BOOKS APRIL 5, 2013
Do you like Paulo Coelho? You’re in good company. Acolytes range from Will Smith to Madonna, and, more recently, Joe Jonas, who said of Coelho’s most famous book, The Alchemist ‘‘[The book] is a story about the endless search of finding out who you truly are … it brought some stability into our wild ride of a life." In his ‘‘Author’s Note’’ to The Alchemist, Coelho mentions that Bill Clinton and Julia Roberts are also fans.
The celebrity endorsement is a crucial part of Coelho, Inc. But it’s not the only ingredient in his myth-making enterprise. Every paperback edition of his sixteen books has a three-page ‘‘Author Biography’’ printed at the end, a hagiographic summary that informs us that the author has always been a ‘‘seeker of the new.’’ In case you missed the point, the bio concludes that Paulo has ‘‘touched the hearts of people everywhere.’’ This is hardly PR overreach; it’s how Coelho himself talks of his life and his work. He puts his writing forward as profound meditation on the meaning of life, death, and God. One hundred and forty million people have bought his books.
If you’ve absorbed any of Coelho’s incredible commercial success, without actually reading the 65-year-old, Brazilian author, it’s genuinely shocking to realize just how shoddy and lightweight his books are, how obvious and well-trodden their revelations. It’s tough to pick the most clichéd lines when there’s such choice, but here are a few of the best. From The Alchemist (1988): ‘‘Why do we have to listen to our hearts?’ the boy asked. … ‘Because, wherever your heart is, that is where you’ll find your treasure.’” From Veronika Decides to Die (1998): ‘‘And all of us, one way or another, are insane.’’ From The Zahir (2005): ‘‘God knows that we are all artists of life.’’
But the vapidity of Coelho is not his greatest sin. Nor is it the relentless self-promotion. At the heart of Coelho’s ostensibly encouraging philosophy is a brutal logic: If you’ve made it, your success is thanks to the mystical powers of positive thinking; if you haven’t, it’s your own fault for not trying hard enough. No credence is given to luck—good or bad—to geography or family background, to the substantial difficulties of economic and social mobility. All of these factors can be subsumed by focus and drive and single-mindedness. It’s a strikingly callous denial of reality, hedged in cuddly fairy tales.
What is it in Coelho’s writing that has convinced so many millions of readers of his sagacity? In part, it is the universality of his central theme: A young person sets out on a spiritual quest, discovers that his elders are no wiser than he is, and ultimately realizes the power for change comes from within. In The Alchemist it’s a shepherd boy, in The Witch of Portobello an orphan, in Brida an apprentice witch. But if you read more than one Coelho, it quickly becomes clear that he is not interested in the nuances of various spiritual awakenings; he’s really only interested in his own. A structure that might do what the best bildungsromans do—chronicle growth, enlightenment, expansion, discovery—becomes a narrow celebration of the author. Plenty of fictional writers include versions of themselves in their work—Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Charlie Kaufman, etcetera. But what makes Coelho’s version so insufferable is that it has evolved into mere brand management.
Coelho-as-protagonist began tentatively. In Veronika Decides to Die (1998), twenty-something Veronika takes a few packets of sleeping pills while reading an article about Paulo Coelho. Then, in the following chapter, Coelho interjects, speaking (in the third person): “Half shy, half extrovert, he had the desire to be an ‘artist,’ something that everyone in the family considered a perfect recipe for ending up a social outcast and dying in poverty.’’ It’s not enough that these biographical details are already included in the back pages, they must be forced awkwardly into the story itself, lest the reader forget Coelho’s own authenticity and suffering.
By the 2000s, Coelho-as-character, and his career, had become the central story of his books. In The Zahir, the narrator is not explicitly named Coelho, but we are given a few not-so-subtle hints: ‘‘I … look back over my life, a young man who dreamed of becoming a famous writer …” The young iconoclast rebels, travels the world, and ends up “earning more money than his sister”—a dutiful “chemical engineer.” Later, the author character considers his progress: ‘‘I have a large apartment with a view over the Seine, I am loved by my readers and loathed by the critics.’’ Having the Coelho character praise Coelho’s brilliance is nauseating, but it makes a certain sense: By discussing his rise and real estate acquisitions, his followers might continue to learn from his success. His accomplishments also provide the plot for The Aleph, in which the main character, Paulo Coelho, is travelling on a publicity tour on the Trans-Siberian railway. (Along the way, he fends off the advances of a beautiful 21-year-old devotee who insists on accompanying him on the journey.)
