by Paulo Coelho
Paulo Coelho is one of my literary gaps — I'd heard of him, meant to read him, yet never got around to him until now. Is Manuscript Found in Accra the best introduction to him? I don't know, but this slim novel — if “novel” is the right word — gives me plenty to think about.
The basic premise behind Accra is that a manuscript dating back to roughly 1307 AD was discovered by English archeologist Sir Walter Wilkinson in 1974 in Egypt, though it came from an area outside of the Egyptian territory and “therefore, no restrictions [were] on its removal from the country.” Our unnamed narrator acquired the text in 2011 from Sir Walter's son, and what we read is the narrator's transcription. The text itself has its own narrator and he says it is “the fourteenth of July, 1099.”
This evening, in the same square where a millennium ago, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate handed Jesus over to the mob to be crucified, a group of men and women of all ages went to see the Greek, whom we all know as the Copt.
He did not seek to join any particular religion, and no one tried to persuade him otherwise. [...]The Copt believes only in the present moment and what he calls Moira — the unknown god the Divine Energy, responsible for a single law, which, if ever broken, will bring about the end of the world.
Alongside the Copt were the patriarchs of the three religions that had settled in Jerusalem.
The city is about to head into battle many believe is pointless, and they look to the Copt for guidance. They listen to him talk and ask questions. What follows is something that sounds rather Buddhist — what with the present moment taking precedence and all — but more like the variety that still has a deity. There isn't so much a plot, but rather an outlay of philosophy regarding defeat, love, sex, loyalty, solitude, worth, fear, beauty, and nearly every other basic facet of human existence. To be able to do that in slightly more than 200 pages is quite the concise feat.
He focuses not just on the goal to be reached, but on everything happening around him. He often has to stop because his strength fails him.
At such moment, Love appears and says: “You think you're heading toward a specific point, but the whole justification for the goal's existence lie in your love for it. Rest a little, but as soon as you can, get up and carry on. Because ever since your goal found out that you were traveling toward it, it has been running to meet you.
This is a useful thought for writers, particularly those who are constantly comparing themselves to some hot young “30 under 30” list member. Or, the writers who, upon the first stumble, think that because they stumbled, they should give up their plan. Do you know how many writers there are that do not publish until after 40? 50? Beyond? Paulo Coelho is 65 years old. He is in it for the long haul.
Beware of the pain you cause yourself by allowing a vile and cowardly heart to be part of your world.
The Copt's words are designed to change how one feels about themselves, as well as how they deal with others. The glass is already broken, so to speak, and what matters is how we react to that.
Much of Accra reads like a more formal version of the Tiny Buddha self-help essays that land in my inbox, and that's okay, as long as you're not looking for a traditional novel. While I may think that there are plenty of good reminders in the book for a more peaceful way of living, I suspect that other readers may find it it a little too prescriptive. Still, much of the wisdom centers around love and mindfulness, and who can really argue with that?
The section on sex is rather refreshing, considering the time period, and our unnamed 1099-era editor does not pass judgment (nor does he on most other matters).
And the wife of a trader said:
“Speak to us about sex.”
And he answered:
Men and women whisper to each other because they have turned a sacred gesture into a sinful act.
[…]If two bodies merely join together, that is not sex, it is merely pleasure. Sex goes far beyond pleasure.
The Copt talks about how the act of surrender and of trusting another can be transformative, and that because it seems dangerous, “it is the only path worth following.”
Judging by the quotes I've seen from some of Coelho's other work, philosophical and mindful ways of living are his wheelhouse, and perhaps Manuscript in Accra is a condensed, more direct version of those ideas. I would have to read his other books to say so with any certainty, though perhaps it would be best to ask the man himself. He appears to be quite active on Twitter, which I like to see when it's clear that the writer enjoys it. That the United Nations has named him a “Messenger of Peace” feels very apt. Maybe this book isn't for everyone, but I liked it well enough to want to properly devour a full-on Coelho novel in the near future.
Full Disclosure: Knopf sent me this book as an uncorrected proof, so my pull quotes may differ slightly from the finished edition. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.
This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.