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Paulo Coelho

"My readers are people who understand my soul," the Brazilian megastar of letters tells  Murray Waldren

ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL AUTHORS WRITING TODAY, boasts a banner on Paulo Coelho's personal website -- it's a hubristic quote culled from a 2001 citation of him by a German media group that runs an annual glitz 'n' glam awards ceremony for celebrities in entertainment, literature, sports and politics. The gongs, though, are more Eurovision than Booker Prize, more about status than substance.

Which in a way sums up an essential dichotomy in the Coelho universe: while the Brazilian megaseller (tagged by The Times, in pre-Da Vinci Code days, as "the world's second-biggest-selling author after John Grisham") can count on a tidal wave of international reader support and recognition, many critics continue to deride his writing as simplistic, his spiritual questing as theology lite.

No matter which side of that merit divide you come down on, most would acknowledge that Coelho has consistently been on message with the zeitgeist, to mix self-help metaphors; for 20 years he has been writing about finding one's purpose and fulfilling one's dreams, declaring that "universal knowledge is accessible to anybody through faith", which sounds convincing if you don't pry too deeply.

 

As with the esoteric, so with the electronic: Coleho has become an obsessed blogger, spending at least three hours a day on line "talking" with his readers, the tribe he calls the Warriors of Light. It is a huge commitment from a man who is as much a multinational mogul as he is message-stick magus, and his devotion sets a benchmark in author-reader relations.

 

On his multilingual blog site (www.paulocoelhoblog.com), Coelho delivers a daily message, posts Youtube videos of Paulo in action, uploads photos of Paulo being Paulo (shaking hands with Vladimir Putin, etc), and moderates a reader discussion board on such subjects as torture, religious wars, xenophobia, grief and daily miracles, topics, he writes, "that concern me the most". (There is also an official Paulo Coelho website co-ordinated by his agency, http://www.paulocoelho.com/engl/index.html, which delivers a monthly sermon, answers frequent questions, and provides events and publication details.)

 

 Off site but still on line, Coelho responds to reader emails although "I can't answer all of them because I receive more than 400 a day. But I do try to get as close to my readers as possible ... They are people who understand my soul."

 

And there you have the energy the sparks the connection: his readers are "people who understand my soul". This is a communion of maestro and acolytes, a mutually tuned in and turned on convergence that answers needs for both. Before the launch of his just-released novel, The Witch of Portobello (HarperCollins), Coelho posted the first 11 chapters on his blog to Spanish and Portuguese readers, the first seven chapters in English: according to his website, he had more than 300,000 pre-publication visits in Spanish and 200,000 in Portuguese.

 

He did this out of missionary zeal, he says, because he believes that the reader "should have a right to read the book before buying it". Besides, he maintains, writers underestimate the net as a point of contact: "If readers read the first chapters and like them, they quickly go out and buy the book."

 

So enthusiastic is Coelho for his computer connection that he is, as we speak, appearing on line and on Latin American television in a Hewlett Packard advertising campaign spruiking how "The Computer is Personal again".

 

Even for a man of his demonstrably healthy ego, however, it must have been galling to observe the bickering five years ago when he was nominated for membership of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. He was elected in the end, but only after hometown critics snarled that he was a writer in a minor  key whose mysticism and meditation material verged on the psychobabble and whose prose remained grammatically challenged.

 

Still, he who laughs last has lasted. And Coelho has lasted because of his magpie aptitude for acquiring piece-meal perceptions from various belief systems and melding them into apparently harmonious wholes. It is a process that has seen him elevated to guru status in the spiritual self-help sphere.

 

No surprise then that spirituality, together with meditation and witchcraft, informs his latest work, which he says is essentially about the awakening of female energy in men and women. This is patently socially desirable, but I'm still surprised to see the Big Man of Brazilian books stand centre-stage and declare: "I am a woman." Nevermind his beard and masculine mien, he is, he repeats, a woman. The audience, almost all women of a more distinctly female persuasion, responds enthusiastically.

 

Coelho is making a rare face-the-fans appearance, aptly enough in London where The Witch of Portobello is largely set.

 

He is talking psychologically when he claims womanhood, he clarifies as pin-drop reverence returns to the room: "It took me years to recognize my feminine side. I'm from South America, and there we take pride in being macho. But one day when I was at Lourdes, I thought suddenly, 'God is man, God is woman, I am woman'."

 

As much showman as shaman, Coelho beams at such miraculous logic. "We need both the masculine and feminine sides to be whole, to progress," he expands, "we need to let our feminine energy flow, and not be afraid of it. It's like being on a pilgrimage - men focus on reaching the end, on preserving their energy and achieving daily targets of distance walked and so on. The women look around them, see the magic of the experience: they know that although the goal is important, the process of achieving that goal is everything."

 

Such heart-on-sleeve sensitivity certainly heartens his female fans, if the mob of autograph-seeking women that swarms him at talk's end is an indication. It's adulation of the pop star kind, even if the compact Coelho, who turns 60 in August, is not your average rock god (despite the mini pony tail he wears beneath a balding patch). Besides, his schmoozing is taking place at the London Book Fair. That's always a frenzy of make or break bargaining in trade-only territory, yet Coelho has enticed a standing-room-only crowd of  power-dressed professionals to his Q&A. Most  have come to admire, a few are intent on fathoming the how of  his fame: just why do people keep reading your books, one man asks. "I guess because they like them," Coelho responds, disingenuously.

