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The Zahir, Page 3

Paulo Coelho

  I set off, and for thirty-eight days I follow the road to Santiago. When I arrive, I understand that my real journey only starts there. I decide to settle in Madrid and live off my royalties, to allow an ocean to separate me from Esther’s body, even though we are still officially together and often talk on the phone. It’s very comfortable being married and knowing that I can always return to her arms, meanwhile enjoying all the independence in the world.

  I fall in love with a Catalan scientist, with an Argentine woman who makes jewelry, and with a young woman who sings in the metro. The royalties from my lyrics keep rolling in and are enough for me to live comfortably without having to work and with plenty of time to do everything—even write a book.

  The book can always wait until tomorrow, though, because the mayor of Madrid has decreed that the city should be one long party and has come up with an interesting slogan—“Madrid is killing me”—and urges us all to visit several bars each night, coining the phrase la movida madrileña (“the Madrid scene”), which is something I cannot possibly put off until tomorrow; everything is such fun; the days are short and the nights are long.

  One day, Esther phones to say that she’s coming to see me: according to her, we need to sort out our situation once and for all. She has booked her ticket for the following week, which gives me just enough time to organize a series of excuses. (“I’m going to Portugal, but I’ll be back in a month,” I tell the blonde girl who used to sing in the metro and who now sleeps in the rented apartment where I live and with whom I go out every night to enjoy la movida madrileña.) I tidy the apartment, expunge any trace of a female presence, and ask my friends not to breathe a word, because my wife is coming to stay for a month.

  Esther gets off the plane sporting a hideous, unrecognizable haircut. We travel to the interior of Spain, discover little towns that mean a great deal for one night, but which, if I went back there today, I wouldn’t even be able to find. We go to bullfights, flamenco shows, and I am the best husband in the world, because I want her to go home feeling that I still love her. I don’t know why I want to give this impression—perhaps because, deep down, I know that the Madrid dream will eventually end.

  I complain about her haircut and she changes it and is pretty again. There are only ten days left of her holiday and I want her to go home feeling happy and to leave me alone to enjoy this Madrid that is killing me, the discotheques that open at ten in the morning, the bullfights, the endless conversations about the same old topics, the alcohol, the women, more bullfights, more alcohol, more women, and absolutely no timetable.

  One Sunday, while we are walking to a bar that serves food all night, she brings up the forbidden topic: the book I said I was writing. I drink a whole bottle of sherry, kick any metal doors we pass on the way back, verbally abuse other people in the street, ask why she bothered traveling all this way if her one aim was to make my life a hell and destroy my happiness. She says nothing, but we both know that our relationship has reached its limits. I have a dreamless night’s sleep, and the following morning, having complained to the building manager about the phone that doesn’t work, having told off the cleaning woman because she hasn’t changed the sheets for a week, having taken a long, long bath to get rid of the hangover from the night before, I sit down at my typewriter, just to show Esther that I am trying, honestly trying, to work.

  And suddenly, the miracle happens. I look across at the woman who has just made some coffee and is now reading the newspaper, whose eyes look tired and desperate, who is her usual silent self, who does not always show her affection in gestures, the woman who made me say yes when I wanted to say no, who forced me to fight for what she, quite rightly, believed was my reason for living, who let me set off alone because her love for me was greater even than her love for herself, who made me go in search of my dream; and, suddenly, seeing that small, quiet woman, whose eyes said more than any words, who was often terrified inside, but always courageous in her actions, who could love someone without humbling herself and who never ever apologized for fighting for her man—suddenly, my fingers press down on the keys.

  The first sentence emerges. Then the second.

  I spend two days without eating, I sleep the bare minimum, the words seem to spring from some unknown place, as they did when I used to write lyrics, in the days when, after much arguing and much meaningless conversation, my musical partner and I would know that “it” was there, ready, and it was time to set “it” down in words and notes. This time, I know that “it” comes from Esther’s heart; my love is reborn, I write the book because she exists, because she has survived all the difficult times without complaint, without ever once seeing herself as a victim. I start by describing the experience that has affected me most profoundly in those last few years—the road to Santiago.

