The Zahir is a 2005 novel written by Paulo Coelho which explores love and obsession. After the narrator, who is incidentally a writer, discovers that his wife has left him, becomes obsessed with the reasons of her abandonment. The book also discusses the concepts of fidelity and marriage. Coelho dedicates this book to his wife and since, the narrator is also a writer with similar status and books in his profile as Coelho and since a lot of the plot points covers Coelho’s personal history, the book feels auto-biographical in nature.
The book starts with the unnamed narrator discussing freedom as he is being let go by the police under suspicion. He had been seeing another woman during the time his wife was reported missing, and is so no longer under suspicion. He wonders if the freedom here means that he is free to live his life the way he wants, as he has done previously after leaving his last three wives, with none of whom his marriage worked or if the freedom meant that he is alone without the only person who understood him and made him do things he wanted even when he didn’t realize or didn’t want to do them.
He does move on, takes a new lover, keeps living his life as a renowned write, but begins to obsess about his wife. The obsession leads him to write a book on love for his wife. The word, zahir, has roots in Arabic and means something that is obvious. For him, the obsession about his wife is the most obvious thing about him. Time passes, but he keeps missing his wife. He believes she was the one who saw the potential in him and kept pushing him forward to realize the potential. Love, particularly in a committed relationship such as marriage, is explored. The intensity of the starting years and the gradual decline is expressed through stories and allusions.
A thing worth noting, that even though the narrator has multiple affairs, he hardly ever describes his wife or even other women using their physical appearance. For him, the connect of bodies is something natural, it doesn’t require physical attraction and the connect of souls doesn’t require any physical attraction. Similarly, the fidelity of soul is more important for him than the fidelity of bodies. He takes multiple lovers even married, and so does his wife. But, they hardly ever bring it up. It’s not important for them. At the end of the day, they need each other. This is why she leaves him, not because he is having affairs but because he is not as much as invested in her as before. He doesn’t treat her as an equal in their relationship.
The writer also adds the plight of Kazakhstan to the story, but it seems unnecessary or unjustified. It doesn’t add to the story. Esther could be anywhere, Mikhail could be anyone, even if not from a war-riddled country. His story is more spiritual and less war-centric. His back story could have been more enhanced. It’s simply a half-baked image that needs more detail.
The character of Esther is slightly one-dimensional. Throughout the novel, she remains an enigma. Even by the end, we know nothing about her, except that she is a war-correspondent and unhappy. There’s no backstory to her either. She describes war as a poem and rather romanticizes the blood and gore. Her decision to leave to a front as her editor’s instruction in the end is unclear. She says she wouldn’t stop working, why would she then leave for a place in middle of nowhere where is doing no good. As consistent in Coelho’s other novels, plot comes second to spirituality.