Coelho’s latest parable (The Zahir, 2005, etc.) has vague Kafkaesque overtones as a town is challenged to murder an innocent in exchange for prosperity.
The small village of Viscos has a proud past, but at present is dying. All the young have moved to the city, leaving middle-aged shepherds and farmers and a tavern owner dependent on the occasional tourist in search of a mountain idyll. Its demise is only a matter of time as the world is in short supply of civic miracles. When a stranger comes to town, only old Berta sees what no one else can—that his invisible traveling companion is the Devil. The stranger invites Chantal Prym for a walk in the woods and there shows her two burial spots—one contains a single bar of gold, the other ten bars. It is a test for the town, and as the tavern’s barmaid, Chantal is the chosen mouthpiece. The village can have the gold if in three days they commit a murder. Seeking an answer to the question of evil, the stranger is betting that humanity is immoral, even in the quaint village of Viscos. An arms manufacturer, the stranger’s wife and daughters were killed by terrorists (using guns that he made), and ever since, he has had the Devil at his back and the eternal struggle between good and evil on his mind. Initially, Chantal refuses to speak, afraid of becoming complicit in the crime, but the stranger forces her hand, and soon the whole village knows of the proposed bargain. To Chantal’s horror, the town accepts his offer (thanks in large part to the priest, who, eager for the deal to go through, offers a sermon on how the sacrifice of one saved humanity). Now Viscos has only to decide the victim, unless Berta and Chantal, the top choices, can change their minds. Filled with Coelho’s trademark mysticism and philosophical anecdotes to illustrate a point, the brief tale is made finer by the Kafka- Shirley Jackson–derived motifs—the creepiness of a town eager for a murder offsets the author’s tendencies to spiritual pontificating.
A bit more playful than some of Coelho’s other efforts, and all the better for it.