  As I write, I realize that the way I see the world is going through a series of major changes. For many years, I studied and practiced magic, alchemy, and the occult; I was fascinated by the idea of a small group of people being in possession of an immense power that could in no way be shared with the rest of humanity, because it would be far too dangerous to allow such vast potential to fall into inexperienced hands. I was a member of secret societies, I became involved in exotic sects, I bought obscure, extremely expensive books, spent an enormous amount of time performing rituals and invocations. I was always joining and leaving different groups and fraternities, always thinking that I had finally met the person who could reveal to me the mysteries of the invisible world, but in the end I was always disappointed to discover that most of these people, however well-intentioned, were merely following this or that dogma and tended to be fanatics, because fanaticism is the only way to put an end to the doubts that constantly trouble the human soul.

  I discovered that many of the rituals did actually work, but I discovered, too, that those who declared themselves to be the masters and holders of the secrets of life, who claimed to know techniques that gave them the ability to achieve their every desire, had completely lost touch with the teachings of the ancients. Following the road to Santiago, coming into contact with ordinary people, discovering that the universe spoke its own language of “signs” and that, in order to understand this language, we had only to look with an open mind at what was going on around us—all this made me wonder if the occult really was the one doorway into those mysteries. In my book about the road to Santiago, I discuss other possible ways of growing and end with this thought: All you have to do is to pay attention; lessons always arrive when you are ready, and if you can read the signs, you will learn everything you need to know in order to take the next step.

  We humans have two great problems: the first is knowing when to begin; the second is knowing when to stop.

  A week later, I have finished the first, second, and third draft. Madrid is no longer killing me, it is time to go back home. I feel that one cycle has ended and that I urgently need to begin another. I say goodbye to the city as I have always said goodbye in life: thinking that I might change my mind and come back one day.

  I return to my own country with Esther, convinced that it might be time to get another job, but until I do (and I don’t because I don’t need to) I continue revising the book. I can’t believe that anyone will have much interest in the experiences of one man following a romantic but difficult route across Spain.

  Four months later, when I am busy on my tenth draft, I discover that both the typescript and Esther have gone. Just as I’m about to go mad with anxiety, she returns with a receipt from the post office—she has sent it off to an old boyfriend of hers, who now runs a small publishing house.

  The ex-boyfriend publishes the book. There is not a word about it in the press, but a few people buy it. They recommend it to other people, who also buy it and recommend it to others. Six months later, the first edition has sold out. A year later, there have been three more print runs and I am beginning to earn money from the one thing I never dreamed I would—from literature.

bsp; I don’t know how long this dream will continue, but I decide to live each moment as if it were the last. And I see that this success opens the door I have so long wanted to open: other publishers are keen to publish my next book.

  Obviously, I can’t follow the road to Santiago every year, so what am I going to write about next? Will I have to endure the same rigmarole of sitting down in front of the typewriter and then finding myself doing everything but writing sentences and paragraphs? It’s important that I continue to share my vision of the world and to describe my experiences of life. I try for a few days and for many nights, and decide that it’s impossible. Then, one evening, I happen upon (happen upon?) an interesting story in The Thousand and One Nights; in it I find the symbol of my own path, something that helps me to understand who I am and why I took so long to make the decision that was always there waiting for me. I use that story as the basis for another story about a shepherd who goes in search of his dream, a treasure hidden in the pyramids of Egypt. I speak of the love that lies waiting for him there, as Esther had waited for me while I walked around and around in circles.

  I am no longer someone dreaming of becoming something: I am. I am the shepherd crossing the desert, but where is the alchemist who helps him to carry on? When I finish this novel, I don’t entirely understand what I have written: it is like a fairy tale for grown-ups, and grown-ups are more interested in war, sex, or stories about power. Nevertheless, the publisher accepts it, the book is published, and my readers once again take it into the bestseller lists.

