Repetition; it's the grand motif behind the 1968 self-help book 'The Greatest Salesman in the World'. Written by the late Og Mandino, the mass market paperback is a mere 111 pages long and the font size is beyond generous. It is aimed at people in the sales profession and promises to profoundly improve your skills in the trade. Not by disclosing a revolutionary new approach mind you, but through a narrative set behind the exotic backdrop of Ancient Damascus. Thus, 'The Greatest Salesman in the World' would serve as a quick read between flights, was it not for a giant trick the author pulls on the reader in the latter half of the book. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The story revolves around a man named Hafid, an old merchant who built the biggest trade empire in the Mediterranean, and his loyal bookmaker Erasmus. Seemingly out of nowhere, Hafid one day orders Erasmus to dispose of his entire treasury and the properties he lent to partners. Most of the money to be gifted to the poor of Damascus. Erasmus, who always puts the need of others before his own, is shocked by the old man's decision and worries for him, but ultimately yields to his master's wish. After the deed is done, Hafid invites his loyal servant into a locked chamber which for many years was the object of speculation among the townsfolk. Only Hafid's late wife and he himself knew of its secrets. Upon entry, Erasmus is surprised to find out that the chamber is completely empty, save for a chest filled with ten ancient, dusty scrolls. According to Hafid, these contain the secret on how to become the titular 'Greatest Salesman in the World'.
Over the course of the next few chapters we meet a young Hafid who in a cold winter night solicits his adoptive father Pathros, himself back then a merchant of great renown, to pursue in his trade. Reluctant at first, Pathros grants Hafid the chance at becoming his student after he learns that the young boy's true motivation is not to amass wealth, but the love of the beautiful Lisha, whose rich father Calneh would never approve of her marrying a camel boy. Entrusted by Pathros with a fine garment, Hafid's baptism of fire is in the poor town of Bethlehem, which all traders avoid—except for Pathros. If he was able to sell hundreds of these robes to the populace of poor Bethlehem, so too should Hafid be with a single one. Facing defeat after a few days, the almost resigned boy vows to try one last time next morning. As he wanders back to the cavern where his camel is tied, he finds it to be occupied by a poor couple and their new-born child. Instead of trying to sell the fine robe the next day, he gifts it to them out of compassion. Left with a thankful kiss on the cheek, Hafid witnesses the brightest star he has ever seen shining above the cavern. Upon his untimely return, Pathros assures the sobbing young boy that he did him no wrong. On the contrary, he seems downright enthused Hafid is followed by this bright and beautiful star. It's a sign Pathros has been waiting for many years. With passing health, he inaugurates Hafid in the secret of the ancient scrolls and tells him the story how he came to be their owner. And it is thus later the old Hafid who in turn is waiting for a sign to pass on the knowledge within the scrolls. It happens to be a certain rugged stranger by the name of Paul of Tarsus who visits the old man's estate. And with him he brings the sign that it is he who should be their next recipient—the blood-stained garment of the crucified Jesus. With tearful eyes Hafid recognises it from the night in the cavern. It is a heartfelt narrative and Mandino tells it fervently.
The story itself: superb. Growing up in the Catholic faith, I still have some remaining fondness for the tales inside the Bible. But my main gripe is with the other half of the book. As we learn circa in its middle, each and every one of the ten scrolls needs to be repeatedly read over a period of thirty days—thrice daily no less!—before one may proceed to the next scroll. That's ten months of devotion to 51 pages. Why these mandates make a great salesman, we never find out. But they sound truthful and lofty enough and are painted with such poetic metaphors, that I guess we can only resort to taking them on faith. Quickly was I reminded of news broadcasts showing Islamic schools in the Middle-East, whose pupils' single textbook was the noble Qur'an. The goal of course being the absolute internalisation of the holy text.
In the end, it is nobody but the author himself who is 'The Greatest Salesman in the World'. Would one stick to reading his scrolls for the prescribed ten months, even the sceptic may turn a believer if this book became his daily companion. And judging from the almost universal praise 'The Greatest Salesman in the World' receives over the internet, Mandino obviously succeeded in this regard. I, on the other hand, was left with a bitter taste in my mouth. Lured into the author's scheme through master wordsmithery, the second half of the book is just pages upon pages of opaque motivational speeches masquerading as high prose. Admittedly sharing some truths, but remaining devoid of almost any facts. Through this indoctrination Mandino makes you, the well-intentioned and inquisitive apprentice, a slave to his religious text—by means of mindless repetition.