Monday, December 1, 2014

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett, is a beautiful painting of a book, about a pharmaceutical researcher named Dr. Singh whose lab partner of the last 7 years has just died in the Amazon Jungle. They receive news on a light strip of blue envelope. Anders Eckman was a father of three, a husband, a typical Midwesterner, blond haired, an inside person who loved birds. Apparently he had died of a fever, said Dr. Annick Swenson in the letter. She was funded by Vogel, Dr. Singh's pharmaceutical company, to develop a fertility drug using the tree bark of the Lakashi tribe. Anders had gone down to the Brazil on assignment from Vogel, to find out about Dr. Swenson's progress. Their company was running out of money and patience on the project (it had been several decades). They needed a direct line of communication, and they needed to know when they could expect their drug to hit the market. Anders, thinking it would be a nice opportunity to see some rare birds, volunteered to go.

But now Anders is dead.

Aleph, by Paulo Coelho, is a story about past-life regret and present-life restlessness. It's about the author himself, a Brazilian man named Paulo, 63 years old, abundant, wealthy, happily married, an internationally loved author of novels that have moved people all across the world, living secluded in a beautiful manor beneath a 500 year old oak tree in the French countryside... and yet he's empty. Of feeling, of compassion. He wants to know the purpose of his life. He wants to know what he's doing here.

On a whim one night at a book signing party, Paulo has his publisher design a 2 month International Tour, from Africa to Brazil to Germany, finally ending with a train ride across the length of Russia, from Moscow to the Pacific Ocean. He'll read from his work, host book signing parties, explore each new city with a guide. He'll learn to see with new eyes. He'll re-connect with a world he once knew very intimately.

With his wife's blessing (we never learn her name), Paulo sets off on a journey. In Russia, a young woman finds him at a book signing, and says that she's had a dream about him, and that she must come along on the train journey. She believes they are meant to fix each other. After some persistence and a haunting violin melody from Hilal (she's a first chair violinist for the Turkish Symphony), he agrees that she can ride with them.

Over the course of their journey, they explore Russia by train, 9600 meters of track winding through cities and countryside. It's Paulo, his editor, his publisher, a seventy-year-old Japanese Russian translator named Yao, and Hilal, riding together in a sleeper car at the back of the train. Hilal and Paulo quickly realize that they know each other from a past life. They find an "Aleph" one afternoon in the space that connects train cars, and they see everything that has ever happened. They saw their life together, their collective memory merged in a spray of images. Paulo knows that they were lovers, and that he did something terrible to her.

Their pupils dilated, staring into the Aleph of each other's eyes.