No ordinary days exist for a Paulo Coelho character - the battle between Good and Evil is a daily and commonplace occurrence. So commonplace, in fact, that the Brazilian writer has dedicated ten books to the pursuit of it. The Devil and Miss Prym, his latest U.S. release, is the third book in a loosely-linked trilogy, preceded by By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, and Veronika Decides To Die. All three novels feature a young woman at the figurative and literal crossroads of Good and Evil, Life and Death, Joy and Despair. Even their subtitles (A Novel of Forgiveness, A Novel of Redemption, and A Novel of Temptation respectively) tell you how very seriously Coelho feels about the great struggles of life.
Or, he just really likes Capitalized Concepts. Now, don't get me wrong. I read The Alchemist, his great classic, when I was a teenager. Although I'm willing to blame my devotion to the novel on the aforementioned teenagerism, the lyrical poetry of Santiago's journey rings true. Coelho had a fable to tell, a message to convey wrapped in the trappings of fiction. He wanted us to understand, through following Santiago as he searches for his destiny, that everyone can be blessed with their heart's desire if only they prove themselves worthy of such gifts. Even in cynical retrospect, The Alchemist defends its sentimentality by not attempting to be anything more than it was - a fable.
Not so with The Devil and Miss Prym. Here we have the story of a man plagued by Evil, coming to the small town of Viscos and offering ten gold bars to the entire peaceful village population if simply one of them will commit an act of murder. Chantal Prym, the young bartendress, is the vessel chosen by the visitor to convey this challenge to the town, and it is mostly through her eyes that the action over the course of a week evolves. Why does the visitor want this unsavory challenge met? What Coelho writes in answer to Chantal's question is oddly telling:
"Why are you doing this? Why did you choose my village?"
"It's nothing to do with you or your village. I'm simply thinking of myself; the story of one man is the story of all men. I need to know if we are good or evil. If we are good, God is just and will forgive me for all I have done, ... but if we are evil, then everything is permitted, I never took a wrong decision, we are all condemned from the start, and it doesn't matter what we do in this life, for redemption lies beyond either human thought or deed."
Perhaps, really, that's why he wrote the book. Coelho (a devout Catholic) has something to say about the Capitalized Concepts in this world. His Chantals, Veronikas, and Pilars turn out to be simply us, asking for answers in a almost haphazardly fictional universe of Coelho's making. But here's where I divorce the simple fable of The Alchemist with these more complex books - here's where I inadvertently justify my teenaged devotion to Santiago's journey. The Alchemist was comfortable being more fable than fiction. The Devil and Miss Prym, on the other hand, is trying very hard to be a novel that happens to carry a message. We have characters that are set up to be complex and deep - Berta, the old woman who talks to her dead husband, the priest whose devotion to the cloth is troubled by his parishioner's casual disregard of religion. The characters in the novel need to be complex, unfathomable, human. For the fiction that Coelho is attempting to weave, we need depth of character and motivation. Something not often required in a fable.
Which, ultimately, is where the novel breaks down in effectiveness. Perhaps not so for Coelho's fans - it's still heartily injected with his trademark lyricism and postulating Great Questions. His didactic meandering through philosophy and religious teachings are in full form, but of course, I simply found them distracting, as I had already been asked to embrace a conflict and a setting and some interesting characters, so I wanted very much to be drawn into that fiction. But in Coelho's word, the Fable seems to trump the Fiction every time - just another epic battle.