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The Zahir

Paulo Coelho


  The Zahir


  Translated from the Portuguese

  by Margaret Jull Costa


  O Mary…

  What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose…



  According to the writer Jorge Luis Borges…











  O Mary, conceived without sin,

  pray for us who turn to you. Amen

  What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?

  LUKE 15:4


  When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,

  pray that the road is long,

  full of adventure, full of knowledge.

  The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,

  the angry Poseidon—do not fear them:

  You will never find such as these on your path

  if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine

  emotion touches your spirit and your body.

  The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,

  the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,

  if you do not carry them within your soul,

  if your heart does not set them up before you.

  Pray that the road is long.

  That the summer mornings are many, when,

  with such pleasure, with such joy

  you will enter ports seen for the first time;

  stop at Phoenician markets,

  and purchase fine merchandise,

  mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

  and sensual perfumes of all kinds,

  as many sensual perfumes as you can;

  visit many Egyptian cities,

  to learn and learn from scholars.

  Always keep Ithaca in your mind.

  To arrive there is your ultimate goal.

  But do not hurry the voyage at all.

  It is better to let it last for many years;

  and to anchor at the island when you are old,

  rich with all you have gained on the way,

  not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

  Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.

  Without her you would never have set out on the road.

  She has nothing more to give you.

  And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.

  Wise as you have become, with so much experience,

  you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.


  translated by Rae Dalven


  In the car, I mentioned that I had finished the first draft of my book. Later, as we set out together to climb a mountain in the Pyrenees which we both consider to be sacred and where we have already shared some extraordinary moments, I asked if she wanted to know the main theme of the book or its title; she would love to, she said, but, out of respect for my work, she had, until then, asked nothing, she had simply felt glad—very glad.

  So I told her the title and the main theme. We continued walking in silence and, on the way back, we heard a noise; the wind was getting up, passing above the leafless trees and coming down toward us, causing the mountain once more to reveal its magic and its power.

  Suddenly the snow began to fall. I stopped and stood contemplating that moment: the snowflakes falling, the gray sky, the forest, the woman by my side. The woman who has always been by my side.

  I felt like telling her then, but decided to let her find out when she read these pages for the first time. This book is dedicated to you, Christina, my wife.

  According to the writer Jorge Luis Borges, the idea of the Zahir comes from Islamic tradition and is thought to have arisen at some point in the eighteenth century. Zahir, in Arabic, means visible, present, incapable of going unnoticed. It is someone or something which, once we have come into contact with them or it, gradually occupies our every thought, until we can think of nothing else. This can be considered either a state of holiness or of madness.


  Encyclopaedia of the Fantastic (1953)


  Her name is Esther; she is a war correspondent who has just returned from Iraq because of the imminent invasion of that country; she is thirty years old, married, without children. He is an unidentified male, between twenty-three and twenty-five years old, with dark, Mongolian features. The two were last seen in a café on the Rue du Faubourg St-Honoré.

  The police were told that they had met before, although no one knew how often: Esther had always said that the man—who concealed his true identity behind the name Mikhail—was someone very important, although she had never explained whether he was important for her career as a journalist or for her as a woman.

  The police began a formal investigation. Various theories were put forward—kidnapping, blackmail, a kidnapping that had ended in murder—none of which were beyond the bounds of possibility given that, in her search for information, her work brought her into frequent contact with people who had links with terrorist cells. They discovered that, in the weeks prior to her disappearance, regular sums of money had been withdrawn from her bank account: those in charge of the investigation felt that these could have been payments made for information. She had taken no change of clothes with her, but, oddly enough, her passport was nowhere to be found.

  He is a stranger, very young, with no police record, with no clue as to his identity.

  She is Esther, thirty years old, the winner of two international prizes for journalism, and married.

  My wife.

  I immediately come under suspicion and am detained because I refuse to say where I was on the day she disappeared. However, a prison officer has just opened the door of my cell, saying that I’m a free man.

  And why am I a free man? Because nowadays, everyone knows everything about everyone; you just have to ask and the information is there: where you’ve used your credit card, where you spend your time, whom you’ve slept with. In my case, it was even easier: a woman, another journalist, a friend of my wife, and divorced—which is why she doesn’t mind revealing that she slept with me—came forward as a witness in my favor when she heard that I had been detained. She provided concrete proof that I was with her on the day and the night of Esther’s disappearance.

