Excerpted from Aleph by Paulo Coelho. Copyright © 2011 by Paulo Coelho. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1. Aleph is a novel full of rituals, starting with Paulo and J.’s opening invocation around the sacred oak. However, Paulo’s reaction to them varies wildly; sometimes they frustrate him (the oak), sometimes he embraces them (the shaman’s midnight chant on the edges of Lake Baikal), and other times he criticizes them for being empty (Hilal’s offering at the church in Novosibirsk). Why do you think this is? Do you think this has to do with the rituals themselves or is Coelho trying to express something deeper about the nature and purpose of ritual? What value can ritual have in your own life?
2. During his initial argument with J., Paulo says: “We human beings have enormous difficulty in focusing on the present; we’re always thinking about what we did, about how we could have done it better, about the consequences of our actions, and about why we didn’t act as we should have. Or else we think about the future, about what we’re going to do tomorrow, what precautions we should take, what dangers await us around the next corner, how to avoid what we don’t want and how to get what we have always dreamed of” [p. 9]. Do you agree? Why do you think J. prescribes travel as a way for Paulo to better focus on the present instead of his past or future?
3. While he’s waiting for a sign that he should embark on the journey J. suggests, Paulo thinks about the nature of tragedy. “Tragedy always brings about radical change in our lives, a change that is associated with the same principle: loss. When faced by any loss, there’s no point in trying to recover what has been; it’s best to take advantage of the large space that opens up before us and fill it with something new. In theory, every loss is for our own good; in practice, though, that is when we question the existence of God and ask ourselves: What did I do to deserve this?” [p. 15]. Many of Aleph’s characters are dealing with extreme personal tragedy, from Hilal and her history of sexual abuse to Yao and the death of his wife. Do their experiences and struggles to move forward support or contradict Paulo’s statements?
4. Paulo frequently refers to Chinese bamboo after reading an article about its growth process: “Once the seed has been sown, you see nothing for about five years, apart from a tiny shoot. All the growth takes place underground, where a complex root system reaching upward and outward is being established. Then, at the end of the fifth year, the bamboo suddenly shoots up to a height of twenty-five meters” [p. 22]. How does this function as an important metaphor for spiritual growth? What do you think are the best ways to build a “complex root system” of your own?
5. Coelho writes, “To live is to experience things, not sit around pondering the meaning of life” and offers examples of people who have experienced revelations in various ways [p. 62]. Do you agree? What people or writings are you familiar with that support (or disprove) his point of view?
6. In “The Aleph,” Borges’s narrator asks, “How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass? Mystics, faced with the same problem, fall back on symbols: . . . one Persian speaks of a bird that somehow is all birds; Alanus de Insulis, of a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere; Ezekiel, of a four-faced angel who at one and the same time moves east and west, north and south.” How does Coelho attempt to explain the Aleph? Why do you think Coelho has Paulo and Hilal discover it on a train car? Do you think its location has a larger significance for the story?
7. What images, memories, and emotions most powerfully capture the mystery and the magic of the Aleph that Paulo and Hilal experience on the train [pp. 73–75]? How do they affect them each as individuals? In what ways does it change and deepen their relationship?
8. What role does Yao serve in Paulo’s quest? Are there similarities between Yao, Paulo, and the answers they seek? What does each learn from the other?
9. When Yao suggests that Paulo beg for money with him, he explains, “Some Zen Buddhist monks in Japan told me about takuhatsu, the begging pilgrimage. . . . This is because, according to Zen philosophy, the giver, the beggar, and the alms money itself all form part of an important chain of equilibrium. The person doing the begging does so because he’s needy, but the person doing the giving also does so out of need. The alms money serves as a link between those two needs” [pp. 89–90]. How does this relationship apply to the balance of power between Paulo and Hilal? Between Paulo and his readers?
10. The origin of Paulo’s deep-seated sense of guilt comes stunningly to life in his description of the Inquisition and his participation as a priest [pp. 153–167]. What insight does this vignette offer into horrors and injustices committed in the name of religious beliefs? Compare and contrast the religious attitudes here with those portrayed in the present-day sections of Aleph. What do Paulo’s references to the Koran [p. 39], the Bible [pp. 40, 107], Ueshiba, the founder of the Japanese martial art of aikido [pp. 132, 137, and 193], and shamanism [pp. 220–29] demonstrate about human beliefs and aspirations across cultures and time?
11. Discuss the erotic and romantic elements of the encounters between Paulo and Hilal—both real and imagined—leading up to his final gift of roses at the airport. Would you classify theirs as a love story? Why or why not? What different types of love does Coelho explore?
12. Were you familiar with the concept of past lives before reading Aleph? Is it necessary to believe in past lives to grasp the book’s message and meaning?
13. What do you think Coelho means when he writes, “Life is the train, not the station” [p. 112]? What about when he says, “What we call ‘life’ is a train with many carriages. Sometimes we’re in one, sometimes we’re in another, and sometimes we cross between them, when we dream or allow ourselves to be swept away by the extraordinary” [p. 117–118].