The year started off with three weeks in Sri Lanka, where I naturally didn't bring my laptop. I also only had phone internet while on wi-fi (didn't buy a data plan), which was lovely. This, combined with early evenings, led me to read much more than during whole 2019.
Here are the ones I worked through:
"The Alchemist" – Paolo Coelho
Summary: It's nice to have read it, but once is enough.
The modern classic. The one "everybody" have read. The book is very short and succinct. Coelho uses the story arc of a fable about a young herd boy, who sets out to find a treasure and follow his dreams, while being challenged with delays, hinders, and personal developments.
I liked it a lot as a travel book. It suited me well while I stepped away from my everyday life in Stockholm. However, once I realised the meaning and aim with the book (which is pretty obvious), it became less interesting. It has a lot of "lessons" which the protagonist learns along the way, but after a while, it just felt very repetitive and flat. Everything is an allegory. Everything is a symbol for something else. I didn't see how some global Force, which is mentioned throughout the book, could help me in everyday life.
"The Zahir" — Paolo Coelho
Summary: Alright in the beginning, but becomes repetitive and flat.
Another one by mr. Coelho. This one, I found in a "Free Books" box a long time ago, and decided to bring on the Sri Lanka trip. After The Alchemist above, it felt nice to continue with the same author in the same writing style. Again, this is an okay book to have while travelling. It's about how a man deals with the sudden disappearance of his wife; about finding clues and explanations of her behaviour. Then it becomes, like The Alchemist, a pilgrimage.
The Zahir in the beginning started out alright. Then it escalated in the same New Age style Coelho had in his other books, about "the power of love" which I thought never had any substance and backing by the author. On top of that, it became obvious that the books is very autobiographical. The main protagonist's story strongly resembles the career of the author, which makes the whole book seem egoistical and self centered. The text isn't that shy with sharing details about the finances, luxury life, and sexual conquests of the protagonist/Coelho. It just shines through very much, which makes the book less likable.
"The Snow Leopard" – Peter Matthiessen
Summary: Long sentences aside, I thought The Snow Leopard is a beautiful book about nature – both human and the one surrounding us.
The subjects this book has in common with the two previous ones are spirituality and pilgrimage (a funny coincidence, actually). Whereas Coelho's writing is based in an "idea world", Matthiessen's style is more tangible – more based in our physical world.
The Snow Leopard is a non-fiction account of a 1973 expedition the author and naturalist George Schaller made to Nepal, with the objective of studying the Himalayan "blue sheep" in their natural habitat. For Matthiessen, the journey was a spiritual one, driven by the deep interest Buddhism and Zen, in the aftermaths of his wife's death in cancer some year before. As the title prescribes, a "side quest" of the expidition is to get a glimpse of the mythical Snow Leopard, which becomes a symbol of the inner journey of the author.
We get to follow the hardships of the two month long trip through the Himalayan mountains in western Nepal. The language is old fashioned but elegant, and the author describes the mountains with great skill (I say, without having been there!). The two Americans travel with porters, carrying the equipment, and Sherpas: the local people of the mountains, often hired as guides. The myriad of villages they pass through is described in detail by Matthiessen, as well as the surrounding landscapes. Once in a while, he goes off in a flashback to the last months of his wife's suffering. More often, he describes Buddhist history of the country, and his Zen practices of meditation and quest for tranquility.
For me, many topics in the book landed on the subject of acceptance. Total acceptance of the state of things and all beings. Total acceptance of the various mishaps during their trip, as well as keeping zero expectations around seeing the shy Snow Leopard. I feel this "expectation management" can be applied to modern life by anybody.
Peter Matthiessen is not afraid to describe himself in bad manner: the frustration, the pettiness, the eagerness, the anxiety over his wife's death. He's open about all these things. I appreciate honesty and writing about things that are true. It's not hard to note the Zen undertones everywhere (Matthiessen went off becoming a Zen priest himself), which creates a larger-than-life feel to the text. After finishing the book, it really felt like having been on an adventure.
It could be a slow read though. It's not a "page turner", but doesn't try to be either. There are long sentences and descriptions which might scare people off. Don't be in a hurry. Hopefully, it'll open one's eyes more to Zen literature (it did for me).
Men Without Women – Haruki Murakami
Summary: A beautiful short story collection with a shared theme. It's full of great story telling, repressed emotions, and ultimately void.
Haruki Murakami has written this short story collection which shares its name with Hemingway's second collection of stories around a similar theme. I picked it out in the pocket shop before the trip by two reasons:
- I had a faint memory of reading good reviews about this Murakami.
- I like short stories – nicer to invest time in a few pages rather than a full novel. Short stories are often succinct and to the point. Great short stories often are incredibly sharp but still subtle.
The last sentence is so very true in Men Without Women. Murakami's writing is full of wit, build-ups, and intense story telling. It's obviously hard to describe the plot in a collection like this, but as mentioned, they all share a common theme around male protagonists. They all have lost, are on the look for, or have rejected women in their lives.
The main thing is Murakami's great skill in describing these fates, as well as his great source of fantasy. There are some weird twists and turns of the stories, and all in all it's great writing. For me, I felt once more that human beings are so damned interesting.