  Three years later, my marriage is in excellent shape; I am doing what I always wanted to do; the first translation appears, then the second, and success—slowly but surely—takes my work to the four corners of the earth.

  I decide to move to Paris because of its cafés, its writers, and its cultural life. I discover that none of this exists anymore: the cafés are full of tourists and photographs of the people who made those places famous. Most of the writers there are more concerned with style than content; they strive to be original, but succeed only in being dull. They are locked in their own little world, and I learn an interesting French expression: renvoyer l’ascenseur, meaning literally “to send the elevator back,” but used metaphorically to mean “to return a favor.” In practice, this means that I say nice things about your book, you say nice things about mine, and thus we create a whole new cultural life, a revolution, an apparently new philosophy; we suffer because no one understands us, but then that’s what happened with all the geniuses of the past: being misunderstood by one’s contemporaries is surely just part and parcel of being a great artist.

  They “send the elevator back,” and, at first, such writers have some success: people don’t want to run the risk of openly criticizing something they don’t understand, but they soon realize they are being conned and stop believing what the critics say.

  The Internet and its simple language are all that it takes to change the world. A parallel world emerges in Paris: new writers struggle to make their words and their souls understood. I join these new writers in cafés that no one has heard of, because neither the writers nor the cafés are as yet famous. I develop my style alone and I learn from a publisher all I need to know about mutual support.

  What is this Favor Bank?”

  “You know. Everyone knows.”

  “Possibly, but I still haven’t quite grasped what you’re saying.”

  “It was an American writer who first mentioned it. It’s the most powerful bank in the world, and you’ll find it in every sphere of life.”

  “Yes, but I come from a country without a literary tradition. What favors could I do for anyone?”

  “That doesn’t matter in the least. Let me give you an example: I know that you’re an up-and-coming writer and that, one day, you’ll be very influential. I know this because, like you, I too was once ambitious, independent, honest. I no longer have the energy I once had, but I want to help you because I can’t or don’t want to grind to a halt just yet. I’m not dreaming about retirement, I’m still dreaming about the fascinating struggle that is life, power, and glory.

  “I start making deposits in your account—not cash deposits, you understand, but contacts. I introduce you to such-and-such a person, I arrange certain deals, as long as they’re legal. You know that you owe me something, but I never ask you for anything.”

  “And then one day…”

  “Exactly. One day, I’ll ask you for a favor and you could, of course, say no, but you’re conscious of being in my debt. You do what I ask, I continue to help you, and other people see that you’re a decent, loyal sort of person and so they too make deposits in your account—always in the form of contacts, because this world is made up of contacts and nothing else. They too will one day ask you for a favor, and you will respect and help the people who have helped you, and, in time, you’ll have spread your net worldwide, you’ll know everyone you need to know and your influence will keep on growing.”

  “I could refuse to do what you ask me to do.”

  “You could. The Favor Bank is a risky investment, just like any other bank. You refuse to grant the favor I asked you, in the belief that I helped you because you deserved to be helped, because you’re the best and everyone should automatically recognize your talent. Fine, I say thank you very much and ask someone else into whose account I’ve also made various deposits; but from then on, everyone knows, without me having to say a word, that you are not to be trusted.

  “You’ll grow only half as much as you could have grown, and certainly not as much as you would have liked to. At a certain point, your life will begin to decline, you got halfway, but not all the way, you are half-happy and half-sad, neither frustrated nor fulfilled. You’re neither cold nor hot, you’re lukewarm, and as an evangelist in some holy book says: ‘Lukewarm things are not pleasing to the palate.’”

