The Postmodern Penelope: Coelho’s The Zahir and the Metamorphosis in Gender Relations
Coelho’s narrator tells us “if a book isn’t self-explanatory, then the book is not worth reading” (248). Though such a statement may not appeal to a Formalist critic in the sense that literature should alienate, defamiliarize and make difficult the literary experience, Coelho proves in The Zahir the assumption of his narrator. The book is so simple and its narrative flows so smoothly like a running stream of water in the early months of spring. Coelho’s narrative magically transfixes its readers and absorbs them into the mystical and mythical world of its narrator.
A brief summary of the novel will do it great injustice as the novel’s forte lies in the smoothness, richness, spirituality and simplicity of its narrativity. In The Zahir1, Coelho tells us the story of its male narrator who, like Coelho himself, is a celebrated artist, lyric writer and novelist. The narrator-artist, whose name significantly remains incognito, finds himself obsessed with the mysterious and sudden disappearance of Esther, his third wife. Esther, a journalist and a war correspondent, in spite of her love and support to the narrator artist disappears and leaves the artist confounded and confused. For him she becomes the “Zahir”2 that haunts his days and nights. Though he forges various love affairs during the enigmatic absence of Esther, he cannot suppress Esther’s virtual existence in the data banks of his brain and heart cells. Eventually, the writer begins to collect clues about the whereabouts of Esther. He enlists the aid of Mikhail, an epileptic visionary young man whom Esther helped bring to France from Kazakhstan after he worked as her interpreter in his region.
The writer learns that his wife lives in a village in the steppes of Kazakhstan weaving carpets and teaching French to the locals. In order to solve the enigma of her sudden disappearance and to free himself of the Zahir that has colonized his being, he embarks on an odyssey to find his wife.
By examining the text critically, which one should not do lest one spoils the phenomenological pleasure of living the experiences of the narrator as they materialize in the reader’s being, one cannot help but establish a link between the narrator-artist and Ulysses on the one hand and Penelope and Esther, on the other hand. The “Ithaca” song at the very beginning of the book, among many other signs in the text, provides the formal link to this connection. The novelty of this connection, however, lies in the way Coelho treats his metaphoric Ulysses and Penelope. Whereas in the Homeric epic Ulysses is a hero to the end: he dares the seas and the wilderness of the physical and the spiritual and arrives at Ithaca in disguise to torment and destroy Penelope’s suitors and restore his patriarchal command with brutal force, Coelho’s narrator is a hero to the end, too, but without Ulysses’ trappings of masculinity. He does not show any signs of radical masculinity upon his encounter with his wife and/or her lovers. He is a postmodern European subject with
mystical tendencies that mediate and soften any possibility towards aggression.
What are at stake in the analogy between the two heroes, however, are the constituents of a hero. In the Homeric sense, brutal force and machismo are the backbone of heroism. A hero has to have a destructive force with which he can crash his opponents. The postmodern Coelhoean hero abandons his machismo in the caves of oblivion and arms himself with sensitivity, sensibility, a passionate heart and an advanced mindset that rejects one’s history and denounces it. The narrator’s attempt at erasing his past and history implies a sense of strong shame of his ancestors’ barbaric rituals of heroism. Thus, at the end of the narrative Coelho’s hero embraces