foul play, or is it her dramatic way to announce that she’s leaving their marriage?
Coelho came across the concept of the zahir in a tale by one of his favorite writers, Jorge Luis Borges. Deriving from Arabic, a zahir is something incapable of being ignored, or someone who consumes one’s every thought. Indeed, in this book the protagonist’s search for his wife builds into an obsession, but when he meets a young mystic who may be able to lead him back to his wife, the motivations behind his quest begin to change.
The book skips across continents and dips into various spiritual traditions as Coelho probes the profundities of romantic love. While there is some thoughtful stuff here, the overall narrative is blatantly slap-dash.
The characters — self-obsessed, whiney, tiresome — fail to redeem the work. As they struggle to find meaning in their lives, readers will be struggling to see this story through to its ungratifying end.