Coelho’s most recent work, Manuscript Found in Accra, may at first seem a departure. The book is a faked-up historical document, purporting to be a record of July 14, 1099, when the city of Jerusalem was besieged by crusaders. Surely there will be no author character here, no chapters padded with stories of publishers’ dinners and swatting off of ardent readers. "This evening," Coelho writes, "a group of men and women of all ages went to see the Greek, whom we all know as The Copt." Uh oh, this is ominous. A Coelho avatar emerges, and spouts forth the lamest, the most cloying, and the dullest faux biblical speak since Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. ‘‘The gazelle eats the grass and is devoured by the lion,” Coelho writes. “It isn’t a matter of who is strongest, but … the cycle of death and resurrection.’’ This is no more than Lion King lite and a classic Coelho tactic: taking a self-evident truth and repackaging it with an air of arcane, pre-modern wisdom.
Coelho’s witterings are at least relatively inoffensive when they’re borrowed from Disney rather than just wrong. Take, for example, this snippet of profundity in Manuscript Found in Accra: When a child emerges “from a woman’s womb,” Coelho writes, “it doesn’t matter how many people are present; the final decision to live rests with the child.’’ And this is where the real Coelho creepiness comes in. Behind all the blandness, bad writing, and relentless self-promotion are just the barest bones of a philosophy or moral system, and what’s there isn’t so straightforward or harmless. The idea that even a newborn can make choices about whether to live or die is baffling, but it is actually just Coelho’s “everything is possible” philosophy carried to an absurd conclusion.
The worst aspect of Coelho (setting aside the fuzzy prose, which does a good job of concealing the greater flaws) is his absolute failure to genuinely, movingly, and convincingly, depict pain and suffering—the types of obstacles that positive thinking, however forceful, often cannot overcome. For an author who seems intent on reconciling his readers to an entire universe of love and death and fear, he never comes close to sadness or misfortune in a way that seems anything other than cosily solvable.
Though Coelho talks unceasingly about Good and Evil, he cannot write characters who are human enough or situations that are believable enough to suggest either. Even his novel about a woman who unwillingly becomes a prostitute, Eleven Minutes (2003), contains no more misery than usual—just a few more sex scenes. The only characters who come close to villainy in Coelho are cartoonishly wicked, like the doctors who run the mental hospital in Veronika Decides to Die, referring to their patients as ‘‘the organism’’ and giving them outdated or unnecessary treatments. He alludes weakly to ‘‘religious wars, genocides, a lack of respect for the planet, economic crises, depression, poverty’’ in two hurried paragraphs at the beginning of Aleph, but rapidly leaves these uncomfortable topics and returns to his book-signing schedule, sexual dilemmas, and aikido classes.
This isn’t surprising. A realistic depiction of human difficulties would invalidate Coelho’s core teaching: every obstacle is surmountable and believing is all. The Alchemist lays out the grim future for those who don’t yearn sufficiently for their destiny: “Most people see the world as a threatening place and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place.’’ This is the alarming flipside of Coelho’s vapid optimism: Anyone in dire circumstances is suffering because they think it’s possible to suffer.
In Coelho’s most recent work, the Copt finishes one speech with ‘‘Blessed are those who hear these words or read this manuscript … there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed to you. Go in peace.’’ This echoes the popular image of Coelho as that of a loveable multi-faith guru with no real convictions other than the Interconnectedness of Stuff. But under the platitudes Coelho’s philosophy has always been a harsh worldview: unhappiness or lack of fulfilment is only for the weak and unfocused. And increasingly in his books, success can only be measured against the author and the obstacles he has overcome. The gospel of self-reliance has never been so trite or unforgiving.