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The Zahir By Paulo Coelho

When David Hasselhoff met Miss Universe

A critic once asked whether the philosophical musings of Paulo Coelho were merely "enjoyable tosh". Admittedly, some of his conundrums (what is fate? Do we only live life when faced with death?) resemble something David Hasselhoff might spout after a particularly taxing Baywatch rescue. However, Coelho has sold about 56-million books and been translated into 59 languages. He is apparently too provocative for Iran, which has banned his latest book for no given reason.

A critic once asked whether the philosophical musings of Paulo Coelho were merely "enjoyable tosh". Admittedly, some of his conundrums (what is fate? Do we only live life when faced with death?) resemble something David Hasselhoff might spout after a particularly taxing Baywatch rescue. However, Coelho has sold about 56-million books and been translated into 59 languages. He is apparently too provocative for Iran, which has banned his latest book for no given reason.

A zahir, we are told, is "someone or something which, once we have come into contact with them or it, gradually occupies our every thought". In this case, the zahir is an author's missing war-correspondent wife. After she disappears, the author embarks on a physical and spiritual journey to find her.

The novel has caused a great amount of controversy in Coelho's native Brazil, with much speculation on the identity of woman who inspired the character of the wife - Coelho's first muse, apparently. Plenty of wannabes, including a former Miss Universe, stepped forward to claim the title. But who was it really? Stand up journalist Christina Lamb. Coelho had kept in contact with her following an interview, but she had no idea of his plans to plant her in his work.

So is the wife "real" - and is the author a character? You don't have to know Coelho personally to note the explicit links between the two. As the first-person narrator, the author describes, for example, the word-of-mouth success of his first novel, which led to a novel about a quest across the desert. He says Coelho-esque things such as: "The great advantage of writing about spirituality is that I know I'm bound to keep encountering people with some kind of gift."

All this reality/fiction crossover means that when I read The Zahir, I couldn't help but wonder what was inspired by reality, what was the truth itself, what was fiction, and, indeed, whether it actually mattered. The question may even be a red herring; the central philosophical idea of an all-consuming passion is a fascinating one, after all. However, The Zahir lacks the scandal of Eleven Minutes, the excitement of The Devil and Miss Prym, or the power of The Alchemist, so I wasn't left with quite enough to hold my interest. I'm always hugely excited about a new Coelho novel, so it's a great shame.

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