Book review: Aleph

I’ve been on holiday in Sicily for almost three weeks, so I had some time to do a little reading.  (The weather, the sea, the beaches and, most importantly, the company were all very nice.)  At the news stand/book store in the main square of Capo d’Orlando, I had a look through their collection of English language books, which are to be found in the darkest inner recesses of the store, mixed in with German language books. Aleph, by Paulo Coelho, a popular and well-regarded Brazilian author, caught my eye.  I had read his Eleven Minutes some time ago, and I was impressed.  It is the allegorical story of a young girl who, through her failures to achieve true love, goes to Switzerland where she becomes a successful prostitute.  But then she meets and falls in love with Ralf, an artist with whom she falls in love, and she discovers sacred sex: a mixture of sex and love in which one gives up one’s soul for the loved one.  Thought provoking and a very nice story.

Aleph is written in the first person, and it is, at one level, an interesting story about a trip across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  At the allegorical level it is Paulo Coelho’s complex exploration of self discovery.

The train trip seems to involve the author himself: he reports on his interactions with his publishers, editors, journalists and readers in a very modest yet engaging way.  One sympathises with his hardships: lack of sleep, the cold and bad-tempered colleagues.  I found it easy to wish that I, too, were on that hellish train just for a chance to meet Paulo Coelho.

But the ‘meat’ of the story involves a perceived sin that Paulo committed in an earlier life: as an official in the Spanish Inquisition, he failed to testify to the innocence of several young women who were then burned alive.  One of the young women has been reincarnated as Hilal, a young Turkish woman who believes that her life depends on making contact with him.  Diligently, she tries to establish a relationship with him without really understanding her own motivation.  Paulo learns in a sequence of dreams what he did.  She forgives him unconditionally and unknowingly, and he finally declares his sin to her, and is able to persuade her to get on with her own life as a concert violinist.

The ‘Aleph’ is a condition where all things in the universe and all time are able to converge at one point.  It represents perfect enlightenment.  Paulo and Hilal are almost in an Aleph at a certain point between the carriages of the train.

Interestingly, there is no sex between Paulo and Hilal: not that he isn’t tempted and that she isn’t willing.  At one point, she appears naked to him and he remembers her naked before the Inquisition.  The only difference being that then she had pubic hair, but now she is shaved.  He comments negatively (and quite rightly, I think) on the popularity of women shaving.

This is quite an interesting novel.  The trip, the characters, their relationships, and the actual events are all captivating.  And Coelho’s writing style is both engaging and clear.  The problem for me with this book is that I don’t believe there is such a thing as an aleph, nor do I believe that, if there is such a thing as reincarnation, we carry a debt from one life to another.  It’s another example of my literal mind getting in the way!

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