BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

How true? How real?

I must admit that I liked Paulo Coelho's Manuscript Found in Accra a lot more than I did his previous mega-hit, The Alchemist. I seem to have a limited tolerance for “teaching stories”, preferring things to be set out directly, and find the vagueness of the genre extremely aggravating … and at least here the structure's more discursive. The book, however, starts out with one of my pet peeves … don't tell me something's “real” or “historical” if it's not … and this is prefaced with a story, riffing off of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran, which purports to frame the book as being a manuscript discovered (in Accra) in 1974 by an English archaeologist, whose son Coelho supposedly meets in 1982, and who eventually sends him a copy in 2011 – the book being the transcription thereof.

The “manuscript” is a recording of a meeting happening the night before the French laid siege to Jerusalem in 1099, during the First Crusade, eventually killing most of the residents. This is focused on the heads of the three religions in Jerusalem, the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, plus another character, a Greek referred to as “The Copt”, who is the central figure here. I am 99.95% certain this is a total fiction, given both the structure of the text, the references to alternate time lines of the various traditions, how the French are depicted, as well as how there are clear “borrowings” from other religious traditions unlikely to have been in play in 11th Century Jerusalem, and a general “new age” vibe across the whole … but still it's presented as a legitimate archaeological discovery (even listing an export permission number from the Egyptian government to allow the discoverer to take it out of the country with him), which seeds an irritating wisp of doubt. Hate that.

The book is set up as a number of questions being asked by various residents of the city, a cross-section of society, all with differing specific concerns, each of which is answered by “The Copt” (oddly, only his answers are preserved by the individual supposedly taking it all down). So, the short review of the book would be “people in a city about to be massacred bring their existential questions to the wise men of the main traditions, and get answers from the other guy”. Obviously, this does not make for a particularly illuminating review, so I'm going to pull stuff that I found interesting enough to bookmark, and we'll see where this goes.

First of all, “The Copt” is described as “a strange man” who left his home in Athens, and ended up settling in Jerusalem.
He did not seek to join any particular religion, and no one tried to persuade him otherwise. As far as he is concerned, we are not in the years 1099 or 4859, much less at the end of 492. 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.
This, of course, is not expanded upon, but “Moira” is the singular of Moirai, “the fates” of Greek mythology, whose powers are generalized to the concept of “what's ordained”, something that the Gods themselves can't avoid. I suppose that's a pretty useful place to be coming from if one's dealing with a population on the verge of being on the business end of a historic massacre.

One question is about “meaning”, and there is interesting material here:
Others embrace the question, but since they don't know the answer, they start to read what was written by those who have already faced up to the challenge. And suddenly they find an answer which they judge to be correct.
      When that happens, they become the slaves of that answer. They draw up laws intended to force others to accept what they believe to be the sole reason for existence. They build temples to justify it and courts for those who reject what they consider to be the absolute truth.
      Finally, there are those who saw at once that the question was a trap; there is no answer.
      Instead of wasting time grappling with that trap, they decide to act. They go back to their childhood and look for what filled them with enthusiasm then and – disregarding the advice of their elders – devote their life to it.
      Because Enthusiasm is the Sacred Fire.
This section goes on about madness, and love, and goals, and the Unwanted Visitor (death), and is quite inspiring.

One of the warriors, preparing to die the next day, asks “What should the survivors tell their children?” to which “The Copt” responds with a discussion of community, and various types of people and behaviors to be embraced or avoided. In closing a charming bit comes in:
Stay close to those who sing, tell stories, and enjoy life, and whose eyes sparkle with happiness. Because happiness is contagious and will always manage to find a solution, whereas logic can find only an explanation for the mistake made.
And, to another question, coming from the unease of hearing battle preparations beyond the city walls, there's this:
Anxiety was born in the very same moment as mankind. And since we will never be able to master it, we will have to learn to live with it – just as we have learned to live with storms.
This then shows how small worries build on themselves and eventually open the door to Obsession … including some very familiar “type A” behaviors.

Towards the end there is a section would could have easily come from the Mahābhārata, where “The Copt” answers a question about the waiting enemies:
      The truly wise do not grieve over the living or the dead. Therefore, accept the battle that awaits you tomorrow because we are made of the Eternal Spirit, which often places us in situations that we need to confront.
      At such moments, set aside all futile questions, because they merely slow down the warrior's reflexes.
      A warrior on the battlefield is fulfilling his destiny, and he must surrender himself to that. Pity those who think they must kill or die! The Divine Energy cannot be destroyed; it simply changes its form.
At the very end, “The Copt” asks the evidently until-then-silent Patriarchs of the main religions if they have anything to say, and each gets about half page to do a little story, and the book closes with “The Copt” doing a very New Testament spin on having the survivors take this teaching out into the world. Uh-huh.

So, do you like “teaching stories”? If so, you'll probably really like Manuscript Found in Accra … as noted above, I found it more useful than Coelho's The Alchemist, but the whole “pretending to be real” (when I'm sure it's not) thing hangs heavy over this for me. It's a reasonably light, quick (under 200 lean pages) read, so it's not going to be something you'll get bogged down in. There don't seem to be any “cheap” options for picking up a copy, however, but since I got this it seems they've come out with a paperback edition, which might be your best bet. Given the popularity of Coelho's books, there's probably a good chance that you'll be able to find this at those few remaining brick & mortar book vendors too. Hey, I liked it well enough for what it is.

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Tags: book review
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