 

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"This surprises me," he chuckles next day as we settle over espressos. "Did you see the people? They were queued up outside into the hall. But I am a writer, not a rock star ... this is the apparent contradiction about being an author and a superstar: I work in isolation yet I have a very strong connection with my readers." He pats his pockets, looking for something. "Still, the extent of my success always surprises me," he says with due modesty. "This is not something you should get used to because if you are not surprised, it means you have lost the joy of living. Everything -- speaking in front of an audience, meeting world leaders, giving interviews -- should always be like the first time otherwise it could become very, very boring."

 

He speaks as he writes, a curious mix of knowing and naivety that invites parody and confuses expectations. As he does when he lights up the cigarette he has finally tracked down in his jacket. "They expect me not to smoke, not to drink," he offers in expectation of comment, "some people expect me to be Saint Paulo. But I am a human being like everybody else, I have my ups and downs, my moments of anger, joy, sorrow ... if I lost my human condition, I would be incapable of writing books. My readers expect me to be like them, not like some ideal. I am who I am -- it's too tiresome to be who you are not."

 

Who he is is someone fluent in four languages who has been four-times-married, who hob-nobs with world leaders and the richly influential, and who maintains enough personal superstitions as to border on the compulsive. The numbers may be rubbery but he is said to have sold around 96 million books in 65 languages into 150 countries: his fan base numbers in the millions.

 

Yet his fame and wealth owe just about everything to his 1988 book The Alchemist, a fable about a shepherd's quest for self-knowledge that, legend has it, was written in a feverish fortnight and which has sold close to 35 million copies. For a change-your-life classic, it's a straight-forward tale about straight-forward transmutation of the self (Catholicism melded with occult mythology 101), and it adorns bookshelves from innercity Indooroopilly to Israel and Iran, although the latter nation has banned nine of his other titles. While such noted literary critics as Bill Clinton, Madonna, Julia Roberts and Russell Crowe have given it favourite book status, it also carries a touch of Stephen Hawkings' A Brief History of Time about it: in a survey in March of the books people bought but could not finish, The Alchemist ranked seventh  (Vernon God Little, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Ulysses were the top three).

 

None of Coelho's other dozen books has entered The Alchemist's sales stratosphere, but all have done well: Eleven Minutes, for instance, a frank investigation of the spritual searchings of a rough trade sex worker, is said to have topped the worlds fiction sales list in 2003 and Veronika Decides to Die, an autobiographically inspired look at electro-shock treatment, mental institutions and philosophy,  has sold around six million copies.

 

So why does Coelho strike such commercial and communal nerves? David Tacey, Associate Professor in Critical Enquiry at La Trobe University and the author of The Spirituality Revolution, says there are "longings in the human personality that are not being satisfied by modern life. These include the need to feel we are not alone in the universe, that we live in an intelligent and animated world, and that the world 'speaks' to us in a meaningful way." Coelho specialises in creating a fictional world full of omens and mystery, Tacey says, "and today many feel a need to believe that the world can speak to us again" given that "religion has failed and folk traditions are collapsing.  The best-selling author is the one who can supply, in a convincing and narratively engrossing way, the missing spiritual elements in modern life."  

 

Stephanie Dowrick, author of the bestselling Intimacy of Solitude and Choosing Happiness, thinks Coelho's work might "tap into our timeless need for stories that are archetypal and symbolic, with something confident to say about our inner journey and desire for meaning." 

 

The power of using story to bring philosophical ideas to life can never be underestimated, she says, and "Coelho understands that we are not so different from those ancient people sitting around a fire and listening entranced as someone tells us about a king in a far-off land who wakes up every morning wondering why, in the splendour of his golden palace, he feels so sad ..." 

 

Whatever the secret of his success, Coelho's sales are prime numbers in any publisher's bookeeping, and a persuasive argument to take seriously the self-improvement sphere. Books that canvass such themes as happiness, God and the search for meaning are not easy to categorise, however (Coelho thinks his works should be filed simply as literature), slipping variously into the Personal development or Mind, body, spirit or Family, health and relationship segments. Some settle further into such sub-sections as Religion and beliefs or Psychology. That makes it difficult to assess how big an influence these books are having on our culture.

 

Yet peak performers transcend categories. Think Antoine St Exupery's The Little Prince, which has sold more than 50 million copies; or Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking (7 million); or M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled (10 million copies in 30 years), Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life (22 million in just five years) or Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie (11 million after 10 years).

 

Newest kid on the secrets-to-life block is The Secret, compiled by an Australian, former televison reality show producer Rhonda Byrne. An elementally asinine promotion of "The Law of Attraction", it is,  for a New Age message, decidedly old hat:  think positively and as you think, so will you become. So far, so ho-hum. Except it hasn't stopped 4 million Americans buying hardback copies since its release last November, or the book topping Australian and British bestseller lists.

