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 Mesaj Başlığı: The Zahir: Two Inches Deep
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The Zahir: Two Inches Deep

By Waleed Arafa**
July 24, 2005

Title: The Zahir

Author: Paulo Coelho

Publisher & Year: HarperCollins Publishers

Pages: 342

A few days after Paulo Coelho’s visit to Cairo, I found myself faced with the task of reviewing his latest book; The Zahir. I am a fast reader; nevertheless, 342 medium-sized pages cost me more than two weeks of my time before it was finally over!

In the course of a plot focusing on a writer’s relationship with his wife who mysteriously disappears, The Zahir repetitively suggests loose definitions for notions of love, freedom, happiness, self, and spirituality, yet fails to offer anything valuable. This is not only due to the obvious superficial and one-eyed perspective from which it deals with such profound notions, but also because of the prevalent confusion and inaccuracy that allows the writer to nonchalantly use one word—for instance, “love”—both as a “given” and as a “required to prove” in the very same formula. He claims to be searching and exploring the true meaning of love, yet casually uses this “unexplored notion” to describe his affairs, obviously muting his search for meaning and destroying his claimed exploration process.

The writer casually, gullibly, and unselfcritically decides that he “loves” or “loved” this or that woman, despite the very much temporal and whimsical nature of most of these affairs in his plot, and describes these loves in a way tantamount to his love for his wife, his lifelong companion.

I fall in love with a Catalan scientist, with an Argentine woman who makes jewelry, and with a young woman who sings in the metro.

This perspective on love makes it extremely hard to explain how the novel’s main character—who writes about spirituality and continuously speaks about love and freedom—fails to show even the slightest concern for the world and its inhabitants’ well-being, especially those who live remote from his little Parisian, jet setting world.

So, what’s all this about wanting to write about a war in some godforsaken part of the world?

He displays an elitism that destroys the integrity of love, which in its true essence cannot be selectively withheld or given, for one cannot claim one is in love with someone while being so apathetic about others’ suffering.

This elitism is especially highlighted when the writer attempts to diminish its effect by showing some offhand interest in the world of other people—like Mikhail, a young man from the Central Asian Steppes, or a group of Parisian beggars—for his apparent interest is motivated by nothing but selfishness, suspiciously smacking of the uptowner’s condescending charity and sympathy.

The word love usually appears when the unnamed writer meets a new woman or merely sees one from afar; a love that revolves around himself rather than the one who is “loved.” This self-centered perspective of the world brings to mind the ancient cosmological theories of man’s planet being the center of the universe. In this particular case, this geocentric view develops into a serious homocentric view where “man” does not denote human beings, but rather this particular man and his private planet.

The superficiality and lack of integrity is once again evident when freedom is tackled only through the ability of the characters to do whatever they desire, regardless of the consequences or the impact of their actions on others. Freedom becomes synonymous with infidelity, selflessness with condoning the other’s whims and unfaithfulness, and happiness with quenching materialistic desires coupled with a total denial of responsibility, to the extent that even the perception of the Divine becomes hostage to individual whims and moods. This attitude is manifested in the interchangeable and arbitrary usage of the terms “God,” “the thing,” and other synonyms employed when Coelho needs to involve divinity.

In The Zahir, notions that are sacred, wholesome, and holistic are miserably fragmented, flattened, and, in the best of cases, reduced to some of their outward manifestations.

The main character’s name and country of origin remain unmentioned. Perhaps this is done intentionally; on the one hand, to encourage the association with Coelho himself, while on the other to secure a leeway from undesirable implications that may result from a direct superimposition.

Despite that, Coelho seems to enjoy standing in his main character’s shoes, especially when he acts in a “modern” way that is “eccentric” and “crazy” from his touristy point of view. Acts such as walking on thin ice in a frozen fountain, ruining his Internet access device, or roaming around with a group of beggars who are in no need of begging and who sometimes give charity to other people. Another fashionable eccentricity is indulgence in so-called “Steppes rituals,” which involve standing naked in the middle of nowhere. Then there is the offhand way in which the narrator deals with his wife’s pregnancy by another man because she “loved” him.

It seems that the narrator tries to add a little spice to his boringly straight-laced life, empty of any risk or danger, through a superficial attempt to relive the surrealistic legacy of Parisian artists and bohemians. He fails miserably in the process.

Coelho’s plot seems to be formed by marketing studies of what is hip today rather than by a real urge to share experiences and important questions about life with his readers. His insistence on endowing the obviously materialistic and selfish life of his main character with spiritual shades and tones reeks of a flirtation with the growing New Age tide that is deluding most of the earth’s population. It is a sad reality that the take-away pseudo-spirituality which is offered in the Zahir is satisfying enough for so many.
Those bedazzled by the New Age hints in Coelho’s work will not mind the main character’s selfishness, infidelity, and apathy as long as he walks a medieval pilgrimage road to Santiago for 38 days. Unfortunately, this purgatory does not result in the desired spiritual effect but rather builds up the pilgrim’s ego and allows him to pat himself on the back in celebration of his spiritual transcendence while continuing to play around and indulge himself in more infidelities.

The marketing-oriented style of writing is reflected in the very title of the book: the Arabic word zahir. The term is used here to indicate “obsession,” a translation which bears little resemblance to the original implications of the term in the Islamic tradition, where it generally indicates the “outward” as opposed to the esoteric or “inward.” Even if obsession were a correct reflection of the Arabic zahir, the plot itself does not actually revolve around what the narrator states as his obsession: his wife. If obsession were to be the story’s title, then surely it would indicate the narrator’s obsession with his own self!

Coelho’s employment of certain terms and concepts—the zahir, the favor bank, the accommodator, the la movida madrilène and so on—seems to be a result of his own immature fascination with those terms and concepts and their fashionable marketing potential rather than the plot’s true need. The same can be said of some of the places he mentions and the conversations he has with people he meets, where again, superficial trails of relevance seem to be intentionally dropped for a global readership. Fleeting cameo appearances by Arabs, Israelis, Kazakhs, Russians, the religious and the agnostic, along with traces of the Armenian, Red Indian, American, and Mexican cultures are inserted for no clear reason or direct function. Such insertions could have created a humanistic outlook on the world, but the superficial way in which the themes are dealt with does little more than intensify the commercially and rightfully earned “international best-seller” designation of the book.

Two inches deep, The Zahir does not satisfy, but its high sales are no surprise in a world succumbing to New Age spirituality and trendy wisdom.

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