Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Book Review: The Devil and Miss Prym

To my delight, my sisters have a collection of Coelho books. On my last visit here, I read The Alchemist, which was a thoughtful little tale of a young man's search for treasure. I especially like the part when he was in the desert and meets the alchemist.

I like reading Coelho's introductions. In The Devil and Miss Prym, he tells readers about the Persian myth of the birth of good and evil, and also recounts Adam and Eve's fall. Coelho says that he believes that profound decisions and their corresponding consequences take place within a short time frame, and so the events in this book, as in the previous two, occur within one week. Or did Coelho also anticipate the ADD of today's youth? Perhaps... Anyhoo, The Devil and Miss Prym, according to the author, is the third part of a three-part series, the first of which is By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, which I reviewed earlier. Now I must find the middle book, Veronika Decides to Die.

Here's the plot of this book: a man with a giant chip on his shoulder ("the devil"), owing to a personal tragedy, comes into Miss Prym's village, intent on conducting a social experiment to prove his belief that humanity is basically evil. The stranger wants the country folk to commit a murder in exchange for the ten gold bars that he brought with him. Miss Prym, who initially believes in the goodness of her people, becomes the mouthpiece for his scheme after he invites her into the forest to show her where he buried one gold bar. Berta, an old widow who still speaks with her dead husband, becomes at once irrelevant and instrumental to the stranger's plans, and to Miss Prym (Chantal)'s ambitions and growing self-awareness. Miss Prym, of course, is agonized by her fear and her desire; on the one hand, she wants to take the gold for herself (only she knows the location of the one gold bar that the stranger showed her), but on the other hand, that would be stealing, and would have both moral and practical consequences.

It's a simple plot, but Coelho's narration and his characters' dialogues create a layered story that portrays a number of dichotomies: good and evil, saints and villains, angels and devils, and faith and despair. Coelho also uses the theme of vengeance to highlight the human tendency to confuse payback with justice. There's also a great story-within-a-story, as both Berta and Miss Prym describe the history of the village, which involved a saint converting a ruthless bandit. Interestingly, this bandit does not support the church, and instead commands an annual Day of Atonement, where everyone privately reads out loud from two lists: the first is a list of sins committed against God, and the second, a list of sins committed by God against that person. Afterwards, the individual and God call it even. This is unilateral, I'm almost sure.

Of all the characters, I like Berta best. She's wise and wily, and utterly convinced that her dead husband is still with her, which, in the book, he is -- he warns her of the coming danger, and tries to make her run away when the villagers come to take her. Miss Prym, or Chantal, is likeable because she's intelligent and can interpret her angel's "symbols" in a very realistic way (e.g., if all the villagers get the ten bars of gold, the authorities would be suspicious and ask for the ownership papers, etc). Meanwhile, despite his tragedy, the stranger comes across as cold rather than sympathetic, likely because Coelho presents him in an almost clinical manner. The stranger is really just the instigator for Chantal's awakening.

All in all, a good read, because you're always kept guessing about what the characters would do, and whether, in the end, good triumphs over evil, as we hope.