Adultery, the provocative new novel by Paulo Coelho, best-selling author of The Alchemist and Eleven Minutes, explores the question of what it means to live life fully and happily, finding the balance between life’s routine and the desire for something new. [summary from Goodreads]
“Utter piece of ‘unadulterated’ crap! Absolutely unbelievable. “ That was my reaction to this novel at the beginning. I ploughed on. It didn’t get any better.
The story is about a journalist living in Geneva, Switzerland. In her thirties, she is married to a successful businessman and has two children. Life seems very normal and everyday-like for this woman until she bumps into an old boyfriend from her teenage days. A spark either of curiosity, impetuosity or lust strikes her and she has sex with him, oral sex where he was the totally passive partner.
The story is a self-examination, introspection narrated by our adulterous who questions the reasons for doing what she did. She begins analysing her life, her marriage, her work and her day to day living, all rather mundane reading at this point for any reader. Perhaps she is suffering from depression? Could her feelings be guilt based? Is her lust just a passing phase? Is she mentally ill?
The relationship with the lover never really develops any depth as the man seems to be insensitive and engaged in the illicit activity purely for self-gratification. There is no affection, no empathy or any emotional sensitivity for his partner. She may as well have been an unpaid prostitute, there to fulfill the needs of his libido. At this point, some readers would be angry with the lover, disgusted with the journalist and put off with the superficiality of this illicit relationship.
Dog cruelty, attention grabbing
Midway through the book there is an incident the journalist recalls about her torturing an old boyfriend’s dog. Being a dog owner and a lifelong lover of the animals, I found this anecdote particularly repulsive. Her cruelty upset me and removed any sympathy or empathy for her which may have been developing in me. I now saw her as a cruel, selfish being who had no real feelings for living beings, beast or human. What the purpose of such an episode in the book is beyond me: to alienate me, the reader from being supportive of the journalist; to repulse me so much that I lost all potential empathy for her; to so antagonize me that I find trying to understand her totally unacceptable. I don’t know what the purpose of the dog anecdote but I found it to be very disconcerting.
Our inner monsters
Soon the narrator begins talking about Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson, creators of the literary monsters Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll’s Mr. Hyde. The literary monsters are metaphors for the monsters that are part of every human’s psyche. Not necessarily evil personas within humans, but spiritual negativity which impacts adversely on our daily life. ‘Regret’ for not having done something in life, for not having pursued a career goal, for not fulfilling a dream in life, each of these can wreak havoc on the serenity of one’s soul as the regret relentlessly nags away at a person: a failure for not successfully completing in life which they should have completed. It seems like a narrow view as humans succeed to a degree in every endeavour in their lives. “Failure” can be used only if the person compares their life with another’s and feels envious of the other. These emotional scars are the monsters that continually deter a person from finding satisfaction with their life.
The evil monsters dominate every person eventually. The monstrous Mr. Hyde eventually took control of the good Dr. Jekyll. Every dictator eventually succumbs to the evil within and becomes the evil monster. Readers may find this philosophy of life difficult to believe or to accept.
The author wields a mean verbal sword
“Whoever maintains that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them makes himself an accomplice in their crimes and as guilty as they. There is no question here of man’s authority; it is God who speaks […]. Wherefore does he demand of us a so extreme severity, if not to show us that due honor is not paid him, so long as we set not his service above every consideration, so that we spare not kin, nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for his glory.”
The author has a mastery of the language, although much is lost in the translation as he ‘talks too much.’ His historical anecdotes are interesting spins on accepted truisms of history. Calvin may have been a religious revolutionary, but according to author Paul Coelho, he was a theocratic totalitarian who persecuted and punished non-adherents to his religious doctrine.
Searching for psychiatric remedies
The narrator of the story, Linda, at one point begins to see her emotional and spiritual upheaval as possibly being symptoms of depression which starts her quest for psychoanalytical help. Rejecting a number of licensed practitioners, she discovers an ‘alternative’ practitioner, a Cuban who others have touted as a high priest of cures for depression, a shaman. She finds some solace in meeting with him but more questioning and clarification of her life’s journey rather than any kind of cure. The shaman helps Linda to resolve and deal with the adulterous affair, not accept it so much, but to see it as playing a logical and understandable role in her life.
Again, Coelho interprets history to suit his needs: justification of adultery as being in man’s DNA because survival of the species depended upon creating numerous offspring. Hence the need for multiple partners. Reducio ad absurdum! In his interpretation, man never rises above the level of a primate living by base instincts like animals in nature. Thinking, intellectual considerations, cerebral creativity, all are completely irrelevant and rejected.
Switzerland the land of objectivity, logic and pragmatism
The author regularly inserts commentary relating to Switzerland, its economy, its culture and its society. The Swiss are pragmatic automatons who live lives mechanically, never being passionate, always respectful of personal privacies. Stereotypical insertions used by many people throughout the world but is their use warranted in the development of the story?
Psyche and Eros
Then he relates the tale from Greek mythological of Eros, the goddess of love, forbidden from ever seeing the face of her betrothed, Psyche, the handsomest of all the gods. Like Lot’s wife turning back to look at what God has forbidden her to see, Eros looks at Psyche for which she is punished by the gods. Zeus successfully pleads her case and with the support of Aphrodite wins eternal bonding of the two lovers, Psyche (our unconscious, but logical side) and Eros (love). When her husband tells Linda the Greek fable, she suspects he knows of her infidelity but says nothing in that regard.
As the story continues to unfold, Linda wrestles with the demons of guilt and lust. She meets with her lover one more time in an episode described in the pastels of “50 Shades of Grey.” She will never meet with him again.
Stretching the limits of credibility
Coelho’s writing tests the reader’s limits of credibility. Can a logical, reasoning and sane person really be as cynical and negative about life as much as the book’s main character? Hard to accept or believe. Is dinner conversation about affairs, infidelity and such possible topics with guests one hardly knows? Could such a discussion take place in the real world and could deepen into confessions about partner infidelity? I am very skeptical that this happens regularly if at all in the real world.
Linda is insufferable. She is infatuated with the titillation of forbidden fruit. She dwells on it and bites into it with the maturity of a rebellious teen. Many readers might see the actions of a supposedly mature, intelligent, thinking and successful professional as puzzling and irreconcilable. It may be viewed as living with an attitude of immaturity, lacking refinement and sophistication and living by the primal instincts of an animal.
Coelho probes, prods and pricks the consciousness and conscience of his readers. His questions are not related to morality, virtue and integrity but are existential exploration of why we are here, the meaning of life and what is the purpose of our existence.
Questionably, he closes his story standing on his philosophical soapbox: the reason for living is to continue the never ending quest of learning to love. Pedantic bullshit in my view.