Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 May - 1 June 2005
Issue No. 744
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Readers' choice

Popular novelist Paulo Coelho's presence in Egypt this week proved positively sensational, with thousands of young people flocking to a handful of venues, notably Al-Sawi Cultural Centre, in what resembled a pop music parade. Gamal Nkrumah managed to have a few words with the Brazilian star

"And, what if I never get to Egypt," wonders the adolescent hero of The Alchemist, easily Paulo Coelho's most widely read novel. The Alchemist is the story of an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago, who ventures from his homeland in Spain to the desolate wastes and wondrous expanses of North Africa in search of a treasure buried in the vicinity of the Pyramids. "I first visited Egypt in 1987, a few months before writing The Alchemist," Coelho reacalls. "To realise one's destiny is a person's only obligation." Coelho's magic realism is imbued with hope and determination. There is the occaisonal doubt and the danger of deception, but positive expectancy is always a sure winner in Coelho's fiction.

photo: Mohamed Wassim Click to view caption
Paulo Coelho
photo: Mohamed Wassim
Alchemist super star

The Alchemist, published in 1988, is a powerfully stated albeit arrestingly lucid metaphor of life -- the author's own personal experience. It is a highly symbolic novel that has captured the imagination of millions of people around the world, including hundreds of thousands of Egyptians. "It reflects different bits and pieces of my own life," Coelho told Al-Ahram Weekly. Sporting a pony tail of snow-white hair, the rest of his head closely shaved, Coelho was dressed in his trademark black.

The Alchemist, he reminisced, was initially regarded by the publishers as a commercial flop. Initially world reactions offered a mixed bag, but in no time this and other writings confounded the critics and the author achieved cult status. "His books have had a life-enhancing effect on millions of people," as Britain's The Times summed him up. In May 1993, Harper Collins published 50,000 copies of The Alchemist, the largest ever initial print-run of a Brazilian book in the United States. In 2002, the Portuguese literary review, Jornal de Letras, perhaps the most important authority on Lusophone literature, declared that The Alchemist had sold more copies than any other Portugese book in the entire history of the language.

Coelho flew to Egypt from Germany, where he was receiving the Goldene Feder Award -- in Hamburg, on 19 May -- and he delivered a lecture at Cairo University on 22 May. He travels the world to market his books. But "I only receive symbolic royalities," he explains. "I 'm in Cairo to make sure that my books are sold at a reasonable price, not more than $2 for a paperback, that they are readily available and widely read." Coelho's itinerary in Egypt is punishing. Yet the clearly exhausted and jet-lagged international best-selling author radiates conviviality. He doesn't consider himself to be particularly prolific. "I write a book every two years," he explains. But how might he explain his views in terms of personal history?

"Writing is a very feminine process," Coelho muses. "It is at once intuitive and creative." This one might interpret in a particular way: he has made a career out of giving people hope. But he seems less intent on defining the essence of his work than on thwarting work he dismisses as unneccessarily complicated -- James Joyce's Ulysses, for example. Two years ago when Umberto Eco visited the country, he did not experience quite the same raptuous reception as Coelho -- a fact (demonstrated by his phenomenal book- signing at the sumptuous Al-Sherouq Bookstore, First Mall, Giza) that could corroborate this line of thought but equally undermines the author's literary status. People of all ages and backgrounds lap up his unique brand of popular fiction. He is a teenage idol. But his writings operates beyond the realm of pure aesthetics. His is an ideal world where everyone can try his or her hand at moulding their destiny. What his novels do is persuade. And since they persuade, they are influential.

Coelho makes much capital out of his international appeal. His novels are not necessarily about Brazil. Indeed, they seldom deal with it at all. His magic realism takes his characters to outlandinsh and faraway places: the Pyrennes, Slovenia, Andalusia and the Sahara. Weird and wonderful locations serve as exotic settings for writing that doesn't seem to respect cultural boundaries. And while he concedes that many of his works are set outside Brazil, he stress that he sees the world "through Brazilian eyes".

Genuine and down-to-earth, Coelho exudes an air of irreverence. "I've always refused to obey orders. I was headstrong and I wanted to be different. I was fighting for my right to be different." His sister Sonia, he informs me, now a brilliant scientist, was far more conventional and had the approval of their parents. They are opposite examples of success.

His novels are invariably about love and religion. Emotionally charged, they benefit from a distinctive, spare writing style that should secure him a place among the best creative minds of the age. The most profound changes take place within a short time, Coelho says by way of justifying his emphasis on emotion. The Devil and Miss Prym, another all-absorbing classic, is nonetheless an example of work that relies a little too heavily on that grim tug at the heartstrings -- tear-jerking mechanisms.

Yet in other respects the writer is extremely recitent. Having been jailed in his youth in the dreaded prisons of Brazil's 1960s and 1970s military distatorship, he is not one to brag about Brazilian politics. Another question swirling around his work is whether this roster of celebrities will remain committed to the unglamorous, solitary labour of writing, though, and by the look of it his answer, in practise if not in words, remains ambiguous. Paulo Coelho was born in 1947 to a comfortably middle-class family. His father, Pedro, was an engineer; his mother, Lygia, a housewife. At seven he entered the Jesuit School of San Ignacio in Rio de Janiero; and his parents wanted him to follow in the footsteps of his father -- so much that his artistic tendencies prompted them to commit him to a psychiatric hospital on several occasions; there he underwent electro-convulsive therapy.

