In France, Australia, Spain, and Brazil,
naturally, he has been a constant guest of the best seller lists. The
US market has been a little harder to crack, but magus Paulo Coelho is
“It doesn’t matter which nationality and language we speak. We share the same ideals, the same passions, the same quests.” (Paulo Coelho)
Paulo Coelho owns the best seller list in Brazil.
Really. A couple of months ago, if you’d have picked up the Folha de
Săo Paulo (the biggest newspaper in Brazil, with more than one million
copies), you’d have noticed four of Coelho’s titles among the top ten
fiction, and one title — just to rub things in — on the top ten
non-fiction list. O Alquimista, in particular, has been like a starfish
on a rock; for five years no one has been able to pry it off the
charts, and in South America alone it has sold over two million copies.
Harper San Francisco has just released the paperback
edition of O Alquimista, in English The Alchemist: A Fable About
Following Your Dream (177 pp., $10), as well as Coelho’s re-packaged
first work, The Pilgrimage: A Contemporary Quest for Ancient Wisdom
(226 pp., $12), which was originally published in this country (and in
Brazil) as the Diary of a Magus. In September, The Valkyries: An
Encounter with Angels will be hitting local bookstores.
These short and simply written works tend to combine
spiritual and inspirational ‘new age’ ingredients with distinct fairy
tale qualities, much like The Little Prince. They’re ‘feel good about
yourself’ books, but they’re also charming, thoughtful, and easy to
Coelho has yet to become a big sensation in the
States, but this success is nothing if not worldwide. The Alchemist has
topped the best seller lists in France, Spain, and Australia, was
recently published in Japan, has been optioned for film by Warner
Brothers, and in September it will be released by a major publishing
house in Italy. So, although he lives in Rio de Janeiro with his wife,
Christina, Coelho has become, by necessity if not by choice, a globe
trotter of the first order.
The three of us sat down together in Los Angeles
recently as Coelho began an extensive US tour that will take him across
the country and even into Canada. I’d met the Coelhos twice in 1993,
when Paulo was here to talk about The Alchemist after it was first
published in English, and so the following interview was not as
impersonal as many interviews tend to be, especially with someone of
Paulo, I say, when you travel to all these different
countries — which you seem to do all the time — do you ever have the
chance to relax and just sight-see?
“There are moments, yes; and there are moments when
it is impossible. Right now in the United States it will be impossible.
I arrived on Saturday evening [we met Monday morning]. Yesterday I went
to walk around and I knew that it would be my only free day during this
tour. I tried to profit as much as I could.”
Harper San Francisco’s got him on a tight leash, all
right. “My itinerary is that thick,” Coelho says, indicating an
imaginary portfolio about an inch deep. For example, minutes after our
talk concluded he was appearing in France — via satellite — to
receive a writing award.
Coelho grumbles a bit, but then who enjoys waking up at five o’clock to catch a plane?
Nonetheless, “This is very exciting,” he states
matter-of-factly; “This is a unique moment in my life and I try to live
it with as much intensity as I can.”
It’s exciting, I say, but I’m sure that sometimes when you sit back and think about it, it must be very surreal, too?
Coelho acknowledges that the ramifications of his
success are beyond his grasp. He says he does not dare to think about
it or try to explain it, because “Either I’ll be fearful or very proud,
and these are very dangerous things. It’s better to keep a distance. To
be aware of things, but never to lose your innocence.”
It’s an important point, because we all know that fame can often exact a terrible price.
“The danger exists,” Coelho admits. “I hope to keep
my innocence intact. Of course I’m not dumb, I know that I’m a big
business and there are those sides of business that I have to be very
aware of. But up to now I think I have kept a naiveté.”
In other words, he’s not jaded yet.
What about the depletion of energy? Even popular rock’n’roll artists aren’t on the road this long.
“I’ve been touring for almost two years. I started in
1993 with Australia, Argentina, Chile and the United States, and from
that moment on I didn’t stop.” He did have two months to himself in
Brazil last summer. “But this was all. I’ve been touring all over the
world, all the time.”
Apart from the energy it demands, it must also take away from your time to write?
