Aleph: A Novel

  • Paulo Coelho
  • Knopf
  • 288 pp.

This novel of a mystical trans-Siberian train journey takes the reader on a quest for meaning, with no end in sight.

Reviewed by Y.S. Fing

I generally try to keep myself out of my reviews, but I had such a personal response in my reading of Paulo Coelho’s Aleph, translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, that I must intrude to relay the amazing assortment of authors and stories that came to mind. For the author using himself as the protagonist to tell his picaresque story, I was reminded of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. For the synchronicity of the past and the present, I thought of Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, and of Faulkner’s works in general. For Coelho’s humane treatment of identity crisis, I remembered Philip K. Dick’s VALIS.

I must devote a separate paragraph to Jorge Luis Borges, for his short story, “The Aleph,” is quoted as one of the epigraphs: “The Aleph was about two to three centimeters in diameter, but all of cosmic space was there, with no diminution in size. Each thing was infinite, because I could clearly see it from every point on the universe.” I first encountered this idea when I was 18 and have had much to cogitate about since. See everything? All at once?

So I am appreciative that anybody would examine the notion of Aleph, which I take to be a space in time from which a person can see eternity, from beginning to end and all in between, as if one were God. If you like your mysticism without the confines of religious faith, Borges set the standard that Coelho capably upholds. While Coelho enjoys the comforts of a variety of religious and philosophical traditions, he begins the book crisply with, “OH, NO, NOT ANOTHER RITUAL!” The capital letters are Coelho’s, and he demonstrates here and on other occasions his lack of patience for “invocation[s] intended to make the invisible forces manifest in the visible world. What has that got to do with the world we live in today?” This frustrated question leads Coelho (balancing between author and protagonist) to ask himself, while readers are still on the first page: “What am I doing here, trying to make my way in a spiritual tradition whose roots are in the remote past, far from all the challenges of the present moment?”

This question begins the quest (ironically strewn with ritual) for an answer. Coelho talks to his spiritual adviser, who tells him to go on a journey. The author resists this idea but has a fondness for travel. It was this quotation that hooked me, about nine pages in: “After weeks on the road, listening to a language you don’t understand, using a currency whose value you don’t comprehend, walking down streets you’ve never walked down before, you discover that your old ‘I,’ along with everything you ever learned, is absolutely no use at all in the face of those new challenges, and you begin to realize that buried deep in your unconscious mind there is someone much more interesting and adventurous and more open to the world and to new experience.”

I’ve never heard a better, more concise explanation of what travel does, and how its effect can have a powerful influence on one’s life. So Coelho, with deceptively simple sentences, carrying profoundly complex ideas, won me over right away.

Coelho, the protagonist, lingers in a malaise through the first chapters, particularly after he receives a prophecy from a Moroccan clairvoyant. But a revelation in his garden about Chinese bamboo, which lies fallow for five years before prodigiously growing 20 feet in one year, begins to change his mind. He feels that travel may cause him to bloom. So, being a world-famous author of 13 novels, he begins to plan a trip, including stops in Bulgaria and Tunisia that will take him to book fairs and book signings. From the beginning of the journey, Coehlo demonstrates that the quest is more than a means to an end: when he impulsively adds weeks to his itinerary and goes to Moscow, his agent and his publisher are both taken aback and somewhat put out. This is one example of the fast-paced rising action of a spiritual seeker confidently following his path.

Coelho is on a spiritual journey, so he is a dislocated person who is attracted to and attracted by dislocated people. The two most important partners on this journey are Yao, a translator of Mongol descent and a man struggling to heal from the death of his wife, and Hilal, a young, beautiful, erratic, possessive, female Turkish violinist. The three wanderers end up on the Trans-Siberian Express on their way to Vladivostok. Those 9,288 kilometers, and the stops they make along the way, afford them the opportunity to reveal themselves and gossip and drink and smoke too much, and display all the political nonsense of a group of people shut up together for a long period.

Without spoiling the story, the Aleph is on the train too. Coelho and Hilal encounter it together and spend the rest of their time trying to figure out what it means. The processes (and rituals, particularly the climactic moments with a shaman on Lake Baikal) they go through (which ultimately reveal the truth of the Moroccan clairvoyant’s prophecy) are mystical and complex, but Coelho the writer is both discerning and revealing of Coelho the protagonist, whose enthusiasms we share, even if we would not be equal to his restraint vis-à-vis Hilal. So reading this book was a pleasure, and I will begin perusing Coelho’s other books, to keep his journey in my sight and in my mind. I’m sure I’m not alone in responding this way to Coelho’s powerful storytelling.

Y.S. Fing, an instructor of English at a university in the D.C. area, is the author of such unpublished works as “Socialize Yourself: A Teacher’s and Student’s Guide to College- Level Composition” and “Event Horizons: Aphorisms on the Life of D. Selby Fing” (

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