My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Aleph (2011) by Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist (1988), astounds his readers with a story that balances nonfiction with fiction, claimed as an autobiographical account presented in the form of a novel. And quite so as a reader begins to ask how much is truth and how much is fiction as a married Paulo (then 59 in 2006) takes on a twenty-one-year-old star violinist named Hilal from Russia as his travelling companion on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok, a total of 9,288 kilometers. But what is far more interesting than his moments with a young seductress who seems to have a mysterious purpose for his present life (and past life as a priest during the Inquisition) is that Paulo believes he has even more to offer, that despite his success he seeks to grow as an individual and writer; even after all he has done he believes he can do more—and that is truly inspirational.
After all his success and millions of dollars from selling his stories, the book opens with Paulo at his home in the French Pyrenees very depressed and devoid of any progression, either spiritual or professional, in his life.
The French Pyrenees
He is stuck in his daily routines and he feels he is unable to grow as he believes he should. What follows, which is most of the novel (autobiography?) reads like a confessional, of a man being completely open and honest with his readers:
“My life has changed a lot since the far-off year of 1986, when my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela brought me face to face with my destiny, or ‘God’s plan’…Since then, I have done everything that my work demanded of me. After all, it was my choice and my blessing. I started travelling like a mad thing. The great lessons I learned had been precisely those that my journeys had taught me.
“Well, the truth is, I’ve always travelled like a mad thing ever since I was young. Recently, though, I seem to be spending my life in airports and hotels, and any sense of adventure has rapidly given way to profound tedium. When I complained that I never stayed in one place for very long, people were horrified: ‘But it’s great to travel. I wish I had the money to do what you’re doing!’
“Travel is never a matter of money, but of courage…After weeks on the road, listening to a language you don’t understand, using a currency whose value you don’t comprehend, walking down streets you’ve never walked down before, you discover that your old ‘I’, along with everything you ever learned, is absolutely no use at all in the face of those new challenges, and you begin to realise that, buried deep in your unconscious mind, there is someone much more interesting and adventurous and more open to the world and to new experiences” (10-11).
Paulo’s confessional on travel is as accurate of one as any I have ever read. He is right on each account. When I first started travelling the world—first South Korea, then Guam, then Vietnam, Cambodia, Bali, and on and on—I began to see that my American heritage and cultural training meant absolutely nothing in the strange lands around me. I became the foreigner, the alien, and Paulo is right, you often find a much more interesting person waiting deep inside your unconscious mind.
So, to break Paulo’s mild depression—if I am allowed to call it that—he decided to take J.’s advice and head back out into the world to do some book signings and meet his faithful readers. And on this path, this deeply moving revelation of one man seeking to find happiness—eerily similar to what Robin Williams must have suffered before his passing—Paulo offers us some advice on life and death:
“They say that in the second before our death, each of us understands the real reason for our existence and out of that moment Heaven or Hell is born.
“Hell is when we look back during that fraction of a second and know that we wasted an opportunity to dignify the miracle of life. Paradise is being able to say at that moment: ‘I made some mistakes, but I wasn’t a coward. I lived my life and did what I had to do’” (21).
And by this point Paulo has his claws deep in his readers as they follow him on this spiritual quest to regain happiness. And most of these readers will argue that this is a book of truth, that the ‘I’ in the book is without question the ‘I’ that is the real Paulo Coelho. On that note the book becomes an interesting insight into one author’s daily life. A behind the scenes look, if you will.
Paulo tells the story of how he met his agent, Mônica. Paulo was not getting published, a regular guy just trying to push through the everyday struggles every writer has in order to get noticed and given a chance by a publishing company. But nothing was happening. That is until Mônica championed his cause.
She quit university, moved from Rio to Catalonia, and tried to sell the idea that there was this Brazilian writer who should be read by the entire world. After many months and still no progress—after all, we must grow, evolve if you will, in order for us to really be happy—Mônica continued to fight for Paulo. So much so, he flew to see her and did his best to convince her to give up, go back to Brazil, that she was wasting her life away. She refused. She saw something in that man’s work and she continued onward with that ‘strange device’ held in her heart, on her lips and pulsing deep within her veins: “Excelsior!”
“She believed in the impossible,” writes Paulo, “and, for that reason, won a battle that everyone, including myself, considered to be lost. That is what marks out the warrior: the knowledge that willpower and courage are not the same thing. Courage can attract fear and adulation, but willpower requires patience and commitment. Men and women with immense willpower are generally solitary types and give off a kind of coolness” (23-24).
Mônica, still Paulo’s agent, won her victory and now the world knows Paulo Coelho and can enjoy his stories.
Writing is such a lonely and solitary profession, and as a writer I have often thought the same: if only one person could believe in me as much as Mônica who knows what I could do as a writer. Who knows what the world would be like if each of us had someone who believed in us as we believe in ourselves. But far too often—much like Robin Williams—we go through life alone, without our champion, our guide, our saving grace.
But Paulo soon discovers about Chinese Bamboo, which should be very useful for those out there with unrealized dreams, for those out there persisting day in and day out exhibiting willpower which far too often goes unnoticed. Patience, after all, is not a virtue but a habit, and who cares for such habits? Who in this day and age, in societies where heavily armed police brutalize, and at times kill, unarmed civilians, who cares for patience and willpower and courage and intellect? Who wants to be anyone else’s champion but his or her own?
But Paulo, through his quick study on Chinese bamboo, learns that patience can actually mean something far more rewarding than what most people at first realize.
Paulo is at a dinner party with his various publishers from around Europe and he is taking J.’s advice to put himself out there. Paulo, much to Mônica’s dismay, is accepting invitations to book events in several different countries and at extremely short notice.
‘Have you gone mad?’ [Mônica asks.]
‘Oh, I went mad years ago. Do you know anything about Chinese bamboo? It apparently spends five years as a little shoot, using that time to develop its root system. And then, from one moment to the next it puts on a spurt and grows up to twenty-five metres high.’
‘And what has that got to do with the act of insanity I’ve just witnessed?’
‘Later on, I’ll tell you about the conversation I had a month ago with J. What matters now, though, is that this is precisely what has been happening to me: I’ve invested work, time and effort; I tried to encourage my personal growth with love and dedication, but nothing happened. Nothing happened for years.’
‘What do you mean ‘nothing happened’? Have you forgotten who you are?’
The taxi arrives. The Russian publisher opens the door for Mônica.
‘I’m talking about the spiritual side of my life. I think I’m like that Chinese bamboo plant and that my fifth year has just arrived. It’s time for me to start growing again. You asked me if I’d gone mad and I answered with a joke. But the fact is, I have been going mad. I was beginning to believe that nothing I had learned had put down any roots’ (27).
Perhaps you are not where you want to be just yet because you are still growing a strong foundation of roots, values and skills that will hold you true to your course through the good times and the bad.
We all can’t be like Paulo Coelho or like Robin Williams, great men who helped change the world for the better with their talent and their personality and their words. But what we can do, much like Paulo, is to never give up. To strive to be better each day. To have faith in patience and willpower and not in instant gratification. To trust destiny and believe in God’s plan for our lives. To follow the Universe until each one of our dreams are realized and we can say, without fail: I made some mistakes, but I wasn’t a coward. I lived my life and did what I had to do.
And if you are like many and still not satisfied and still want to know what happened to the sexy violinist and Paulo, well, you will just have to read the book, which is a strong recommend.