Paulo Coelho is today the best-known Brazilian author, with more
than 21 million books sold in 73 countries around the world. He is also the object of some
of the most vicious diatribes from Brazilian literary critics. All his prestige in Europe,
especially in France, didn’t buy him any respect at home.
By Rosemary Gund
In a society where the birth of a celebrity daughter and her first sneeze can
preempt the privatization of the national telecommunications system, the much debated
success of writer Paulo Coelho is not that out of context. Coelho exploits the taste for
the esoteric just as Brazilian TV exploits the public’s illiteracy and taste for
sensationalism. Paulo Coelho commercializes spirituality in the same way TV hostess
Xuxa commercialized her pregnancy, with the only difference being that Coelho’s success
has crossed cultural boundaries, showing that the search for packaged wisdom is
It is a fact. Brazilian intellectuals like it or not, Paulo Coelho, 51, is by now a
established phenomenon. His trick consisted in becoming the second Brazilian author to
reach the mark of 21 million books sold around the world, however in a unprecedented way
in our culture. Differently from the "other writer", namely Jorge Amado, Coelho
took only ten years to reach this mark with only eight volumes published compared to 37
by the northeastern author who, by the way, achieved such a feat with great
support from the communist party.
Much has been speculated about the reason for this success. The literary elite in
Brazil refuse to look seriously at this author and automatically disqualify his work of
literary value. But the fact is that Paulo Coelho and consequently his literature, or
non-literature, counts with a faithful public of readers (and followers) not only in
Brazil but all over the world.
That is accredited, according to many, to his "universality", as explained
Coelho’s European agent Monica Antunes to Veja magazine. Even writing in
Portuguese, a that, as we all know, has little or no diffusion in the international
editorial market, Coelho managed to captivate a world public that appears to
be avid to digest his fables of prophetic and spiritual teachings filled with absolute
truths and with a wide array of interpretation possibilities. His books do not preach any
religion in particular, but all religions, with his common place messages that can
be incorporated by Jews and Muslims alike, without necessarily offending any creed.
Being that Coelho is a writer of established success with three best-sellers in the
market and his last novel Veronika Decide Morrer (Veronika Decides to Die)
ranking first on the top ten list in Brazil, his success cannot be interpreted as mere
coincidence. This conclusion has led some critics to question the direction of our
"post-modern" literature. Sociologist Magda Santos, in her thesis about the
author, defined his success to Folha de São Paulo as the result of an
"exacerbation of the crisis of reason [and] a narcissism characteristic of the end of
the century." Critic Wilson Martins apparently agrees: "Coelho is a sociological
phenomenon, he is an answer to the injunctions of our historical moment, to the anxiety
that reappears at the end of every millennium. When the world doesn’t end on the year
2000, maybe all this interest for Coelho’s work will end," he said to Veja .
But according to the critic Cândido Mendes de Almeida, his books do not present a text
but "a product of a convenience store." Whatever the case, Coelho is only
responding to an ever increasing demand for spiritual solutions to
meaningless lives, in a world ever more materialistic and uprooted. People are in search
of the easy answers that he sets out to give his readers and which give them in
exchange a transcendental meaning to their lives and alleviate the feeling of alienation
that we experience in our contemporary world. It is the search for the sacred in a
moment in that traditional religions fail to fulfill the anxieties of contemporary
man, a fact that makes of Coelho and of the whole "new age" culture truly
One should not forget though that before he became a writer, Coelho was a
producer who worked in the competitive musical industry, which also makes
him an expert in the marketing laws that govern the media. The releasing of his books
involves sophisticated publicity campaigns. In Italy for example the release of the book O
Monte Cinco ( The Fifth Mountain) closed for a week five little streets in five
Italian cities that were renamed Via Paulo Coelho. Of course Coelho is very aware of all
these strategies and he actively participates in the decisions. He also approved the
release of the other products that together with his books would make out the
perfect Paulo Coelho Kit: A CD-ROM with pictures and biographical notes and the
computer game Pilgrim based on the book of the same name in English (O Diário de um
His success abroad is proof that Coelho really has a feel for good business.
Despite all the criticismespecially at a national levelin regards to the
quality of his work and his sloppy Portuguese, Coelho continues to rank on the very top of
the list of best sellers in Brazil and is also one of the top on the lists in
Europe as well. Even in France, a country of strong literary tradition and crib to
literati like Proust. Besides all that, he was the main celebrity at this
year’s Paris Book Fair (that this year honored Brazil), a fact which might have left many
serious Brazilian writers baffled.
Even though Coelho hadn’t been invited by the official delegation that represented
Brazil, he decided to mark his presence anyway. He was invited by his French
publisher Anne Carrière to help promote the release of The Fifth Mountain in
France, apparently another success which sold more than 200 thousand copies in only
three weeks there. The writer stole the show from the other Brazilian writers who passed
unnoticed, and received treatment worthy of a star with rights to special
attention from president Jacques Chirac, because in 1996 he had been honored with the
Insignia of Arts and Letters by the French government.
According to his French publisher Anne Carrière, who organized a reception of 700
people for Coelho at the Carroussel, the event’s coordinators alleged they had never seen
anything comparable in the 10 years. Even if Coelho remains below the greatest
best sellers of the world like Danielle Steel and John Grisham, he still has many
reasons to pride himself: his books have been published in 73 different
countries. That alone is remarkable, especially when one considers he writes in
Portuguese which unlike English, has no literary diffusion abroad.
