Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy
Published in Daily Times / 12 June 2010
On the surface, it is a simple, albeit bizarre little collection where carefully chosen passages from well-thumbed editions have been bound in one volume. Coelho scoured the globe looking for stories that once served as his inspirations. Then he agonised over which segments to include while trying to decide upon the best placement.
Once inside, readers encounter fact and fiction, fairy tales and scripture, historical fact, legend, superstition and horror. On one side, Mandela (Black Man in a White Man’s Court) walks besides Mary Shelly (Frankenstein) while Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann and the Holocaust resides next to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.
It gets ‘curiouser’! Not only will the unsuspecting reader’s spiritual quest (an entire section is devoted to scripture) be rudely interrupted by the Arabian Nights, they will also stumble across excerpts from a book that was once put on trial in several countries and banned in several more.
The arrangement feels random at first glance. Well, it is not. As one discovers from the preface, this haphazardness is part of the plan. The pieces chosen to be on display in his grand design appear unconventional. Where else would a fairy tale be tucked in among excerpts from adult literature, religious scriptures, military strategy and famous classics? Which is why Coelho’s Inspirations needs to be properly rated and should not end up on a child’s bookshelf just because Hans Christen Anderson’s unfortunate Ugly Duckling happens to be running around among the grown ups.
His logic may not be readily apparent. Fortunately, the author walks readers through the programme at the beginning of each section — Air, Water, Earth and Fire. He takes his cues from the ancients who believed that the “visible and invisible were composed of four substances — uncreated and imperishable and that these elements figured symbolically, corresponding to a specific spiritual, mental, physical dimension”. The fact that these elements were “not just considered in material form but understood symbolically” gives the author just enough leeway to try something radical. Coelho manages to find this elusive connection in each of his stories and uses the ancient notion of elements to his advantage.
He has put a lot of thought into the composition, opting to stay away from traditional layouts, settling upon the novel technique of ikebana — “sacred bouquets arranged according to three main lines symbolising heaven, earth and humankind”. He explains that Chinese Buddhist monks offered these bouquets in temples and their offerings were meant to stir the soul and lift the spirits.
He proceeds to arrange his favourites, ikebana style, opening a portal to forgotten lands and magical moments. Most of these tales need no introduction. They are but glimpses into worlds already visited, a reminder of the heavenly wonders and earthly delights that end in a joyful reunion with the characters.
Coelho begins with ‘Water’, a subtle realm, “infinitely deep, of the primordial ocean where everything is possible, horrid monsters and fascinating creatures residing in its depths”, and the ensuing fear used as a tool enacted by Niccolo Machiavelli’s Prince while Sun Tzu’s Art of War, “calls forth the ground or earth while water lies as a reminder of the origins of mind, the very basis of will”. A tortured Oscar Wilde in De Profundis finds a home in ‘Earth’ with its “decay, stagnation and despair”; the darkness of the soul is captured in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. With ‘Air’ and its “unsteady, fearsome and uncontrollable” qualities comes The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and fear is channelled in George Orwell’s ‘Two Minute Hate’ from Nineteen Eighty Four. ‘Fire’, in all its manifestations and divine representations, is the final act bringing religious scriptures together with the sayings of early Christian monks where “visions of the Desert fathers move the frontier between madness and sanity”.
His analogy is simpler. This anthology is “not just a collection of texts and poems but a gift, something one arranges according to ones sensitivities to give to others”. After the (exquisite) descriptions, one can take a second look at his creation and then see the wild beauty in the lines. Though the earlier objection still stands; controversial books and inspirational texts are a volatile mix. Paulo Coelho’s gift to the world allows readers to embark on a new journey to look for inspirations or go down memory lane just to be reunited with the masters.
By Paulo Coelho
Penguin classics; Pp 252; Rs 895