288 pages, Vintage
Review by Pat Black
Reading Paulo Coelho is a bit like being sat next to an unexpectedly charming stranger at a boring dinner party. You’re entranced, laughing where you’re meant to laugh, pondering where you’re meant to ponder. You’re given plenty of space to put forward your own ideas and concepts. There’s no argument involved, just a genuine exchange of stories, memories and imagery. You’re open-minded, uncynical and even unguarded. What a clever and articulate chap! you think to yourself, as you fork another slice of melon. I feel like I’ve known him all my life. Jesus, I might even Facebook him.
And then, out of nowhere, you slam on the brakes. The wine goes down the wrong way. Paulo has to reach over and thump you on the back. Other guests look over, amused at first, thinking he’s told you a capital joke, and then concerned that your mirth might be fatal. But he has not told you a capital joke. And you’re not amused.
Finally, once your tubes are clear, you roar:
“You believe in what? Are you insane, mate?”
Aleph refers to a story of the same name by Jorge Luis Borges, another man given to odd, though compelling concepts about life, belief and infinity. The Aleph is a place, or a thing. It’s a point in the physical universe from which every other thing can be seen. Allowing us to look through the eyes of God.
Brazilian mega-selling author Coelho believes in God, and appears to be a devout Christian, but he believes in a lot of other things, too. In this book – narrated by a Brazilian writer named Paulo, who travels the world going to book signings and parties – many things are examined, from philosophical points of view which we can all relate to, to utter arcana which we cannot.
I like Paulo Coelho. I’ve read his first book – The Alchemist – and now his latest, and both have been fantastic pieces of work in all senses of the word. There’s a synchronicity to this, as I took Aleph on holiday with me, much as I did with The Alchemist on my first big holiday which did not involve causing chaos in Europe with my equally psychotic friends, 10 years ago. I won Aleph as a prize not long before I set off – almost as if fate pressed it into my hands at the right time. In the author’s world, this fact cannot be a coincidence, and its interpretation is not a glib one.
The difference between the two books is that you can take The Alchemist for what it is – fiction – but Coelho seems to want you to go a stage further in Aleph. It seems to me that this book is most definitely angled as non-fiction. Basically, we’re meant to see Paulo Coelho, as he is written in this book by an author called Paulo Coelho, as some sort of modern-day mystic or wizard, a warrior of light going about his business trying to understand the universe, part of some kind of inner quest or journey as he travels the world signing books and meeting fans. This book’s events and divinations are not portrayed as fictional devices and storytelling flourishes, which we can all take in without prejudice, but as actual things which happened in the real world.
Houston, we have a problem.
The plot, if you can call it that, is negligible. Paulo starts off meeting a mentor figure called J, who has to help him rediscover his pathway in life. So there’s a hint that Paulo has lost the way a little, something to do with life becoming routine, and also something to do with disconnecting with people. J urges Paulo to follow his instinct and succumb to the random to rediscover his mystical mojo and get back on the right road. Sounds a bit like Shelley’s negative capability to me, or perhaps using the Force. Hey, I’ve tried to use the Force loads of times. I keep trying to move beer glasses along bar-tops into my hands, using only my mind. It never works, and I look constipated.
Anyway, Paulo, being a bit of a famous author, is invited to book-signings across the world. He is accompanied by a retinue of publishers and editors, and along the way he gets invited to other book-signings and launch events. On a whim, and much to his organisers’ chagrin, he starts accepting invitations to visit far-flung places he wouldn’t normally go to – leading to the book’s central journey on the Trans-Siberian railway. The “signs”, you see, are pointing him in this direction.
(Red lights flash... WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP!)
Along the way, he meets a very unusual young lady of Turkish extraction, a violin virtuoso called Hilal who pleads with Paulo to be allowed to accompany him on his journey. Paulo, a man who listens to and believes in portents, energy fields, past lives, soothsaying, clairvoyancy, magic, and many other things besides, takes a leap of faith and invites the young lady to a posh dinner, seating her at a top table along with some publishing executives. At this dinner, Hilal announces to everyone that she was sexually abused as a child.
Go, go, Gadget Embarrassed Silences!
Now with the best will in the world, you’d think that Paulo’s every instinct would be screaming at him to ditch this unfortunate individual at the first opportunity. You might even be tempted to order security to remove her from the dinner itself – leaving her with helpline numbers to call. But no; the girl, who keeps giving Coelho creepy come-ons and frankly stalkerish pledges of love and loyalty, the kind that a rational person would suspect might end with murder, secures herself a place on the train through Russia with the author and his team. From there, things get weirder. Paulo and this girl encounter the Aleph together – a moment of understanding where they both look into each other’s souls and see a past life. It seems that they have both encountered each other before, and Coelho understands that there is some kind of lesson here for him through their connection.
The Aleph, by the way, appears in a physical place, a psychic ley line, if you like. This location is in the partition between two railway carriages. What is not clear is how this fixed point in time and space should be on board a train, which of course passes along many physical points in the real world. Maybe it’s to do with other dimensions. Maybe it’s a state of mind. Maybe it is all complete and utter rubbish.
