The Zahir by Paulo Coelho

We can harness the energy of the winds, the seas, the sun. But the day man learns to harness the energy of love, that will be as important as the discovery of fire. -- Teilhard de Chardin

If we accept all that is wrong about us and despite it, believe that we are deserving of a happy life then we will have thrown open an immense window that will allow love to enter. -- Paulo Coelho

All you have to do is pay attention; lessons always arrive when you are ready, and if you can read the signs, you will learn everything you need to know in order to take the next step. -- Paulo Coelho

We humans have two great problems: the first is knowing when to begin, the second is knowing when to stop. -- Paulo Coelho

I was thinking of the story by Jorge Luis Borges, about something once touched, or seen, can never be forgotten, and which gradually so fills our thoughts that we are driven to madness. -- Paulo Coelho

Others will dream that I am mad, and I [will dream] of the Zahir. When all men on earth think day and night of the Zahir, which one will be a dream and which a reality, the earth or the Zahir? -- Jorge Luis Borges

I accept the Zahir, and will let it lead me into a state of either holiness or madness. -- Paulo Coelho

Midnight visitor - She just sat there, on my book, as if she had been gently and artistically placed by the Gods of creativity. The Zahir is an Islamic tradition, thought to have arisen in the 18th century. In Arabic, Zahir is a visible presence incapable of going unnoticed. It is someone or something, that once it comes to our attention occupies our very being, we can think of nothing else. It is the route to holiness or madness. In the West we would call it an obsession.

My introduction to Paulo Coelho was meeting a lovely Lithuanian girl reading The Zahir. She recommended that I read The Zahir and The Alchemist. [see Synchronicity and Paulo Coelho]

When reading novels by Paulo Coelho, one is never quite sure if one is reading of the author himself, fact, fiction or a mix of both. The Zahir is no exception.

I sit on the terrace and look back over my life, a young man who dreamed of becoming a famous writer, and who suddenly saw that the reality was completely different he writes in a language almost no one reads, in a country which is said to have almost no reading public. His family forces him to go to university (any university will do, my boy, just as long as you get a degree, otherwise you'll never be anyone). He rebels, travels the world during the hippie era, meets a singer, writes a few song lyrics, and is suddenly earning more money than his sister, who listened to what her parents said and decided to become a chemical engineer ...

The Zahir is a tale of obsession. A man embarks on a geographical journey in search of his missing wife. It is also a spiritual quest, shades of The Valkyries, if not The Alchemist.

A best-selling author, who is initially suspected of foul play in the disappearance of his wife, searches for his missing wife. The search for his missing wife begins a quest into his own existence. He delves into his soul, and as he does so he learns more about himself, he learns more about his wife, the nature of their relationship, and of the institution of marriage itself.

The Zahir is a love story, it takes us from Paris to Spain, to Croatia and eventually to Kazakhstan to the steppes of Central Asia.

Paulo Coelho writes of the anguish of waking up one day and finding the girl you love has walked out of your life. The unbearable pain. Of the many unanswered questions, the why, why, why?

The writer follows the route of the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago. He published an account in The Pilgrimage.

The writer refers to 'The Zahir' (en español El Zahir), a short story by fellow Latin American writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. Published in a collection of short stories The Aleph and Other Stories.

Mikhail, the go-between between the writer and his wife, is a mystical person, able to conjure up a powerful force. A strong resemblance to Athena in The Witch of Portobello. He is also a guide, with a strong resemblance to the young guide from whom Paulo Coelho seeks help in the Mojave Desert in his quest for angels as described in The Valkyries.

The missing wife, a journalist, a war correspondent, is loosely based on Sunday Times war correspondence Christina Lamb. [see He stole my soul]

When I stepped off the Ryanair plane in the medieval town of Pau in the French Pyrenees almost two years ago to interview the multi-million-selling author Paulo Coelho, the last thing I expected was to end up as the heroine in his next book.

If the missing wife is based on Sunday Times journalist Christina Lamb, it begs the question, is the famous writer whose wife has gone missing, based on Paulo Coelho?

Paulo Coelho dedicates The Zahir to his wife Christina, an artist, not a journalist.

Angel - A warrior of light knows that he has much to be grateful for. He was helped in his struggle by the Angels; celestial forces placed each thing in it's place, thus allowing him to give of his best. That's why, at sunset, he kneels and gives thanks for the Protective Cloak surrounding him. A sense of déja vu. Paul Coelho writes of the cross, an instrument of torture, that we now worship, treat as a fashion icon. A topic on which I had written! [see The Cross]

A sense of déja vu of the pain of the missing wife, of recognising her in every girl who walks by, of thinking what would she think. For me, it was like having my soul laid bare.

I had a lovely South African friend Estie. I loved spending time with her. Then one day she went crazy, walked out of my life. I would see girls who I thought was her, my heart would literally stop.

It was only when I was part way through The Zahir, that I realised the name of the missing wife Esther, was that of my South African friend. She used Estie because she hated the name Esther.

I had a lovely friend Iva who stayed with me. One day I got up, and found she had gone. The pain of that discovery was almost unbearable. Wherever I go, I wonder what she would think.

I have a lovely friend Alissa, who I miss. Like most Russians, she appreciates good literature, including novels by Paulo Coelho. Whenever I read a good book, I want to share my thoughts with her.