Coelho agrees. “But you know, in Brazil we have a
saying, ‘When it needs to, the frog can jump.’ The same thing goes for
me. I thought at the beginning that I could only write in my office
with my desktop computer, and then I discovered that this is not true,
that I could do it wherever I am.”
He illustrates this by saying that he’d once had the
notion of going up to the mountains, sitting in front of a tranquil
lake, and composing inspired prose. However, “I never, never could work
like this,” because the external stimulus is missing. He says he wrote
his first four books in Brazil, “with the fax and the phone ringing,
and my friends calling me; and then I can write a book. But if I go —
and I’ve tried this, of course — to a fantasy landscape with mountains
and loneliness and time to write, then I can do nothing. Nothing at
Which isn’t all bad. Because when September rolls
around, Coelho will be on the world-circuit once again: Italy, Japan,
the Scandinavian countries, and probably back to the US to promote The
Valkyries. “But, like the shepherd in The Alchemist,” Coelho says, “I’m
still on a constant pilgrimage through life.”
If he seems a bit tired on the morning we meet, it’s
probably the jet lag (there’s six hours difference between Rio and
L.A.), but overall his spirits seem just fine: He’s up and in for the
long haul. “This is the only way that I have to contact my readers, to
get in touch with people. This is the best thing about the job. You are
never a foreigner, you are always there because your book was there
before you and it shows people who you are. And then when you go there
you have ‘soulmates’ to meet and to talk with.” Your book is like a
calling card, I tell him. Coelho laughs. “Exactly,” he says.
“To see my book doing well in several different
countries, it shows that there are things that we share, that we are
the same. It doesn’t matter which nationality and language we speak. We
share the same ideals, the same passions, the same quests.”
One reason for Coelho’s international success may be
that word-of-mouth occasionally transcends national borders, especially
in Europe where one country’s best seller list is carefully eyed by
another. And sometimes international travelers will come back from a
far-off land with tales of a particular book, thus arousing some
interest in it before the translation has been completed.
When you travel the world, do people ever expect you
to be a spokesman, not only for the books you write, but for other
Brazilian writers who are not as well known?
“I don’t think so, ” Coelho replies, “Because to
begin with my books are not typical Brazilian literature. Nonetheless,
I hope I can open the door for Brazilian writers… In a certain way
I’ve profited from the situation of Jorge Amado.”
In the United States, Amado remains the best known
Brazilian author — and I like to think I’ve helped to sustain the
momentum in some small way, having written about The War of the Saints
for the Los Angeles Times — but lesser known figures like Rubem
Fonseca, Ignacio de Loyola Brandăo, Moacyr Scliar, Joăo Ubaldo Ribeiro,
and the late Osman Lins — are also worth reading.
“I’m a fan, I’m a groupie of Jorge Amado,” Coelho admits, “because he’s very, very important for us.”
Not only that, Amado stood up for and defended Coelho
against unfavorable and harsh criticism. “Even with these very tough
reviews,” he says, “I acquired an immense public that grows and grows.
Today I’ve sold nearly four-and-a-half million copies of my books. This
has never happened in Brazilian literature. I’m very proud of my
country and my people, because I’m not one who had to go abroad to be
In your books there’s sometimes a sense of the future, a glimpse of things to come.
“I believe neither in the importance of the future
nor in the importance of the past, past lives and that; I don’t believe
this. I do believe in the present — that we can change either the past
or the future. Perhaps my characters foresee things, but they know that
all these things are linked to the way that they were going to behave
in the present. In any case, I think that the present is our gift. It
is the most important part of our life and we can change any future
that we have if we live the present intensely.”
Coelho’s remark reminds me of Octavio Paz, in
particular his 1990 Nobel Lecture, published as In Search of the
Present. As Paz writes, “The present is the source of presences.”
Are your other books, or those you’re planning to create, along the same lines as The Alchemist and The Pilgrimage?
“They are not the same,” Coelho answers, “But I
always focus on this message of ‘Be faithful to your dream, and fight
for your dream, and pay the price of your dream.’ I always try to focus
on this because this is my personal quest also.
