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

Alchemist super star

On arriving in Cairo, the phenomenally best-selling Brazilian author Paulo Coelho first landed in the offices of the literary journal Akhbar Al-Adab -- where Rania Khallaf caught up with him

Readers' choice

It was 7.30pm and the literary pop star, as Publishers Weekly described him, was half an hour late. Writers, journalists, photographers were locked up in a chilly meeting room, waiting, like prisoners anticipating a legal representative. Suddenly, dressed in a black coat and black jeans with a trim white beard and a tiny ponytail, Coelho walked in -- a magician, or a priest. And listening to a welcome speech by novelist Gamal El-Ghitani, editor of Akhbar Al-Adab, Coelho, with a big smile, announced that he was happy to be in Egypt and deeply honoured by the company of fellow writers. "I know how difficult it is to be a writer. Now," he said seriously. "Let's begin our dialogue."

Translator Talaat El-Shayeb was the first to take up the invitation and, pointing to "something peculiar to your writing that tends to be missing in our fast-paced world", asked Coelho the secret behind the identification of so many readers with both him and his characters.

"I really don't know why my characters are so popular in different parts of the world and in different cultures," Coelho replied. "I don't have a ready made formula to apply when I embark on a new book, but I'm always controlled by many elements: discipline, compassion and a sincere eagerness to understand myself.

"When I start a new book, I try to approach myself from a different angle. In The Alchemist, for example, I was trying to explain to myself what writing means to me, and the way to do that was metaphor, not autobiography. In Eleven Minutes, I started with the question of why sexuality is considered one of the major issues in life." ("A basic fact," El-Ghitani interjected at this point, with a chuckle.) "But I had my doubts. And that's why the hero asks if it's true that the world could revolve around 11 minutes. I talked a lot about sexual relations in the novel, but in the end I doubt if the world really revolves around sex. In my latest novel, The Zahir, on the other hand, there is a kind of a snapshot of my present moment as a famous writer. The novel is full of comments on what it means to be rich and famous, on the nature of marriage and the responsibilities of the writer.

"I come from a country that has no tradition of literary translation. I write in Portuguese, so the only way my books could overcome the language barrier was through the enthusiasm of translators." Coelho stopped to nod at novelist Bahaa Taher, translator of The Alchemist, who first introduced the Brazilian to Arab readers. "Taher is a good example of intellectuals eager to translate what they think is worth the effort. In the end," Coelho went on, giving in to the free flow of his thoughts, "every man in the world is searching for the meaning of life.

"There are, I believe, three main roads to that meaning: science, art, and religion. Symbols of science, art and magic can be found in primitive cave paintings in France. And the Pyramids are another example of such symbols. Anyway, one can choose one of three roads to find out the real significance of his existence. Every artist, in the process, reinterprets the same symbols for a new generation; this is what I do in my books."

It was at this point that Taher followed in the footsteps of El-Shayeb, with a comment on the secret to Coelho's popularity residing in his choice of universal themes: inner feelings, relationship with society and the quest for the unknown. "Though your novel The Alchemist is comparable to Jibran Khalil Jibran's The Prophet, it had a deeper effect on many readers, some of whom I met personally. They said it changed their lives? How, to rephrase an earlier question, do you explain that?"

"It is a very important question," Coelho said. "The comparison with Jibran flatters me a lot: The Prophet was written in 1923, but it's still alive. And I wrote The Alchemist in 1993; it still affects people... Unlike the work of James Joyce, for example, both books are easily accessible. They do not target a cultural elite but masses of people, who can understand and relate. I was very surprised that Joyce's Ulysses was chosen as one of the best novels of the 20th century, when we have so many other writers whose works touch the souls of people. I think some writers set out to alienate the reader from society by making their work over-sophisticated.

"But in this regard -- my approach to literature -- I believe I'm not alone. There are other authors, symbols who guide and influence our lives. I owe a lot to three writers who changed my own life: Borges, the British poet William Blake and Henry Miller, who gave me the initial stimulus to write. When I read Miller, I said to myself, 'Ok, this is literature.' He was a rebellious writer whose books were censored for years, and that in itself was meaningful for me. That he could nonetheless give me such a push. But equally I benefited from A Thousand and One Nights, which you can read as a child, as a teenager or an adult, each time at a new level..."

