Wednesday, April 04, 2012

52. The Devil and Miss Prym – Paulo Coelho

This book would be an interesting companion piece for high-school students to read beside Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter...

A stranger arrives in an isolated mountain village and makes an astounding offer: a fortune in gold for every resident if someone - anyone - in the town is murdered within a week! The outcome will answer the question - are people inherently good, or inherently evil?

You can imagine the chaos that ensues... first inside Miss Prym, the barmaid to whom the offer is first revealed. Should she just forget she ever heard such a deal? Should she dig up some of the gold, and run away from her dead-end life? Should she trust her friends to do the right thing... or is she rightfully afraid of the mob-mentality?

It's a short and simple story, easy to speed through, but worthy of stopping to consider its after effects. The ultimate answer is that there is no answer - there is no inherent good or evil in humanity, it is all a matter of individual choice. We are all tempted by evil. The issue is whether we are prepared to struggle against it.
"It was all a matter of control. And choice. Nothing more and nothing less."

Each person has their own demon and angel on their shoulder... who will they listen to?
It is a novel full of cliches - the old story about the man who dies on a journey and doesn't realise he is dead, suffers horribly from thirst but refuses to enter the first gate with the lovely fountain, as his animal friends aren't allowed, continues on to the second gate where all are welcome and finds that this is heaven - the first gate being hell, which weeds out anyone who would slake their own thirst while leaving their faithful companions to suffer... the story of Midas who wished to turn everything he touched into gold and ended up regretting the result...

The townspeople decide they will drug and shoot a crazy old woman whom nobody will miss... they'll make it a Russian roulette so no one individual will bear responsibility... they are all gung ho and ready to go... but then Miss Prym raises some financial realities. How are they going to convert the gold into modern currency? The bank will want to ask questions about where it came from, how they got it... will they trust each other to keep the secret of their shame? The risk is too great, they can't trust each other, and so good prevails overall - through cowardice if not through conviction.

In many ways, the novel is unsatisfying, for the one-dimensionality of its characters, for the way in which the narrative skips around from one to another without much sense of direction, the archetypal, allegorical aim that was just a bit too obvious... the ending which just fizzled away into nowhere (Miss Prym gets to start a new life with the gold, the villagers must pay for Berta's fountain after all, but nothing is really answered, no-one has really changed)... meh. The premise was good, but I think it lost something in translation.

The only character I really liked was old Berta, the victim chosen by the townspeople, sitting on her doorstep chatting with her long-dead husband, and waiting for the devil to arrive.
Berta was watching the sun setting behind the mountains when she saw the priest and three other men coming towards her. She felt sad for three reasons: she knew her time had come; her husband had not appeared to console her (perhaps because he was afraid of what he would hear, or ashamed of his own inability to save her); and she realised that the money she had saved would end up in the hands of the shareholders of the bank where she had deposited it, since she had not had time to withdraw it and burn it.
She felt happy for two reasons: she was finally going to be reunited with her husband, who was doubtless, at that moment, out and about with Miss Prym's grandmoth er; and although the last day of her life had been cold, it had been filled with sunlight - not everyone had the good fortune to leave the world with such a beautiful memory of it.
The priest signalled to the other men to stay back, and he went forward on his own to
greet her.
'Good evening,' she said. 'See how great God is to have made the world so beautiful.'
'They're going to take me away,' she told herself, 'but I will leave them with all the world's guilt to carry on their shoulders.'

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