“. . . The set-up is delicious . . . [but] Manuscript Found in Accra lacks one of the most fundamental elements of the classic novel: a story.”
The year is 1099, and the Muslims, Jews, and (Coptic) Christians of Jerusalem are about to be overrun by the armies of the European Crusaders. The people of the city will be slaughtered.
On the final day before their death, hundreds of residents gather around the city’s wisest man, the Copt, and question him about their fate, their faith, and the nature of humanity. A scribe records the proceedings.
Now, a millennium later, the proceedings are miraculously found and released for our reading pleasure. This is the fascinating premise for Paulo Coelho’s newest novel, Manuscript Found in Accra.
The book unfolds in series of short interrogatories. A cross-section of citizens—rich and poor, old and young, male and female—ask the Copt about a collection of topics: faith, love, friendship, war, sex, etc.
The Copt’s answers are sometimes wise and peace-loving, but often banal. From these interrogatories we learn that the Copt is kindly and peace-loving, but whether he offers deeper wisdom than what can be found at the 21st century Hallmark store is an open question.
The following response to a question about miracles is typical of the Copt’s answers:
“What is a miracle? We can define it in various ways: as something that goes against the law of nature, as an intercession in moments of deep crisis, healings, and visions, an impossible encounter, or the last-minute intervention when an unwanted visitor arrives. All of these definitions are true, but a miracle goes beyond even that; it is something that suddenly fills our hearts with love. When that happens we feel the profound reverence for the grace God has bestowed on us.”
Much of Manuscript Found in Accra is this sort of ecumenical feel-good talk. But underneath, the Copt is educating us about prosperous and cosmopolitan Jerusalem at the sunset of a golden age. The siege of Jerusalem and slaughter of its residents in 1099 (at the hands of war-seeking French knights) was a very real historical event and must be recognized among the darker events in European history.
Mr. Coelho shows us a tolerant people, resigned to defend their city to the last against overwhelming odds. Though the city is trans-theistic, the people are united; however, Manuscript Found in Accra tells only part of the story: the book does not shed insight on either the suffering that accompanies the siege of a city or the Crusading soldiers.
Mr. Coelho, whose previous works include the international bestseller and much-lauded The Alchemist, shows himself again to be a cerebral and subtle writer. The language in the book is evocative of ancient religious text, but still modern enough for a reader to push through the book briskly and without a thesaurus.
Balancing ancient cadence and texture with modern vocabulary and sentence structure is no easy feat. Mr. Coelho strikes the right balance.
With this book, Mr. Coelho continues his intermingling of faith, fable, and fiction. But unlike The Alchemist and several of Mr. Coelho’s other books, Manuscript Found in Accra lacks one of the most fundamental elements of the classic novel: a story. The set-up is delicious: a cosmopolitan but nervous city, on the eve of its slaughter, queries a wise man for final advice. But can this one scene be an entire novel?
The answer to this question ultimately rests with the reader and her/his expectations. But this reviewer, at least, expects more storytelling in the fiction he reads.