  I talk to the chief inspector, who returns my belongings and offers his apologies, adding that my rapid detention was entirely within the law, and that I have no grounds on which to accuse or sue the state. I say that I haven’t the slightest intention of doing either of those things, that I am perfectly aware that we are all under constant suspicion and under twenty-four-hour surveillance, even when we have committed no crime.

  “You’re free to go,” he says, echoing the words of the prison officer.

  I ask: Isn’t it possible that something really has happened to my wife? She had said to me once that—understandably given her vast network of contacts in the terrorist underworld—she occasionally got the feeling she was being followed.

  The inspector changes the subject. I insist, but he says nothing.

  I ask if she would be able to travel on her passport, and he says, of course, since she has committed no crime. Why shouldn’t she leave and enter the country freely?

  “So she may no longer be in France?”

>   “Do you think she left you because of that woman you’ve been sleeping with?”

  That’s none of your business, I reply. The inspector pauses for a second and grows serious; he says that I was arrested as part of routine procedure, but that he is nevertheless very sorry about my wife’s disappearance. He is married himself and although he doesn’t like my books (So he isn’t as ignorant as he looks! He knows who I am!), he can put himself in my shoes and imagine what I must be going through.

  I ask him what I should do next. He gives me his card and asks me to get in touch if I hear anything. I’ve watched this scene in dozens of films, and I’m not convinced; inspectors always know more than they say they do.

  He asks me if I have ever met the person who was with Esther the last time she was seen alive. I say that I knew his code name, but didn’t know him personally.

  He asks if we have any domestic problems. I say that we’ve been together for ten years and have the same problems most married couples have—nothing more.

  He asks, delicately, if we have discussed divorce recently, or if my wife was considering leaving me. I tell him we have never even considered the possibility, and say again that “like all couples” we have our occasional disagreements.

  Frequent or only occasional?

  Occasional, I say.

  He asks still more delicately if she suspected that I was having an affair with her friend. I tell him that it was the first—and last—time that her friend and I had slept together. It wasn’t an affair; it came about simply because we had nothing else to do. It had been a bit of a dull day, neither of us had any pressing engagements after lunch, and the game of seduction always adds a little zest to life, which is why we ended up in bed together.

  “You go to bed with someone just because it’s a bit of a dull day?”

  I consider telling him that such matters hardly form part of his investigations, but I need his help, or might need it later on. There is, after all, that invisible institution called the Favor Bank, which I have always found so very useful.

  “Sometimes, yes. There’s nothing else very interesting to do, the woman is looking for excitement, I’m looking for adventure, and that’s that. The next day, you both pretend that nothing happened, and life goes on.”

  He thanks me, holds out his hand and says that in his world, things aren’t quite like that. Naturally, boredom and tedium exist, as does the desire to go to bed with someone, but everything is much more controlled, and no one ever acts on their thoughts or desires.

  “Perhaps artists have more freedom,” he remarks.

  I say that I’m familiar with his world, but have no wish to enter into a comparison between our different views of society and people. I remain silent, awaiting his next move.

  “Speaking of freedom,” he says, slightly disappointed at this writer’s refusal to enter into a debate with a police officer, “you’re free to go. Now that I’ve met you, I’ll read your books. I know I said I didn’t like them, but the fact is I’ve never actually read one.”

  This is not the first or the last time that I will hear these words. At least this whole episode has gained me another reader. I shake his hand and leave.

  I’m free. I’m out of prison, my wife has disappeared under mysterious circumstances, I have no fixed timetable for work, I have no problem meeting new people, I’m rich, famous, and if Esther really has left me, I’ll soon find someone to replace her. I’m free, independent.

  But what is freedom?

  I’ve spent a large part of my life enslaved to one thing or another, so I should know the meaning of the word. Ever since I was a child, I have fought to make freedom my most precious commodity. I fought with my parents, who wanted me to be an engineer, not a writer. I fought with the other boys at school, who immediately homed in on me as the butt of their cruel jokes, and only after much blood had flowed from my nose and from theirs, only after many afternoons when I had to hide my scars from my mother—because it was up to me, not her, to solve my problems—did I manage to show them that I could take a thrashing without bursting into tears. I fought to get a job to support myself, and went to work as a delivery man for a hardware store, so as to be free from that old line in family blackmail: “We’ll give you money, but you’ll have to do this, this, and this.”

  I fought—although without success—for the girl I was in love with when I was an adolescent, and who loved me too; she left me in the end because her parents convinced her that I had no future.