Yet Coelho is not resentful. "My parents were trying to protect me against the risks of being an artist." Even though the experience of the mental asylum was traumatic, Coelho doesn't bear grudges against his parents. "It was a desperate act of love, and I understand their motives." His father, a nonagenarian, lived long enough to see his unconventional son become an international celebrity. His mother, sadly, passed away 12 years ago after suffering Alzheimer's. His difficult connection with his parents is but one example of the many autobiographical episodes on which his novels have drawn. The Pilgrimage, for example, is the result of a journey he made through the Pyrennes to Santiago de Compostella, Galicia, Spain. Then there was another journey he undertook with his wife, artist Christina Oiticica to the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. "It was an unforgettable experience," he recalls, in the course of which he met a mysterious, mystical man who was instrumental in his eventual return to Roman Catholicism.

Coelho then embarked on a systematic study of the symbolic language of Christianity. He walked the road to Santiago de Compostella, a medieval pilgrim's route between France and Spain. Like pilgrimage, perhaps, "writing is one of the most solitary activities in the world," as he notes in Manual for the Warrior of Light, a collection of intriguing philosophical thoughts written in characteristically lucid language. "I must continue creating sentences, paragraphs, chapters and go on writing until I die, and not allow myself to be caught in such traps as success or failure," he tells me. Publiushed in 1997, the book is an invitation to each of us to live our dream, to embrace the uncertainty of life and rise to the unique challenges of our destiny. "A warrior of light knows that he has much to be grateful for."

Coelho says that a warrior of light does not waste his time listening to provocations. "A warrior of light always does his best and expects the best of others. He never forgets his friends, for their blood mingled with his on the battlefield." Coelho himself looks the part of the worn-out warrior. Yet that warrior, he insists, sits hidden within all of us. "A warrior of light does not rely on strength alone, he makes use of his opponent's energy too." He draws on the positive energies of others.

In the 1970s Coelho had been involved with theatre and journalism. He was closely associated with the Brazilian musician and composer Raul Seixas, who asked Coelho to write the lyrics to his songs. Their music changed the face of the Brazilian rock scene. Their second record was a great success that sold more than 500,000 copies. And the partnership between the two artists continued until 1976. This was a defining moment in Coelho's life. It was the first time in his life that he made money. At 26, he got a regular job at the record company Polygram, where he met Vera, another woman who would later become his wife. In 1977, they moved to London. And a year later Coelho was back in Brazil, alone, a divorcee.

"Life does not look back," he wrote in The Devil and Miss Prym. And true to this notion, there is an overriding sense of the urgency of existence running through all his works. In The Fifth Mountain, the story of the biblical prophet Elijah springs to life as an invaluable contemporary lesson of hope. "There are inevitable moments of misfortune which interrupt our lives. However, they happen for a reason," Coelho notes in The Fifth Mountain.

The novel explores how far we, mere mortals, can predict our own destiny. We are all prophets -- or can be, Coelho concludes. People can find new hope in the very trials and tribulations that disrupt them. The Fifth Mountain received wide- ranging critical acclaim. The Independent on Sunday decreed that it was "one of the few [novels] to deserve the term publishing phenomenon". Time International of the US pronounced it "more ambitious than The Alchemist ". In this sense it is typical of his work. In addition he has received many international accolades. In 1999, the French government made him a Chevalier de l'Ordre Nationale de la Legion d'Honneur.

Among the books of which he speaks fondly is Veronika Decides to Die, perhaps his most poignant novel, set in Slovenia. It tackles deep questions about life, death, romance and suicide. It also questions the existence of God. "In her heart of hearts, though, there was still a doubt: what if God exists?" But this author is deeply religious. After years of agnostism, he became a devout Catholic. "He was the one who created this confusion in which there is poverty, injustice, greed and loneliness. He doubtless had the best of intentions, but the esults have been disastrous."

"I have no favourites, though," Coelho declares. "Like a mother, I love all my works. They are all special and dear to me." His subject, according to The Times in September 1999, "is an endlessly fascinating one." The fact is evident in the present conersation, too. "When we love, we want to be better than we already are, and love makes us better," he wrote in Brida, a love story based on the life of Brida O'Fern, the Irish enchantress who delved into the secrets of the pagan Celtic Wicca tradition. At 21 she met a magician and pleaded with him to turn her into a witch. He then initiated her into the Wicca and she learnt that there were two forms of teaching: the Revelation or Sun tradition, and the ritualistic or Moon tradition.

Love Letters from a Prophet, in which Coelho strove to uncover the man behind the poet-prophet Khalil Jibran -- largely through his letters to Mary Haskell -- is another work in which romance is interwoven with questions about life, existence and religion.

Colheo speaks fondly of the Copacabana apartment in which he lives with Christina. "I live in Rio de Janeiro. I love the sea. I love to live near the great expanses of water. From afar, the sea looks clear and uncomplicated. But, when you are actually in the water it could be rough and complicated. My writing is just like the sea. Deceptively simple and uncomplicated, but, in the end, it prompts you to ponder."

And ponder his presence in Cairo certainly made me, for one among many observers of this, the age's most glaring literary phenomenon.

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