The planet earth corrects what is wrong via multiple feed back loops called Gaia. Sometimes we can push them past their limits, we reach a tipping point, and it flips into a different global state. That is what we are doing with global warming. [see Funny Weather]

Does the Universe have the same corrective mechanisms? Does it correct us when we are wrong by taking away our friends, the people who are of most importance to us?

We all have to learn to bear the scars of our past life. Not to bear a grudge, to want to wreak vengeance for some past injustice, to feel sorry for ourself, nor to forget, but to learn to forgive.

Why are railway tracks exactly 4 feet 8 inches apart?

We are all members of a tribe, we must conform to the rules of the tribe. We need our tribe around us as we cross the hostile territory we call 'society'. If we fail to conform, be true to ourselves, follow our destiny, we risk becoming outcasts.

We must have a university degree even if we never get a job in the area in which we are forced to study.

We must wear the 'uniform' of our tribe, dress according to the diktats of the fashionistas.

In Brick Lane by Monica Ali, the women are forced to conform to the diktats of Islam, the Bangladeshi immigrants are torn between conforming to their village culture, ie traditional values, or that of the western society in which they are immersed, ie western values. As the story unfolds, they, like Santiago in The Alchemist, achieve empowerment by following their destiny, listening to their souls. [see BCID 5624930]

What is so special about desert, vast open space, wilderness, why is it so necessary for our soul?

Christ spent time wandering in the desert. Paulo Coelho and his wife spent time in the desert. Santiago went in search of his dream, his destiny, in the Sahara Desert. It was whilst camped out in Death Valley, California, that George Sessions and Arne Naess drew up the eight basic principles that describe deep ecology.

The missing wife, followed by her husband the famous writer, end up in the open steppes of Central Asia in Kazakhstan.

Maybe we need these vast open spaces to appreciate the infinite.

What is love? That is the question that Paulo Coelho poses in The Zahir and then attempts to answer. It is this that makes The Zahir such a powerful novel.

We all reach a limit, seemingly a natural limit, in whatever we try. We are persuaded by those around us to accept that it is our limit and that we can progress no further.

Paulo Coelho calls this the acomodador. But if we can progress thus far, why not further? Paulo Coelho sees this as a limit we should strive to break.

In Brick Lane, Dr Azad, a Bangladeshi doctor, a friend of the family, talks of love. He tells Nazneen there are two types of love. The passionate love that eventually dies leaving nothing left. There is then the slow kind, that like a pearl in an oyster, slowly grows on life's irritations. [see BCID 5614499]

Paulo Coelho in The Zahir, argues that there is a third type. We do not have to accept that love is like a damp squib something that slowly fizzles out, leaving if we are lucky, two people who manage to get along together. What we may call the 'classic love story'. Like a pot plant on the windowsill that, when we remember, we occasionally water to ensure it does not die.

I had created a love story like the ones I'd seen in the movies, read about in books and magazines, watched on TV. In my story, love was something that grew until it reached a certain size and, from then on, it was just a matter of keeping it alive, like a plant, watering it now and again and removing any dead leaves.

What Paulo Coelho shows through a pilgrimage into the soul, love is something that continually grows, there is no acomodador to the growth of true love.

Reading The Zahir, I felt as though my soul had been laid bare. As though Paulo Coelho was writing for me. I am forever grateful to the Lithuanian girl who recommended that I read The Zahir.

Somewhat unusual, The Zahir was published in Persian in Iran, rather than in the author's native language in Brazil. Iran does not recognise international copyright and it was thought that publication in Iran first would afford some protection under national Iranian copyright law.

The Zahir was not available for long. Iranian intelligence agents went to the Tehran Book Fair and seized all 1,000 copies. Like a scene out of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four or Stalinist Russia, the publisher was told the book was banned in Iran and he must report to the authorities. The ruling Islamists fear that by reading a book of deep spiritual significance, the faithful would be drawn away from the true path of Islam. [see Iran 'bans author Coelho's novel']

Also read

The Valkyries by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho

The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho [see BCID 5528715]

The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

A Hundred and One Days by Asne Seierstad [see BCID 5604266]

The Sewing Circles of Herat by Christina Lamb

What's So Amazing About Grace by Philip Yancey

The Girl at the Lion d'Or by Sebastian Faulks [see BCID 5622227]

The Aleph and Other Stories by Jorge Luis Borges {contains the short story 'The Zahir'}

Synchronicity: Talking to a friend whilst I was reading The Zahir, he reminded me of my South African friend who went crazy, that when she went missing, I was lucky she was not fished out of a pond, as I would have been the first person the police would have called upon. It was not until I was part way through The Zahir, that I remembered her real name was Esther, the name of the missing wife. Estie hated the name Esther and always called herself Estie.

Synchronicity: A few days before my friend Iva left, she visited a shop in London selling exquisite carpets and other art objects from the steppes of Central Asia. She was thinking of working in the shop. She gave me a photo taken in the shop of her wearing clothes from the region. The missing wife went to Kazakhstan, to the steps of Central Asia, where she spent her time weaving carpets and earnt herself some money by teaching French. Iva is fluent in French.

Copies of The Zahir have been registered as BookCrossing books.

BookCrossing books are released into the wild and their progress checked on the Internet via a unique BookCrossing ID (BCID).

Midnight visitor can be found on Flickr and Paulo Coelho's blog.


For Iva and Alissa, two lovely friends who I am sure would enjoy The Zahir as much as I have, and for the lovely Lithuanian girl I met who recommended that I read The Zahir.
Books Worth Reading ~ Paulo Coelho
(c) Keith Parkins 2007-2009 -- May 2009 rev 3