Novelist Youssef El-Qaid brought up other -- possible -- influences: Jorge Amado? "Amado is the best Brazilian writer. He portrayed the Brazilian spirit to the world. But I'm more interested in human conflicts. Even if I have a Brazilian identity that I am very proud of, Brazil is not the subject of my books."

Referring to The Alchemist, Al-Qaid altered his strategy: "The book is partly set on Guiza Plateau and deals with Islamic concepts. How did you have the courage to write about such profoundly unfamiliar subjects -- things you had never before experienced?"

But alarmed by police sirens, Coelho said, "Let me just make sure they're not coming for us," prompting a long burst of laughter, before he proceeded: " The Alchemist was based on my reading, but then I had to go and see the real world I was writing about."

Does Coelho seek answers, Al-Qaid prodded.

"Absolutely not," he screamed dramatically. "My works pose more questions than answers."

But why, asked novelist Mahmoud El-Wardani, are they full of spiritual parables and self-help anecdotes at a time when violence is tearing down the world? A good point, this.

"It's true I've talked about Islam, Christianity and Judaism in some of my works. But there are novels, like Eleven Minutes, that do not deal with religion at all..."

Novelist Somaya Ramadan took the issue further: "You were keen on expressing your stance on the war in Iraq, in your famous open letter to President George Bush, but your works, somewhat surprisingly for me, do not reflect anything political at all."

"I wrote that statement because I felt I had to express my rejection of the war on Iraq. I am not detached from my work, which stands for things I believe in. If you are talking about political commitment, then everything we do in life is politics. Commitment should be reflected in one's behaviour, the way we talk to people, everything."

Asked about the fine line separating saintliness and insanity, Coelho referred to Veronika Decides to Die : "The Human Rights Declaration states that all men are equal, but there is a mistake here, because all men are really different. Yes, we have to have the same opportunities, but what I mean is that the society tends to generalise and impose a standard, deciding what is normal and what is not. When someone goes against what society wants him to do, they give way to a mess; society doesn't know what to do with them. The important thing here is to achieve an inner balance regardless of the requirements of society.

"I experienced that kind of conflict when I was 17." (Coelho's parents committed to a mental hospital when he expressed his desire to be a writer.) "However, I did not feel like a victim. From that moment on, I realised I'd have to fight for my right to be different. The task of any artist is to support this idea: people are different."

El-Ghitani concluded with a question about Coelho's writing habits. "I only write books because it is my career. I'm in love with life, full of energy. I love meeting people, listening to music and travelling, and once every two years, I tell myself, 'Now it is time to write.' I have thousands of ideas in my head, but only one wins out."


Addressing hundreds of students the next day at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science, Cairo University campus, Coelho (suddenly without his ponytail) looked more relaxed: "My books have been translated into 56 different languages. Of course I can not evaluate the quality of the translations, because in most cases I can only identify them by my photo on the cover."

How like Borges's is his writing technique? "Borges is a very important person in my life. His works have a great influence on me. I remember when I started writing, I made up my mind to go on a 48-hour bus journey from Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires just to meet him. He was sitting in a café and I couldn't bring myself to talk to him in the end.

"For years I used to hear the claim that books are dead, that people no longer read. And suddenly we got this new medium -- the Internet -- which encouraged millions of young people worldwide to read and search for information -- answers to their endless questions. The Internet helped divide people into groups interested in religion, stamps, even cooking. And this is a good thing, I believe, because it makes people read more."

What are the common grounds of Egyptian and Brazilian culture? "Our two countries' peoples are somehow related. It is difficult to isolate Latin America from the Middle East, because we have a common background. I spent years reading about Arab and Islamic culture, but when I visited Egypt and Morocco, I discovered another image. People here are very welcoming, tolerant, peaceful, and they have this respect for the other.

"I've had many great mentors in my life. But I can identify any person walking on the street as my teacher. I learn from ordinary people, those who have not lost faith in life. If you pay attention to your neighbour, you will learn. Any person can be your teacher for a single moment. But you must never give others the power to guide you, or else you will end up lost."

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