Aleph is a novel, which the author calls non-fiction, of his spiritual and physical journey across the entirety of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Coelho allegedly travels through time, has out-of-body experiences, and becomes the love-object of a girl about forty years his junior.
My response to this book, in three words, is: “Yeah fucking right.”
You may call me a non-believer in magic, spirituality, new-age hocus-pocus, and for the most part, you would be right. I can maybe give credit to phenomena like aliens or ghosts, because they’re culturally universal, and discussing them is productive because by talking about them we gain outside perspective on our own lives (What would the dead think of this? What would aliens think of that? What does it feel like to be outside or other than ourselves?).
From what I gather, Aleph is about 3 things:
The Aleph – a place where all roads (time, space, dimensions) cross. Aleph is the first letter of the Jewish alphabet, and in the Kabbalistic lore it is called “the primordial one that contains all numbers”. In mathematics, it denotes the size of infinite sets. The Aleph is the infinite condensed into the one.
Coelho’s Aleph draws heavily on Jorge Luis Borges’s story “The Aleph”. The big difference is that Borges’s “The Aleph” allows the user to see the universe from every angle without confusion, while in Coelho’s Aleph it seems to cause more confusion, as his time in it is limited despite that the Aleph is supposed to be a place of infinite time. This makes sense plot-wise because if Coelho had seen the past in its entirety the main conflict would have been solved the first day of the train journey, when he and Hilal first step into the Aleph. But no, we get it bit by bit, and so the mystery is dragged out through the whole mystical, pointless affair. The Aleph in Coelho’s novel is a physical place where if two people whose destinies are intertwined (or are in love or something) meet, they get this head-rush and can see into forever~ He describes it as a place of well-being, where people can’t help but gather naturally. Which is a whole lot of feel-good nonsense, if you ask me. Don’t get me wrong, I know love can be euphoric… I just have yet to experience its time-traveling properties.
Following your heart – he calls it becoming “King of your kingdom”. At the beginning, Coelho was lost and felt he wasn’t getting any further with his metaphysical studies, so his mentor told him to go on a journey to get outside himself, to get unstuck from his identity and chase his dreams. J. tells him, “Life is the train, not the station.” Very cheesy and overdone, but true. Sometimes you just need a change of place.
Being present. His teacher J. tells him that “time doesn’t pass”, that everything happens in the now, à la Eckhart Tolle. While I don’t know all the details, I think this is more a way of life than a scientific way of understanding time (if you know about the physics of time, please explain or point me towards some English-major-friendly resources). Coelho tells the reader that because the present is the only time that exists, loved ones who have passed away are always with you, even after they die, because… I don’t know, tell people what they want to hear and sell lots of books?
The Aleph is essentially ripped from Borges’s “The Aleph”, and as the central concept of the book that’s not a good thing. What most annoys me about Aleph is how Coelho takes useful metaphors, like the Aleph and the idea that all time is present, and claims that they’re real and he’s experienced them. That’s a tall order for a readers’ suspension of disbelief, and I haven’t even discussed Hilal yet.
Hilal is a twenty-one year old Turkish violinist who comes to Coelho’s book signing before he gets on the train and asks (demands) to accompany him on his journey. Coelho and his staff try to tell her not to come, but she buys a ticket anyway and elbows her way into his car. She’s pushy, but she has a strong sense of her purpose, which is to follow Coelho and induce in him some kind of spiritual revelation (and sleep with him, if he’ll allow her to). Coelho, as a married, famous author in his mid-60’s repeatedly tells her he doesn’t want to be seen with her because people will think they’re having an affair, but she won’t leave him alone.
He becomes more interested in her when they meet at the Aleph, and he sees further into his past life than he was able to before. He and Hilal grow closer over the extent of their journey, and on two nights he lays in bed with his arms around her, imagining a ring of fire passing from his head to his feet and back again. He says this fire transports him back into the past, but somehow I doubt that was all he was doing… in the past he sees Hilal being stripped and tortured by Inquisitors. That’s not a sex dream or fantasy, but a vision of the past… yeah. Sure. Right.
Many famous people have groupies, but not too many professions offer the opportunity to turn potential scandals into best-selling mystical novels. I admire him for his creativity and the simplicity of his prose (it’s not easy to write a book that’s easy to read), but personally I think he’s a charlatan selling imaginary metaphysical experiences to cure modern anxieties.