Paulo is married, and although he loves his wife it is clear that the Turkish girl is not unattractive. She’s 21 or so, and Paulo is in his late 50s. She comes into his room, and they cuddle together in his sleeper carriage. Sometimes she is naked. Paulo is tempted but it’s made clear that Paulo desires spiritual communion, not carnal. At this point, I almost cast Aleph into the sea. You’ll believe a book can fly.
I shall say no more about the plot, if there is one. What frightens me most about this book is that the events in it, ignoring the spiritual world for a moment, may actually have happened. They are certainly packaged that way. If they did, then I should say in all sincerity that Paulo Coelho should think very hard about inviting strange people on tour with him ever again. Paulo, mate, there are a lot of nutters out there. It’s got nothing to do with negative energies, the hand of fate, or anything else – stay safe, fella. I mean that.
Two things stop me from slaughtering this book. First, Coelho is a persuasive, refreshing writer. There are clean lines in his prose which hint at the truth he is searching for, or looking to impart. When he is at his absolute best is when Paulo is walking with other characters – the elderly translator, Yao, in particular - and sharing a dialogue with them on what life is all about. There’s a meandering, Platonic tone to these exchanges and they’re enriching and engaging.
Then, God forgive me, the mumbo jumbo comes in and from there on it’s all about tolerance, or perhaps open-mindedness. If you’re a cynic, or if you believe that we amount to no more than a coordinated mess of matter making its way through the world, surviving as best we can and reproducing before physical dissolution brings down the curtain, then Aleph is best avoided.
This leads me to the second point which prevents me from putting this one on the “not even sure I should loan this out to people” pile. Any worthwhile literary endeavour points out – even Hemingway’s leanest, most spiteful efforts – that we are quite patently not just lumps of flesh, bone and nerves, blundering through the jungle of life. Art is one thing that sets us apart from the beasts. Since the dawn of history, humans have wondered what it’s all about, and have sought to express it, question it, give it meaning. We will continue to do so until we have an answer.
We can be cynical about the spiritual world - and to be honest, I could scoff at it all day long. But we don’t have all the answers, and life does throw up strange coincidences and ironies which we are at a loss to explain. There are moments which even the most rational of us cannot just explain away by waving in the general direction of chance or chaos. I’ve always held that it’s arrogance of the most extreme kind to assume we have all the answers. And belief isn’t nothing – it can spur people on to amazing feats… and it can also corrupt and manipulate.
In universal terms, it’s only a wink of time ago that we were running around in caves and thinking fire was the work of the supernatural. In the millennia to come – to appropriate Arthur C Clarke - many of our current concerns will be indistinguishable from the gibberings of cavemen to our descendants. In an increasingly well-educated, secular, and yet still troubled age, agnosticism is the only sensible point of view when it comes to that which we cannot fully explain.
If there was no more to it than just breathing, drinking, eating and shagging, we wouldn’t put down a single keystroke as writers; we’d never even cast a glance at a book. As Borges might agree, we’d never have written things down – the act of transmuting a thought into a symbol on a page - in the first place. What would be the point? Just as George Orwell insists that everything he ever wrote concerns a political belief which he denotes as democratic socialism, then Paulo Coelho wouldn’t have so much as lifted a pen if he didn’t want to follow his own codes, systems and spiritual governance… no matter that many of them are patently batshit.
If this was the X-Factor, you might say that Paulo is on a journey - and, despite everything, despite my own deep-rooted meanness, I wanted to believe in it.
We want romance and mystery and strangeness in our experience – what a boring life it would be without them. We want to believe that ultimately, as our existence ends, it was all worth something, not just a matter of taking up time and space, a lump of cells serving an earthly sentence before we bequeath our energy to the earth or the air.
Paulo in this book doesn’t espouse any particular philosophy, although he does give us some theories which err on the side of “f*cking crackpot” – he’s pleasingly vague, open to possibilities and wholly mesmerising. Unfortunately, this kind of charisma is very similar to the sort you might encounter among snake-oil salesmen, corrupt clerics, televangelist fraudsters, grifters of all rank and hue and, worst of all, politicians. You will need to put a lot of things on hold in order to read this book, and still more to enjoy it. Staking one’s finances on mysticism is usually a mug’s bet. But you’d remember your conversation with Paulo at the dinner party, and you’d probably Facebook him anyway.
I started reading this book on a plane, during mild turbulence. For me at least, it is in these conditions when I am at my least cynical, and the ideas of spiritual benevolence, deism or supernatural agency become palatable. Much moreso than when I am back on the ground, when I should say such ideas are negligible. No atheists in a foxhole, they say – very few on a wobbly plane, either. I’d say that, coincidentally, these are the optimum conditions for reading Aleph. Paulo Coelho would say there’s no “coincidentally” about it. I will read more of his stuff.