 

Nevertheless, while individual titles can be big bottom-line pleasures, the genre overall occupies much less than 10 per cent of the local non-fiction market. For perspective, biography is the biggest non-fiction category with 17 per cent of sales, followed by food and drink books, which account for around 12 per cent of non-fiction sales.

 

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FIFTEEN years ago, Coelho told me there were only four stories in literature: "of a man and a woman, of the eternal triangle, of the death of a god, and of the journey". And all his books, all his stories, "in one way or another reflect my life, reflect the journey". That's still true today, he says, but each book reflects only a little of his experience: "If I wrote my whole life as a novel, no one would believe."

 

It's certainly hard to believe a parent would have their son committed when he started skipping law lectures to investigate hippiedom's delights, but Coelho's father did. In the asylum he was given shock treatment, "not so bad", he says, worse for those watching than for those being treated. His attributes his committal to a cultural clash for which he has forgiven his parents: "They thought they were helping me because I was acting so alien to their values."

 

It didn't stop him in the late 60s from hitting the international hippie trail, where "I opened myself to experience". And to mind-altering drugs as he visited Kathmandu, Marrakesh and Amsterdam, soaking up along the way every abstruse viewpoint he encountered.

Back in Rio de Janeiro in the early '70s, he published an underground magazine and wrote lyrics for an emerging rock singer. "And it happen­ed that the singer became very famous and I became a very well-known songwriter." Raul Seixas sold records in Dylanesque proportions in Brazil, and even today Coelho receives royalties from their songs.

 

Unfortunately, the military government thought the songs subversive. Coelho was simply writing "about the hippie idea of an alternate society, but they thought we were promoting socialism." In 1974, the political police nabbed him. To be arrested in Brazil is the worst thing, he says, although he was lucky his detention was official: it still took his family two months of grace and favour manoeuvring before they could effect his release.

 

On the way home from prison, Coelho's taxi was forced off the road by an army-truck. Soldiers leapt out, handcuffed him, "threw me on the ground and aimed their guns at my head. I was 26 and sure I was going to die." Instead, he was thrown naked into a 2m by 2m black room at a torture centre. The air-conditioning was set at freezing, a siren blared for three days, he was given electrical shocks. They wanted details about communist guerrilla activities, Coelho has said, "but I knew nothing. After seven days, they probably thought they'd scared me enough so they set me free. I tell you, I became Mr Square after that."

 

His bour­geois ambitions lasted only three years before he developed spiritually itchy feet again. Soon after his (third) divorce, he met the painter Christina Oiticica, "a wild spirited woman" whom he married. She knew he was unhappy at his job and told him to quit and seek out the meaning of life, "which I still believed I could find".

 

In Europe in January 1982 his life changed after he met his Master, who appeared first in a vision and later in flesh. Under "J", a Jewish businessman, Coelho studied the "classic esoteric tradition". In 1986 he wrote about his experiences in The Diary of a Magus. Soon after came The Alchemist.

 

When we last met, I wrote of his work that "If your head is whispering 'con job', your heart is strangely seduced. A part of everyone wants to believe. And Coelho is a polished proselyte -- he sweats sincerity." Fifteen years on, nothing has changed much, except he has become famous beyond prediction. And his English has become more comfortably fluent, even if he still gets tyre-red  and has difficulty with such words as xenophobia. But then who doesn't?

 

I have to confess, he confesses, that "I still dont feel very comfortable speaking in front of an audience, I always try to skip it, it is a terrific industry of confidences for me ... if I do agree to give a lecture or a conference address, I make sure it costs a lot. And the money I get goes to my foundation, my institute that takes care of 430 children in Brazil." This is dear to his heart, he says; he has no children of his own "because we never got around to it in time" but looking after orphans and homeless kids is "probably a better thing to do anyway". 

 

He has also cut back on travel, he says -- for the past decade he has spent at least 120 days a year on the road -- but not altogether: "Christina and I, we do have our moments of loneliness." For much of the year they live in a converted farmhouse at the foot of the French Pyrenees, where he practises Japanese kudo archery every morning as a form of meditation; they also have an apartment in Brazil ("definitely my home, it's where I learned the most important things in my life"), and a place in Paris, and "we have the internet, which connects us to the world. But we need people. Writers need people ... when I went to Sydney for the first time, they wanted to take us to see the Blue Mountains and I said I'd rather go to bar, because then you really meet and interact with normal people."

 

People always have "something to teach me, one interesting story to tell ... I don't want to steal their story -- every writer already has ten thousand ideas in mind -- but you need to be open to experience."

 

His latest novel is a departure. While still esoterically edged -- its central character is the illegitimate daughter of a Transylvanian gypsy who is searching the world for her purpose in life -- its heroine never "appears" on page. Instead, her actions are revealed through the statements of people she encountered along the way.  The forensic detail builds up an impressionistic portrait of The Witch of Portobello as individuals reveal their own neuroses and insights. Or lack thereof.

 

"The things you discover in and by the writing are what makes it such a powerful excitement," Coelho enthuses, "but you should never reveal everything. It is most important to leave gaps in the telling for the reader's imagination to fill." As in literature, so in life.

Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 2003

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