When a famous writer’s journalist wife suddenly disappears one day, it puts the man at a loss. Did she deliberately leave him and does she want him to find her? That is the quandary at the center of The Zahir by Paulo Coelho.
A Zahir, according to writer Jorge Luis Borges, is someone who once you have met him or her, preoccupies your mind all the time, unable to be forgotten. After leaving him, the writer’s wife becomes his personal Zahir and haunts his thoughts even after he gets himself an actress lover. The writer, who is living in Paris, suddenly meets Mikhail, the man who his wife had last been seen with and who might be her lover. The writer, heavily based on Coelho himself, must decide whether to trust Mikhail, who has mysterious epileptic visions, and convince him to lead him to his wife. He is urged to first look within himself and discover some insight that can help him understand why his wife did what she did. When he starts doing so, it becomes apparent that she felt her love for him was fading and that he was taking her for granted. With this knowledge, the writer must decide whether to go find her.
The book, in what I think is a characteristic of Coelho’s books, is heavy with dialogue about love, freedom and spirituality; and about being true to oneself rather than following the crowd. Society, says the writer in the book, and its established routines of work, family and money are merely feeble substitutes for genuinely following one’s heart.
Unfortunately, the characters are not particularly compelling, with only Mikhail being slightly interesting. The narrator is very successful and is not shy about pointing out his myriad achievements such as how many languages he has been published in, which veers on self-indulgence. The man’s wife, who is the Zahir and the driving force behind the man’s quest, is not given much mention, even when she actually appears in the story, and the question is why do we actually care whether the man finds her or not.
On the other hand, there are a couple of interesting concepts. At one point, the writer wonders why the width of train tracks is set at 143.5 cm. He then finds out this width came about from Roman roads which had to be wide enough for two horses pulling a cart side by side. This seemingly timeless width for train tracks applies to marriages, says the writer. Society dictates that people in marriages must also follow the same path and never deviate, always trying to be happy and doing whatever society deems in conventional. It is fitting the main characters in the book have a very casual attitude towards affairs, which I don’t quite agree with.
Then while perusing a Mexican book about magical practices, the writer happens upon the acomodador or giving-up point, an event such as a defeat, trauma or disappointment that forces people to fail to progress beyond a certain level. To increase one’s powers, the book says a shaman must free himself from this by identifying where this acomodador happened in his life. I don’t know if this is a fictional concept, but the acomodador is something we probably all have experienced in real life and should confront to overcome it.
I suppose this kind of new-age spirituality message is inspiring and the main reason why Coelho is such a best-seller around the world. I found the Zahir a decent and thoughtful read though I also found it be too abstract and meandering.