Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, this book by the author of ‘The Alchemist’ aims to be ‘a collection of stories and parables unlocking the mysteries of the human condition’

Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho, whose 1988 book The Alchemist became a global bestseller — even after three and half decades, it continues to sell enthusiastically not just in bookshops but also on pavements, at traffic signals, and on trains in India — has a new book out. Titled Maktub, it is being marketed as “an inspirational companion” to Coelho’s novel about the spiritual quest of an Andalusian shepherd whose journey to find a coveted treasure is punctuated with encounters that leave him with significant lessons about the meaning and purpose of his life.

Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, and published by HarperCollins UK, this book aims to be “a collection of stories and parables unlocking the mysteries of the human condition”. The title — Maktub — is an Arabic word meaning “it is written”. It is also the name of the column that Coelho used to write for the Portuguese newspaper Folha de São Paulo. Maktub contains selections of stories that were published in the newspaper between 1993 and 1994, and selections from Coelho’s 1997 book Manual of the Warrior of Light.

An interfaith approach

In a 2005 interview with Alan Riding of the New York Times, Coelho had said, “I am a Catholic…not so committed to the church, but to the idea of the Virgin, the female face of God. I have spent every New Year’s Eve since 1992 in Lourdes. I spend the hour of my birth every year in the grotto. It’s a place with meaning for me.” The place of Christianity and the sacred feminine in Coelho’s inner life is evident from his dedication in the book Maktub. He writes, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee. Amen.”

In addition to Christianity, Coelho draws from Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism in Maktub. He refers to a number of saints, poets, artists, and mystics. This interfaith approach affirms the fact that wisdom can be gleaned from multiple sources. One can cherish one’s own faith and be open to learning from what other faiths have to offer instead of proclaiming superiority.

Since religion is still being used to instigate people against each other, and cause bloodshed, Coelho has a sobering reminder to offer: “In order to have faith in our own path, we do not need to prove that another’s path is wrong. Anyone who does so clearly has no confidence in his own steps.” Our faith ought to make us secure, open, and accommodating of diversity.

‘An exchange of experiences’

However, unlike The Alchemist, which has a gripping story to tell, catharsis to offer, and wisdom to impart, Maktub is all over the place. It lacks the vitality that comes across in The Alchemist. There is a lot of rambling, which could have been fixed by rigorous and thoughtful editing. It seems that Maktub has been churned out, and not written with the sincerity that readers expect from Coelho — an author who has not only produced inspiring works of popular literature but also been open about his struggles with mental health and drugs.

Maktub is not a book offering advice. It is an exchange of experiences,” states Coelho in the short introduction to his latest offering, which is not even half as impressive as The Alchemist — a classic in the self-help genre. Coelho notes, “Much of it consists of my master’s teachings over the 11 long years we have known each other. Other stories were given to me by friends or people whom I met only once but who left me with an unforgettable message.”

Contrary to the author’s claims, the book is filled with advice and some of it is certainly helpful. For instance, Coelho encourages readers to allow themselves to change their opinions instead of feeling obliged to maintain consistency out of sheer embarrassment. “You have a right to do that. It doesn’t matter what other people think because they’ll think whatever they want to,” he notes. In a world where people stick to their ideological cocoons, and are scared to interact with people who are not like-minded, the advice that Coelho offers is spot on.

Another valuable bit of advice tucked away in this book is that “showing your emotions is nothing to be ashamed of”. An unnamed spiritual master in the book says, “Scream, sob loudly, make a noise if you want, because that is how children cry, and they know this is the most effective way of soothing their heart.” Too many people in our world suppress their emotions because they do not want to be perceived as weaklings. They put up a brave front when they are hurting inside, and are in need of being heard and understood. Boys, in particular, are raised to believe that they must not come across as emotionally vulnerable.

An underwhelming companion

In another part of Maktub, Coelho holds up a mirror to a malaise that ails modern society. People hold on to the belief that they will be able to “avoid pain” if they avoid people, do not get close to others, and never fall in love. He writes, “You just have to pretend that you live in an ivory tower and have never shed a single tear. It’s enough to spend the rest of your existence playing a role.” Due to this fear, and the fervour to protect themselves from pain, they end up losing out on the many wondrous, beautiful and exciting things life has to offer.

My favourite takeaway from this book is that outward displays of piety are no good. What matters, eventually, is your heart. In one of the stories in Maktub, a novice in a monastery asks the abbot, “What should I do in order to please God?” The abbot says, “Ask your soul what it wants to do. When our soul is in agreement with its dreams, that fills God with joy.”

In another story, an abbot is reprimanded with some gentle humour. He is a man who used to think, “I need to be like the angels, who do nothing but contemplate the glory of God.” One day, when this abbot is desperately hungry, he realizes that devotion to God alone is not going to fill his belly. He says, “I can contemplate His glory too by doing my daily work.” He understands that the spiritual life is not meant to be an escape from one’s responsibilities.

In a nutshell, Maktub is not a sequel even if the words “an inspirational companion to The Alchemist” might have led you to think so. This book does not do justice to Coelho’s gifts as a storyteller but fans of the author might want to pick it up for its fleeting moments of insight.

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