In this book, everyone speaks in multilayered maxims or platitudes that can mean a lot of things or, most likely, nothing at all. Facing a thug at a Russian restaurant, Yao claims he’s not afraid because “[O]nly the living die.” The thug relents. When musing about difficulty communicating with others, Paulo reflects, “The trouble with words is that they give us the illusory sense that we are making ourselves understood as well as understanding what others are saying.”
The reader may find it difficult to grasp the supposed importance of these ruminations when almost everyone in the book resorts to Hallmark Card-speak and esoteric verbiage. Worse, we are faced with character sketches at the mercy of a paper-thin plot. In a nutshell: During his journey, Paulo discovers his malaise stems from having wronged Hilal in a past life. As a Catholic priest during the Inquisition, he tortured the girl over allegations of devil worship and stood silent when she was condemned to death by burning. Paulo atones during the trans-Siberian leg of his pilgrimage.
Brazilian best-selling author Coelho claims to have drawn inspiration for his novel from Borges’s story. While it might be unfair to compare the authors — Coelho has sold more than 130 million books yet never achieved the literary acclaim of Borges — it is not the quality of the writing but the humorless solemnity of the novel that stands in most striking contrast. While both tales deal with the “aleph,” it takes Coelho 269 pages to conclude that only through the present can we redeem our past. The travails he subjects his readers to are not worth this ultimately vapid realization.
You may also like: Justin Torres' hard-hitting debut novel We the Animals.