From lurid sexual fantasies to New Age platitudes, “Aleph” marks a low point for Paulo Coelho.
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At its core, this is a book about punishing women for sexuality. In it, Paulo hopes to earn atonement for past centuries of violence against women. In this life, though, he continues punishing Hilal for her desires, and his. As in past lives, she is both a lurid fantasy and a chance at redemption. The dynamic of their relationship never changes; she is Paulo’s eternal salvation and damnation, but never a real person.Skip to next paragraph
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Coelho is the all-time bestselling Portuguese language author in the world and – with sales of more than 100 million books translated into 67 languages in over 150 countries – one of the most popular authors on the planet. But I suspect this book will not find much of an audience outside of Coelho’s admittedly impressive legion of hardcore fans. The relationship between Paulo and Hilal is, at best, derivative. Often it is also abusive, obsessive, and outright destructive.
Neither will some readers relate to the New Age spirituality. Simplistic platitudes abound. For example, Paulo writes, “If I believe I will win, then victory will believe in me.” Elsewhere, “We are all souls wandering the Cosmos and, at the same time, living our lives, but with a sense that we are passing from one incarnation to another.” He even alludes to Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling,” though he lacks any of the philosopher’s spiritual or intellectual rigor.
Also unsettling is Paulo’s tone-deaf approach to human suffering. This is the story of a wealthy author whose publishing company funds an expensive trip throughout Eastern Europe to facilitate his personal growth. Never mind, then, that most readers in this age of economic downturn will not recognize the kind of privilege that allows many months away from work for the purpose of self-discovery.
The narrator is markedly ignorant in the face of any poverty encountered on the way. Despite a momentary spark of conscience, he approaches panhandling on the side of a road as a spiritual experiment. The act is meant to remind him how to partake in “the act of receiving.” The generous strangers who mistake him for a homeless man, he says, “educate me, free me.”
It is hard to imagine this sort of self-centered conceit resounding with working- and middle-class audiences even in prosperous times. In this book, Coelho makes a spectacle of poverty – for the purpose of spiritual enlightenment, no less – and blissfully ignores the privileges that come with wealth and stature. This seems almost cruelly out of touch with the mainstream, and at least this time around, I will be surprised if it captures the zeitgeist.
That may be for the best, as “Aleph” may be among the most alienating of Coelho’s offerings yet.
Kristin Rawls is a Monitor contributor.