From lurid sexual fantasies to New Age platitudes, “Aleph” marks a low point for Paulo Coelho.
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In “Aleph” Coelho takes up the narrative of a middle-aged man frustrated with his stagnating life and the young nymph whose companionship makes him feel alive again. Like the characters played by Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson, “Aleph”’s Paulo and Hilal find each other during a period of spiritual seeking.
Unlike the characters in the film, each holds the key to a spiritual roadblock that the other faces. In the course of a train ride across all 9,288 kilometers of the Trans-Siberian Railway, Paulo and Hilal experience a meeting of souls that involves traumatic encounters with past lives, trance states, energy field assessments, and the Spanish Inquisition.
“Lost in Translation” is not the only other work evoked here. The two spend several chaste nights in each other’s arms, Hilal completely naked or nearly so. This could be lifted directly from the pages of Joseph Lelyveld’s 2010 biography of Mahatma Gandhi, “Great Soul.” In that book, Lelyveld offers evidence that Gandhi too invited young women to his bed.
And just as the alleged behavior was a spiritual exercise for Gandhi, so it is for Paulo. Though 21-year old Hilal opens up to the man beside her and pleads with him to receive her romantic love, he refuses. This is the central struggle of their relationship. His love for her is platonic and otherworldly, and in any case, he is happily married. But she loves him “like a woman loves a man.”
Still, none of this detracts from the fact that he is sexually drawn to her – or that detailed, narrative-length, sexual fantasies about her pervade his thoughts during every moment spent without her. His fantasies evoke neither romantic love nor what theologians call “sacred sex.” Instead, Paulo’s fantasies are violent, unrestrained, animalistic, and loud.
What emerges is, frankly, a predatory relationship. Paulo provides reasons for hope – including light kisses and declarations of love – before retracting them again. He manipulates Hilal into reliving painful elements of her past for his sake. In one minute, the two commune over the intensity of their relationship in past lives. In the next, he callously tells a stranger, “I’ve been in love with her for at least five hundred years, but ... she’s as free as a bird.”