  The publisher places a lot of deposits—or contacts—into my account at the Favor Bank. I learn, I suffer, my books are translated into French, and, in the tradition of that country, the stranger is welcomed. Not only that, the stranger is an enormous success! Ten years on, I have a large apartment with a view over the Seine, I am loved by my readers and loathed by the critics (who adored me until I sold my first 100,000 copies, but, from that moment on, I ceased to be “a misunderstood genius”). I always repay promptly any deposits made and soon I too am a lender—of contacts. My influence grows. I learn to ask for favors and to do the favors others ask of me.

  Esther gets permission to work as a journalist in France. Apart from the normal conflicts in any marriage, I am contented. I understand for the first time that all the frustrations I felt about previous love affairs and marriages had nothing to do with the women involved, but with my own bitterness. Esther, however, was the only woman who understood one very simple thing: in order to be able to find her, I first had to find myself. We have been together for eight years; I believe she is the love of my life, and although I do occasionally (or, to be honest, frequently) fall in love with other women who cross my path, I never consider the possibility of divorce. I never ask her if she knows about my extramarital affairs. She never makes any comment on the subject.

  That is why I am astonished when, as we are leaving a cinema, she tells me that she has asked her magazine if she can file a report on a civil war in Africa.

  What are you saying?”

  “That I want to be a war correspondent.”

  “You’re mad. You don’t need to do that. You’re already doing the work you want to do now. You earn good money—not that you need that money to live on. You have all the contacts you need in the Favor Bank. You have talent and you’ve earned your colleagues’ respect.”

  “All right then, let’s just say I need to be alone.”

  “Because of me?”

  “We’ve built our lives together. I love my man and he loves me, even though he’s not always the most faithful of husbands.”

  “You’ve never said anything
about that before.”

  “Because it doesn’t matter to me. I mean, what is fidelity? The feeling that I possess a body and a soul that aren’t mine? Do you imagine I haven’t been to bed with other men during all these years we’ve been together?”

  “I don’t care and I don’t want to know.”

  “Well, neither do I.”

  “So, what’s all this about wanting to write about a war in some godforsaken part of the world?”

  “As I said, I need to.”

  “Haven’t you got everything you need?”

  “I have everything a woman could want.”

  “What’s wrong with your life then?”

  “Precisely that. I have everything, but I’m not happy. And I’m not the only one either; over the years, I’ve met and interviewed all kinds of people: the rich, the poor, the powerful, and those who just make do. I’ve seen the same infinite bitterness in everyone’s eyes, a sadness which people weren’t always prepared to acknowledge, but which, regardless of what they were telling me, was nevertheless there. Are you listening?”

  “Yes, I’m listening. I was just thinking. So, according to you, no one is happy?”

  “Some people appear to be happy, but they simply don’t give the matter much thought. Others make plans: I’m going to have a husband, a home, two children, a house in the country. As long as they’re busy doing that, they’re like bulls looking for the bullfighter: they react instinctively, they blunder on, with no idea where the target is. They get their car, sometimes they even get a Ferrari, and they think that’s the meaning of life, and they never question it. Yet their eyes betray the sadness that even they don’t know they carry in their soul. Are you happy?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “I don’t know if everyone is unhappy. I know they’re all busy: working overtime, worrying about their children, their husband, their career, their degree, what they’re going to do tomorrow, what they need to buy, what they need to have in order not to feel inferior, etc. Very few people actually say to me: ‘I’m unhappy.’ Most say: ‘I’m fine, I’ve got everything I ever wanted.’ Then I ask: ‘What makes you happy?’ Answer: ‘I’ve got everything a person could possibly want—a family, a home, work, good health.’ I ask again: ‘Have you ever stopped to wonder if that’s all there is to life?’ Answer: ‘Yes, that’s all there is.’ I insist: ‘So the meaning of life is work, family, children who will grow up and leave you, a wife or husband who will become more like a friend than a real lover. And, of course, one day your work will end too. What will you do when that happens?’ Answer: There is no answer. They change the subject.”