However, according to what critic Silviano Santiago stated to Veja, there has
been a mystification of his success in France. The fact that this country has been
the homeland of some of the greatest writers and philosophers of all times is not relevant.
To Santiago the French public can be just as mediocre as any other country’s public.
" The Paulo Coelho phenomenon only confirms the existence of globalized
taste and globalized book market."
The fact that Coelho’s grammatical mistakes continue to go unnoticed by the public
reflects, according to critic Gabriel Perissè, the reality of a society that is not
sufficiently instructed for good and selective reading. In a country where about 14,7
percent of the population is absolutely illiterate, not taking into consideration
the functional illiterates, Coelho’s mistakes are not even that bad.
Errors ranging from a misplaced comma to more serious errors of agreement can
be found on the pages of the Alchemist, one of his first books, and
The Fifth Mountain, one of his most recent. His success abroad in editorial
markets that are perceived as more "demanding" might appear incoherent
but should probably be merited to the work of the translators who many times
practically rewrite literary works.
Coelho has however been the subject of the most sadistic criticism, as that
accredited to Ivan Ângelo of Veja magazine on occasion of the release of the Fifth
Mountain in Brazil in 1996. In his article, Ângelo refers to the book as a
"mountain of nonsense" ( the word monte in colloquial Portuguese
also means "a lot of") and criticizes clearly and bluntly not only the
linguistic mistakes committed by Coelho but also the tremendous historical inaccuracies.
Referring to him as the PC of letters, who like the PC of Collor makes use of
"ghosts" for personal gain (referring to the secret bank accounts of Paulo
César Farias who was involved in the political scandal of money laundering during
the term of president Fernando Collor de Mello), Ângelo pointed out the various
grammatical errors of regency and agreement present in his "elementary prose"
and accused his book of having a "simplistic plot" and of presenting
an "ingenuous wisdom", which was "written in a hurry" to make the
Brazilian Biennial on time.
This article even generated a public brawl in the section of letters of Veja
between the author and the critic, which unfortunately might have turned out to look bad
for Coelho. In an attempt to refute the accusations of Ângelo in regard to the
"hilarious" anachronisms found in his book, Coelho accused him of not having
consulted an encyclopedia before writing his article. Ângelo however did not let Coelho
off the hook and replied in a letter clarifying the distinction for Coelho (and the
readers) between writings on leather and parchment. According to Ângelo,
the technique referred to as parchment in Coelho’s book appeared in Greece in the
II century BC and not in the IX century BC as it was implied in the book,
according to an encyclopedic reference transcribed by Ângelo in his letter.
Coelho however does not seem to be jolted by his critics. Maybe only those who think
Coelho is out to get the Nobel Prize of Literature are the ones missing the point. He
only writes books, which is very different. Practically everyone is aware of the fact that
nowadays any person with a more sophisticated computer and a printer can publish a book.
Virtually anyone can declare himself an "expert" on a subject for whatever
reason and share his or her knowledge, as long as there are people willing to pay for
that. And there are. The majority of people actually seem to prefer this easily digestible
and accessible reading that offers to solve all of our problems in less than
two hundred pages.
Moreover, Coelho’s books also seem to fill in a gap, approximating the author to his
reader and giving that tone of intimacy in a world ever more fragmented and
individualistic. The employment of short and clear sentences, the use, not to say abuse,
of the first person singular even when that could be omitted, help to transmit this
feeling of "up close and personal" that pleases a lot of people.
And the formula has worked so far. However, maybe as a response to criticism of
being repetitive, Coelho decided to change the subjectpero no mucho. His new
book does not refer to esoteric or spiritual themes as the others clearly did, but
still has a strong spiritualistic tone. The great novelty lies in the fact that the
book is based in a revealing fact of his personal life. The psychiatric internment of the
main character of the novel, Veronika, after trying suicide was based in the personal
experience lived by the author. Coelho had been confined to a mental institution by
his own parents three times during his youth in the 60s because he wanted to
become a writer against his father’s will.
In this book Coelho describes a lot of what he had experienced during his confinement.
The schizophrenic character Eduard in the book is submitted to electric shock
treatments that are described in details by Coelho who affirms to have been victim of the
same treatment : "I received a lot of shocks. I would contort myself,
convulsing. And even after the shocks, I would still have convulsions," Coelho said
in an interview to Veja magazine. But he affirms he has no trauma or resentment
against his father and that writing about it was not an emotional thing nor some sort of
catharsis. He just felt it was time to share that about his life.
According to Coelho, the book is supposed to incite a debate around the issue of
"madness". People who choose to be different and go against the norm are usually
considered to be crazy, because the society does not understand them. For him, we are
making choices at every moment of our lives and we either choose to live or give it up.
Coelho is a character of his own book, treated in the third person singular, who tells
his story about his own hospitalizations. The strategy maybe is to call the
reader’s attention through a sensationalistic theme based on Coelho’s life and lead them
to the bookstores. As far as content goes, the recycling of old clichés continues, the
search for spirituality in our empty lives and the discovery of the great
"treasure" in the end. Could that be the finding of our own destiny? Probably.
It is not necessary to buy the book to find out.
Maybe we should simply take Coelho’s work for what it really is. According to what
critic José Paulo Paes said to Veja magazine paraphrasing the American critic
Winsatt, his books "solve all of your problems while you’re reading it but as soon as
you close it, our difficulties appear with double the strength." And that might well
nail Coelho’s work down. But at the same time, if Danielle Steel can, why not Coelho?
Rosemary Gund is a graduate student of Italian Literature at SFSU and a
free-lance translator. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org