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.”
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.
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.