Book #93: The Devil and Miss Prym

Paolo Coelho has captivated me for a long time. I started, like, I think, most people have, with The Alchemist. I loved its simplicity. It felt like I was reading a fairy tale, but also like I was getting at the heart of some ethereal, philosophical idea that was so important. I’ve since read quite a few of his other books, and they always make me feel the same way.

The Devil and Miss Prym is a story about good and evil, and about temptation. In an idyllic village appreciated by tourists for its quaint, old-world simplicity and slightly resented by its ever-aging population for the way it has trapped them and made them stagnant and isolated, a stranger arrives. With that stranger comes temptation – if the village will kill just one of its members, he will give them 10 gold bars. This is part of the stranger’s experiment to discover an answer to the age-old question: are people inherently good or evil?

His vehicle for temptation is the young barmaid Chantal Prym. She is one of the youngest people left in the town, a young woman whose friends have left her behind and is keenly aware of the entire world she is missing out on while she remains trapped in her native village. Anyone who’s ever grown up in a small town and had the sense of “someday I’ll get out of here, kick the dust of this crazy old place off my boots and go out into the world and actually be somebody” will probably sympathize with her. The one gold bar the stranger promises Chantal for delivering the message of temptation to the village (and convincing them to commit murder) will be more than enough to send her into the world to start her real life.

The novel basically revolves around the villagers debating whether or not to commit murder, and who to kill if they do decide to do it, while Chantal and the stranger wrestle with their consciences and the angels and devils who speak in their ears. This provides Coelho ample opportunities for reflection on good and evil as all the characters wrestle with the same problems.

I think what I like most about Coelho’s writing is that he introduces such simple conflicts and storylines to drive his ideas forward, but they also leave plenty of room for nuances that lend themselves so well to discussing big philosophical ideas. I’ve always been interested in philosophy, but I tend to find it really inaccessible. I work better in narratives and allegories, I guess, so reading Coelho has always opened the door to more philosophical readings and musings for me. I like that.

Also, I’d read The Devil and Miss Prym before. I read it during the early days of my English degree, when I was in a MAJOR annotations phase, and when I started to read my old copy, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that even though I read it for leisure, I’d annotated it. I was a little embarrassed to see how easily impressed I was with flowery language and “big” ideas back then, most of my annotations were either “Oh my gosh, capacity for evil is IN ALL OF US!” or “WHOA!!” I suppose that’s what I was getting out of the book back then, and it was kind of fun to see the parts where my opinion differed this time around, or even how I read or appreciated certain parts differently. It sort of made me want to get back into annotating books. Part of the reason I’m doing this blog is so I can always go back and reference what I thought about different things I’ve read and see if my opinion changes, but there’s something so cool and immediate about watching my past self react to different things on the physical page.

Rating: ****
Up Next: A rant about Ulysses. After that, The Little Prince

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