  I fought against the hostile world of journalism—my next job—where my first boss kept me hanging around for three whole hours and only deigned to take any notice of me when I started tearing up the book he was reading: he looked at me in surprise and saw that here was someone capable of persevering and confronting the enemy, essential qualities for a good reporter. I fought for the socialist ideal, went to prison, came out and went on fighting, feeling like a working-class hero—until, that is, I heard the Beatles and decided that rock music was much more fun than Marx. I fought for the love of my first, second, and third wives. I fought to find the courage to leave my first, second, and third wives, because the love I felt for them hadn’t lasted, and I needed to move on, until I found the person who had been put in this world to find me—and she was none of those three.

  I fought for the courage to leave my job on the newspaper and launch myself into the adventure of writing a book, knowing full well that no one in my country could make a living as a writer. I gave up after a year, after writing more than a thousand pages—pages of such genius that even I couldn’t understand them.

  While I was fighting, I heard other people speaking in the name of freedom, and the more they defended this unique right, the more enslaved they seemed to be to their parents’ wishes, to a marriage in which they had promised to stay with the other person “for the rest of their lives,” to the bathroom scales, to their diet, to half-finished projects, to lovers to whom they were incapable of saying “No” or “It’s over,” to weekends when they were obliged to have lunch with people they didn’t even like. Slaves to luxury, to the appearance of luxury, to the appearance of the appearance of luxury. Slaves to a life they had not chosen, but which they had decided to live because someone had managed to convince them that it was all for the best. And so their identical days and nights passed, days and nights in which adventure was just a word in a book or an image on the television that was always on, and whenever a door opened, they would say:

  “I’m not interested. I’m not in the mood.”

  How could they possibly know if they were in the mood or not if they had never tried? But there was no point in asking; the truth was they were afraid of any change that would upset the world they had grown used to.

  The inspector says I’m free. I’m free now and I was free in prison too, because freedom continues to be the thing I prize most in the world. Of course, this has led me to drink wines I did not like, to do things I should not have done and which I will not do again; it has left scars on my body and on my soul, it has meant hurting certain people, although I have since asked their forgiveness, when I realized that I could do absolutely anything except force another person to follow me in my madness, in my lust for life. I don’t regret the painful times; I bear my scars as if they were medals. I know that freedom has a high price, as high as that of slavery; the only difference is that you pay with pleasure and a smile, even when that smile is dimmed by tears.

  I leave the police station, and it’s a beautiful day outside, a sunny Sunday that does not reflect my state of mind at all. My lawyer is waiting for me with a few consoling words and a bunch of flowers. He says that he’s phoned around to all the hospitals and morgues (the kind of thing you do when someone fails to return home), but has not as yet found Esther. He says that he managed to prevent journalists from finding out where I was being held. He says he needs to talk to me in order to draw up a legal strategy that will help me defend myself against any future accusation. I thank
him for all his trouble; I know he’s not really interested in drawing up a legal strategy, he just doesn’t want to leave me alone, because he’s not sure how I’ll react. (Will I get drunk and be arrested again? Will I cause a scandal? Will I try to kill myself?) I tell him I have some important business to sort out and that we both know perfectly well that I have no problem with the law. He insists, but I give him no choice—after all, I’m a free man.

  Freedom. The freedom to be wretchedly alone.

  I take a taxi to the center of Paris and ask to be dropped near the Arc de Triomphe. I set off down the Champs-Elysées toward the Hôtel Bristol, where Esther and I always used to meet for hot chocolate whenever one of us came back from some trip abroad. It was our coming-home ritual, a plunge back into the love that bound us together, even though life kept sending us off along ever more diverging paths.

  I keep walking. People smile, children are pleased to have been given these few hours of spring in the middle of winter, the traffic flows freely, everything seems to be in order—except that none of them know that I have just lost my wife; they don’t even pretend not to know, they don’t even care. Don’t they realize the pain I’m in? They should all be feeling sad, sympathetic, supportive of a man whose soul is losing love as if it were losing blood; but they continue laughing, immersed in their miserable little lives that only happen on weekends.

  What a ridiculous thought! Many of the people I pass must also have their souls in tatters, and I have no idea how or why they are suffering.

  I go into a bar and buy some cigarettes; the person answers me in English. I go into a chemist’s to buy a mint I particularly like, and the assistant speaks to me in English (both times I asked for the products in French). Before I reach the hotel, I am stopped by two boys just arrived from Toulouse who are looking for a particular shop; they have asked several other people, but no one understands what they say. What’s going on? Have they changed languages on the Champs-Elysées in the twenty-four hours since I was arrested?