'That's precisely what I want to find out: are we living in paradise or in hell?' the man said, interrupting her thoughts.
Good, he was falling into her trap.
'In paradise. But if you live somewhere perfect for a long time, you get bored with it in the end.'
She had thrown out the first bait. She had said, though not in so many words: 'I'm free, I'm available.'
His next question would be: 'Like you?'
'Like you?' the stranger asked.
She had to be careful, she mustn't seem too eager or she might scare him off. 'I don't know. Sometimes I think that and sometimes I think my destiny is to stay here and that I wouldn't know how to live far from Viscos.'
The next step: to feign indifference.
'Right, then, since you won't tell me anything about the gold you showed me, I'll just thank you for the walk and return to my river and my book.'
'Just a moment!' The stranger had taken the bait. 'Of course I'll explain about the gold; why else would I have brought you here?' Sex, money, power, promises. But Chantal decided to pretend that she was expecting some amazing revelation; men take the oddest satisfaction in feeling superior, without knowing that most of the time they are being utterly predictable.
'You're obviously a man with a great deal of experience, someone who could teach me a lot.'
That was it. Gently slacken the rope and then lavish a little light praise on your prey so as not to frighten him off. That was an important rule to follow.
'However, you have a dreadful habit of making long speeches about promises or about how we should behave, instead of replying to a simple question. I'd be delighted to stay if only you'd answer the questions I asked you at the start: who exactly are you? And what are you doing here?'
The stranger turned his gaze from the mountains and looked at the young woman in front of him. He had worked for many years with all kinds of people and he knew - almost for certain what she must be thinking. She probably thought he had shown her the gold in order to impress her with his wealth, just as now she was trying to impress him with her youth and indifference.
'Who am I? Well, let's say I'm a man who, for some time now, has been searching for a particular truth. I finally discovered the theory, but I've never put it into practice.'
'What sort of truth?'
'About the nature of human beings. I discovered that confronted by temptation, we will always fall. Given the right circumstances, every human being on this earth would be willing to commit evil.'
'It's not a question of what you or I think, or of what we want to believe, but of finding out if my theory is correct. You want to know who I am. Well, I'm an extremely rich and famous industrialist, who held sway over thousands of employees, was ruthless when necessary and kind when I had to be. I'm a man who has experienced things that most people never even dream of, and who went beyond all the usual limits in his search for both pleasure and knowledge. A man who found paradise when he thought he was a prisoner to the hell of routine and family, and who found hell when he could at last enjoy paradise and total freedom. That's who I am, a man who has been both good and evil throughout his life, perhaps the person most fitted to reply to my own question about the essence of humanity - and that's why I'm here. I know what you're going to ask next.'
Chantal felt she was losing ground. She needed to regain it rapidly.
'You think I'm going to ask: "Why did you show me the gold?" But what I really want to know is why a rich and famous industrialist would come to Viscos in search of an answer he could find in books, universities, or simply by consulting some illustrious philosopher.'
The stranger was pleased at the girl's intelligence. Good, he had chosen the right person as ever.
'I came to Viscos because I had a plan. A long time ago, I went to see a play by a writer called Diirrenmatt, whom I'm sure you know ...'
His comment was merely intended to provoke her: obviously a young woman like her would never have heard of Diirrenmatt, and he knew that she would again try to appear indifferent, as if she knew who he was talking about.
'Go on,' said Chantal, feigning indifference.
'I'm glad to see you know his work, but let me just remind you about the particular play I mean.'
He measured his words carefully so that his remarks would not sound too sarcastic, but would also make it clear that he knew she was lying.
'It's about a woman who makes her fortune and then returns to her hometown with the sole intention of humiliating and destroying the man who rejected her in her youth. Her life, her marriage and her financial success have all been motivated by the desire to take revenge on her first love. So then I thought up my own game: I would go to some remote place, where everyone looked on life with joy, peace and compassion, and I would see if I could make the people there break a few of the Ten Commandments.'
Chantal looked away and stared at the mountains. She knew the stranger had realised that she had never heard of the author he was talking about and now she was afraid he would ask her about those ten commandments; she had never been very religious and had not the slightest idea what they were.
'Everybody in this village is honest, starting with you,' the stranger went on, 'I showed you a gold bar, which would give you the necessary financial independence to get out of here, to travel the world, to do whatever it is young women from small, out-of-the-way villages dream of doing. The gold is going to stay there; you know it's mine, but you could steal it if you wanted. And then you would be breaking one of the commandments: "Thou shalt not steal".' The girl turned to look at the stranger.
'As for the other ten gold bars,' he went on, 'they are worth enough to mean that none of the inhabitants of this village would ever need to work again. I didn't ask you to re-bury the gold bars because I'm going to move them to a place only I will know about. When you go back to the village, I want you to say that you saw them and that I am willing to hand them over to the inhabitants of Viscos on condition that they do something they would never ever dream of doing.'
'Like what, for example?'
'It's not an example, it's something very concrete. I want them to break the commandment "Thou shalt not kill".'
'What?' Her question came out like a yell.
'Exactly what I said. I want them to commit a murder.'
The stranger saw the young woman's body go rigid and realised she might leave at any moment without hearing the rest of the story. He needed to tell her his plan quickly.
'I'm giving them a week. If, at the end of seven days, someone in the village is found dead - it could be a useless idle man, or someone with an incurable illness, or a mental defective who requires constant attention, the victim doesn't matter - then the money will go to the other villagers, and I will conclude that we are all evil. If you steal the one gold bar but the village resists temptation, or vice versa, I will conclude that there are good people and evil people which would put me in a difficult position because it would mean that there's a spiritual struggle going on that could be won by either side. Don't you believe in God and the spiritual world, in battles between devils and angels?'
The young woman said nothing, and this time he realised that he had mistimed his question and ran the risk of her simply turning on her heel and not letting him finish. He had better cut the irony and get to the heart of the matter.
'If I leave the village with my eleven gold bars intact, then everything I wanted to believe in will have proved to be a lie. I will die having received an answer I would rather not have received, because I would find life more acceptable if I was proved right and the world is evil. I would continue to suffer, but knowing that everyone else is suffering too would make the pain more bearable. But if only a few of us are condemned to suffer terrible tragedies, then there is something very wrong with Creation.'
About the book:
The remote village of Viscos is the setting for this extraordinary struggle. A stranger arrives, carrying with him a backpack which contains a notebook and eleven bars of pure gold. He comes searching for an answer that torments him:
Are human beings, in essence, good or evil?
The Devil and Miss Prym is a story charged with emotion, in which the integrity of being human meets a terrifying test. Coehlo dramatizes the struggle between good and evil within every soul, letting the reader answer the eternal question.
Excerpt from Great Expectations
- Charles Dickens
Excerpt from Ghachar Ghochar
- Vivek Shanbhag