Book Review – Manuscript Found in Accra

Jerusalem’s about to get sacked by the Crusaders, and instead of packing, residents gather around a wise guy and ask him a bunch of deep questions. Read a longer, better summary at Goodreads.

Brazilian author Paolo Coehlo is scorned by the literati, probably  because he’s so popular—he has more than 10 million followers on Facebook. His mythical treatment of human pilgrimage, The Alchemist, started out as a total bomb, but became an international best-seller. I first read that one in French and loved it. So call me plebeian. I don’t give a rat’s ass. I like what I like.

Manuscript Found In Accra is not a novel. Aside from the wise guy, there are no characters. There is no plot. There is no narrative. It’s basically a Kahlil Gibran-like set of aphorisms on life’s Big  Questions.

So of course I couldn’t resist. I am, after all, the person who at 15 tackled Mortimer Adler’s Six Great Ideas for fun. Who majored in philosophy and whose favorite part of that whole misconceived adventure was the aphorism-heavy texts of Nietsche. I am prone to bouts of existential dread. What is it all for? Why does my cat sleep so well and I wake in the middle of the night drenched in sweat? (What hormones?)

I kind of liked it. It’s not too long, somewhat thought-provoking, and some of the advice given by the Copt (even though Coehlo actually plagiarized it from a variety of other sources) seems to me quite on target. Would I buy the book for my collection, like The Alchemist? Probably not. I do know a few individuals who could use it. Maybe I’ll be passive-aggressive and buy it for them.

I felt more than a little manipulated by the premise of this book. It doesn’t say “A Novel” on the cover, and it should. Are we supposed to believe that Coehlo really has access to some ancient manuscript and has just transcribed it? He doesn’t give his narrator a name, which leaves open the possibility that it’s Coehlo himself, i.e. it’s nonfiction. The Acrophycal Gospels do, in fact, exist, so it would theoretically be possible. There are even bits and pieces of recognizable Gospel in the book.

But the manuscript scenario is just a platform for Coehlo to spout his own advice (and some stolen from others) on how to live a good life. It’s quite Eckhart Tolle, if you ask me. The fact that I had to spend time Googling “did coehlo make up the manuscript found in accra” kind of pissed me off.

Since I’m such an open-minded person, I decided to put aside my irritation and take a second look, once I’d fnished the book. So he led me down the garden path. Fine. Jerk. But now that I’ve made the trip, is there anything noteworthy here?

There is.  I copied down some of the aphorisms before I returned the book to the library. Here are a few:

Don’t try to be useful. Try to be yourself; that is enough, and that makes all the difference.

“Difficulty” is the name of an ancient tool that was created purely to help us define who we are.

If we resist the temptation to allow other people to define who we are, then we will gradually be able to let the sun inside our own soul shine forth.

Elegance is achieved when, having discarded all superfluous things, we discover simplicity and concentration.

The simplest things in life are the most extraordinary. Let them reveal themselves.

Arrogance complicates words, because it believes that intelligence is only for the chosen few. Elegance transforms complex thoughts into something that everyone can understand.

Fate is never unfair to anyone. We are all free to love or hate what we do.

What the future holds for you depends entirely on your capacity for love.

Loyalty can never be imposed by force, fear, insecurity or intimidation. It is a choice that only strong spirits have the choice to make. And because it is a choice, it will never tolerate betrayal, but will always be generous with mistakes. And because it is a choice, it withstands time and passing conflicts.

And beware of the pain you can cause yourself by allowing a vile and cowardly heart to be part of your world. Once the evil has been done, there is no point in blaming anyone: the owner of the house was the one who opened the door.

The enemy is not the person standing before you, sword in hand. It is the person standing next to you with a dagger concealed behind his back.

The strong are generous in victory. The weak gang up on the losers, unaware that defeat is only a transitory thing.

Perfect Facebook timeline feel-good fodder, right? But there are some truths here, and I refuse to be all hoity-toity intellectual and poo-poo them, just because they’re kind of obvious. Most of us know these kinds of things, deep down, and still live our lives as if we don’t.

Yeah, it’s the kind of newagey stuff that’s photoshopped onto images of beach sunsets or cute animals. But I’m a sucker for the big questions. And perhaps it does validate my worldview a bit, which is to stop trying to please everyone and just do your work, be careful when making friends, pick your battles, and be generous with your love because when you’re at death’s door, that’s all that really matters.


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