“In my books, I’m very attentive to the signs.”
Indeed, there’s an omen every few pages or so in both of his translated
words, and woe to the one who ignores them. These signs don’t always
make logical sense, Coelho says, and we may have to rely mostly on our
sixth sense, our intuition.”
“This is important for us,” he emphasizes, “To be
aware of all the signs around. Even if they don’t have logic they are
As if on cue, several people enter the lobby where
the three of us have been sitting alone. Although they are not
literally ejecting us from the room, the sound of scraping chairs and
shuffling feet clearly unbalances the equilibrium we’ve attained during
the course of our hour long conversation. Christina, Paulo, and I smile
and laugh and look at one another with knowing glances. This was a
sign, all right. It was time to go.
Master of oneself
How Petrus shows the author and its readers the path to self enlightenment and reining in the moment.
The Pilgrimage, by Paulo Coelho, translated by Alan R. Clark ($12 paper, Harper San Francisco, 226 pp.)
“Even if I were not able to find my sword,” writes
Paulo Coelho, “The pilgrimage along the Road to Santiago was going to
help me find myself.”
The 700-kilometer trek between the French city of
Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and the Spanish cathedral of Santiago de
Compostela was undertaken by the author several years ago, and became
the inspiration for the first of his many books to be published in
Brazil. Coelho’s US publisher has re-released it to coincide with the
paperback edition of The Alchemist, as well as to herald the impending
hardcover publication of Valkyries: An Encounter with Angels.
Without going into the order of RAM, the magical sect
in which Coelho aspires to become proficient, I’ll simply say that the
author’s “adventure of traveling towards the unknown” is both literal
and metaphysical, or physical and spiritual. As befitting any novice
who seeks enlightenment, Coelho is assigned a guide: During the course
of their few weeks together, Petrus shows the author several mental
exercises to increase his self-mastery in different areas. The reader,
too, is invited to use these formulas for personal enrichment.
The book’s simplicity — it has a soft, soothing,
quiet tone –works well in its favor. The search, as fable-like
searches tend to be, is open to everyone who is receptive, willing, and
patient. The real goal, of course, is the journey itself: Mastering the
present moment carries us to our heart’s desire. It’s a message that
appears in The Alchemist as well.
Petrus, who is closer to Castańeda’s Don Juan than to
Dante’s Virgil, tells the author that “When you are moving towards an
objective, it is very important to pay attention to the road.” Heed the
signs, the omens, he says. We walk the road; later, the road walks us.
This concept seems to echo Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery
[with the archer ‘becoming’ the arrow], as well as Miyamoto Musashi’s A
Book of Five Rings.
Two other primary themes arise. One, we must fight
the good fight; do not be deterred by fear from setting out to achieve
what you desire. Two, follow your dreams (there’s a well put
inspirational pep-talk on pages 50-52). Coelho tells us that often
people don’t pursue their dreams because they wouldn’t know what to do
with them if they achieved them, and that many times people will stay
with what they have, however detrimental, only because it’s familiar to
The Pilgrimage — chockfull of sagacious one-liners
— gently addresses these issues. I tend to prefer The Alchemist, and
feel that The Pilgrimage is simply more of the same. My friend Kari, to
whom I gave both books, red them back to back and says she prefers them
equally. We did, however agree that they are uplifting and easy to
digest, and will likely appeal to a wide audience.
The Alchemist, an excerpt:
That night, the boy slept deeply, and, when he awoke,
his heart began to tell him things that came from the Soul of the
World. It is said that all people who are happy have God within them.
And that happiness could be found in a grain of sand from the desert,
as the alchemist had said. Because a grain of sand is a moment of
creation, and the universe has taken millions of years to create it.
“Everyone on earth has a treasure that awaits him,” his heart said.
“We, people’s hearts, seldom say much about those treasures, because
people no longer want to go in search of them. We speak of them only to
children. Later, we simply let life proceed, in its own direction,
towards its own fate. But, unfortunately, very few follow the path laid
out for them — the path to their destinies, and to happiness. Most
people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the
world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place.