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     Volume 4 Issue 5 | July 1, 2005 |

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Book Review

Now there's a thought
Adam Mars-Jones

A man asks his doctor, an old friend, if he's out of danger after a recent road accident. The doctor replies: 'In the world we live in, if a boy goes out to buy five apples but arrives home with only two, people would conclude that he has eaten the three missing apples. In my world, there are other possibilities: he could have eaten them, but he could also have been robbed; the money he'd been given might not have been enough to buy the five apples he'd been sent for; he could have lost them on the way home; he could have met someone who was hungry and decided to share the fruit with that person, and so on. In my world, everything is possible and everything is relative.'

A woman is concerned that her lover is going back to his wife. He explains: 'Marie, let's suppose that two firemen go into a forest to put out a small fire. Afterwards, when they emerge and go over to a stream, the face of one is all smeared with black, while the other man's face is completely clean. My question is this: Which of the two will wash his face?'

'That's a silly question. The one with the dirty face of course.'

'No. The one with the dirty face will look at the other man and assume that he looks like him. And, vice versa, the man with the clean face will see his colleague's grime and say to himself: I must be dirty, too. I'd better have a wash.'

'What are you trying to say? 'I'm saying that, during the time I spent in hospital, I came to realise that I was always looking for myself in the women I loved. I looked at their lovely, clean faces and saw myself reflected in them. They, on the other hand, looked at me and saw the dirt on my face and, however intelligent or self-confident they were, they ended up seeing themselves reflected in me and thinking that they were worse than they were. Please, don't let that happen to you.'

In any sensible part of the planet, the patient in the first conversation would look for a doctor who wasn't so fond of the sound of his own voice, and the woman in the second would look for a lover less in need of poking with a stick. In Coelho's world these discussions pass for illuminating, and the next fatuous parable is just around the corner. Nothing hurls a writer into stupidity more rapidly than the desire to be thought wise.

The unnamed narrator-hero is a world-famous writer about spirituality, who has written a novel about a shepherd who goes in search of his dream, a treasure hidden in the pyramids of Egypt (the story of Coelho's The Alchemist), and also a memoir of walking the road to Santiago - like Coelho's The Pilgrimage. Coelho has subtracted, though, from this self-portrait (and in fact the whole book) any lively detail. The narrator is from an unnamed country rather than Coelho's Brazil. He lives in Paris, but it is a Paris stripped of anything specific. The book eventually relocates to the featureless steppes of Kazakhstan, but the contrast isn't as strong as it needs to be. The narrator maintains that 'the visible world always manifests itself in the invisible world', but it's actually the visible world which gets short-changed here.

Coelho gives his narrator a war-correspondent wife, Esther, who disappears. Gradually he realises that her disappearance is a sort of message, a challenge to him to rethink his emotions and make them worthy of hers. She becomes the 'Zahir' of the title, a blinding obsession. Unfortunately, simply repeating the words 'Esther' and 'Zahir' in close conjunction can't make this persuasive. Lost socks have been sought with more passion than this lost wife. On balance, there's more psychological depth in Calvin Klein's Obsession than in Paulo Coelho's Zahir.

In his central figure, not-quite-Paulo, he has created (I imagine by mistake) a devastating portrait of a man whose stock in trade is spirituality but who is worldly to his very toenails, exquisitely attuned to his own status. He is constantly reminding himself how many books he has sold, how many languages they have been translated into, and that he is 'despite all the adverse reviews, a possible candidate for a major literary prize'. When he takes up with another woman (strictly to dispel the Zahir, of course), he chooses a successful French actress of 35, on the grounds that she was the only candidate to enjoy his status, 'because she too was famous and knew that celebrity counts'. Celebrity is an aphrodisiac. 'It was good for a woman's ego to be with a man and know that he had chosen her even though he had had the pick of many others.' And the man's ego, does that come into it? Not-quite-Paulo is too gallant to reveal his own age, but if he is indeed a refraction of the author then he is 20 years Marie's senior. It's adorable that he should regard himself so solemnly as the trophy in this pairing.

Not-quite-Paulo reveals that he earns five million dollars in a year in which he publishes a new book, and two million otherwise. Then the young woman has the nerve to say: 'You only asked the question so that you could say how much you earned.' She just doesn't get it. She badly mistakes her position in the pecking order. The poor shouldn't exploit their advantages to humiliate the rich.

This review was published in the Guardian

Dreaming for Change

Mahbub Alam Selim

The world of our times is in turmoil. The global environment is a breeding ground of pessimism. In the grim scenario of the post 9/11 world, 'The Windmills of Your Mind' by Dr. Mizanur Rahamn Shelley brings a radiant ray of hope. Reading this book is a cheerful experience.

Set against the evolving global, regional and national scenarios between 1970s up to the initial years of the twenty-first century, the varied writings in this volume offer the readers a multi-coloured perception of our times. The fifty pieces of writing contained in this work embrace a wide range of subjects: social, economic, political, cultural, literary and biographical.

The key to a comprehensive understanding of the themes of the writings in the book is found in the author's engaging introduction. Shelley writes that the name of the book has been borrowed from the lilting theme song of the 1970s engaging feature film "The Thomas Crown Affair." He adds: "Like that song the assorted writings in this volume also seek to achieve a mosaic of the ideal and the real. That is why I have named this book "The Windmills of Your Mind"...."The principal objective of these writings was to focus wide and intense attention to the human predicament and to seek ways out of the captivity created by the existing human condition. The dream is immensely powerful: redemption of humanity bleeding on the altar of life. The obstacles to its realisation are formidable. Nevertheless, dreams are powerful in providing stimulus to desirable change. These writings do not reflect the mind-set, which worries and asks 'Why'? These, on the contrary, are attempts to articulate the hopes of those who dream and ask 'Why not'?"

Through his writings Shelley, creates a virtual foundation for realistic dreams. He ranges freely from focusing on magnificent personalities such as, 'Gandhi' and 'Audrey Hepburn' to mundane subjects such as 'Post Colonial Societies' and 'The Uses of Democracy' and 'Food Security'. Some topics, though seemingly treated in a lighter vein, bring to bold relief the everlasting conflict between good and evil. The widely different subjects are like a Kaleidoscope and a riot of colours of life, emotions and the triumph of the eternal human mind.

Even when the author writes about his departed friends, these do not become mere personal reminiscences but goes far beyond and leaves something, which can be shared universally and is definitely larger than life.

Nevertheless, like all human products the writings in the book suffer from some visible handicaps. Shelley has a racy style. He often seems to fall in blind love with words. Tumultuous stream of words, though captivating and sparkling, sometime de-track the reader from the worthy contents. Words and dazzling sentences appear like shining trees obscuring the beautiful woods. One wishes that the author would be more austere with his treasure-trove of scintillating words.

Nevertheless, in this stale stereotype world of books in English by many whose mother-tongue is not English Shelley's 'The Windmills of Your Minds' is like a breath of fresh air and is bound to create a whirlwind effect among the reader for more of the kind.

This book is for every thinking man and woman's shelf. It is not for a one-night stand. This is a book to be preserved and savoured over and over again.

Dr. Mizanur Rahman Shelley: "The Windmills of Your Mind'; Dhaka; June 2004; Published by Shahina Rahman on behalf of Academic Press & Publishers Library (APPL); Cover Design by Ashim Kumar Halder; 215 pages; Price Taka 300, US 25.

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