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'Zahir' is incapable of going unnoticed

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A man's wife disappears. Was she kidnapped? Did she run away with another man? Has she been murdered? This is the mystery at the heart of The Zahir by internationally renowned Brazilian author Paulo Coelho.

In Arabic, zahir means "incapable of going unnoticed" and refers to any object or person who becomes the sole obsession of a person's every waking minute.

In Coelho's tale, a nameless, best-selling author living in France can't stop thinking about the fate of his wife, Esther, a war correspondent. He wasn't faithful to this wife No. 4 in his search for the perfect love. Nevertheless, he is genuinely concerned.

Unfortunately for this abandoned husband, each marriage ended badly because he eventually discovers "the stability I wanted is inseparable from a deep sense of tedium."

The protagonist's search for his wife takes on epic proportions when he decides he must find and confront her about why she left. But his years-long quest also becomes a journey of self-discovery.

His guide in the search is Mikhail, the man he thinks may have stolen his wife's affection. Their meetings cause him to question every aspect of his existence, including the successful front he shows the world. The search for a meaningful life built on elements other than money and fame becomes as much of a zahir as the narrator's quest for Esther.

Through clear language and simple narrative, Coelho makes it easy for readers to identify with this man. When asked by a journalist if he is happy, he replies: "No. I have the woman I love, the career I always dreamed of having, the kind of freedom that is the envy of all my friends, the travels, the honors, the praise, but ... I have the idea that, if I stopped (writing), life would become meaningless."

Like all of Coelho's novels, The Zahir is filled with fables that attempt to explain happiness and control of our destiny. While most readers will identify with solving the mystery of what makes an ideal life, a bigger mystery remains: Why is the highly regarded Coelho a relatively unknown author in the USA?

His books are published in 60 languages, sales total 65 million in 150 countries, and they have topped best-seller lists around the world. The combined first printing for The Zahir in 101 countries is 8 million. Laurence Fishburne plans to direct and star in the film version of Coelho's 1988 best seller, The Alchemist.

Yet Americans don't seem to know his name. Maybe it's time for American readers to set out on a journey of discovery that will lead them to the works of this exceptional writer.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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