As we are informed on the inside cover of Paulo Coelho’s new work, The Witch of Portobello, Coelho’s inspirational fables about the power of human beings to shape their own destinies have sold more than 85 million copies worldwide. India is by no means short of books on spiritual wisdom, but Indian readers, too, have taken to Coelho in a big way: Coelho and Dan Brown must top the list of best-selling writers in English in India.
One is tempted to think that this is because Coelho’s message is so seductive. It is warming to be reassured that—as the central theme of The Alchemist has it—“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.”
At any rate, after two decades of being worshipped by readers and rubbished by critics, Coelho has devised an array of strategies to pre-emptively disarm detractors and sceptics. One of these is to throw a dissenting figure into the book, and then show his conversion. One such figure appears some way into The Witch of Portobello, a book about the remarkable spiritual feats of a young woman called Athena, who believes she is “a vessel in which the Divine Energy can make itself manifest”.
Athena, divorced and the mother of a child, works for a while as a junior employee in a bank, where she dramatically helps improve the efficiency of the bank employees by teaching them a dance that helps them find the Vertex (“The Vertex is hidden inside us, and we can reach it if we accept it and recognize its light”). Although disbelieving at first, her boss is eventually persuaded of her powers, and takes this understanding to a meeting of senior executives, where he asserts that “God hid the most important things from the wise because they cannot understand what is simple”.
The implication of this is that if we persist in being rational, there is no way in which we can penetrate the deeper truths of the world—the Soul of the World, as Coelho would put it.
A similar moment appears in The Alchemist, when the protagonist, Santiago, and his teacher, the alchemist, are travelling through the desert and are captured by Arab tribesmen. Searching their persons for valuables, the tribesmen only find a small flask of liquid and an egg which, the alchemist tells them, are the magical and coveted Elixir of Life and the Philosopher’s Stone. The Arabs laugh and let them proceed. This incident, the alchemist tells Santiago, is an illustration of one of life’s simple lessons: “When you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed.”
The Witch of Portobello, which takes the form of a series of reminiscences of the departed Athena (we are told she was murdered) by those who knew her, covers a territory far more obscure and arcane than that of The Alchemist. As always in Coelho, the characters are all trying to work out the meaning of life.
Some of their insights are relatively undemanding—who can disagree with “Our time on this Earth is sacred, and we should celebrate every moment”, other than to tell Coelho to go easy on the capital letters—and others pretty much irrefutable: “Music only exists because the pauses exist, and sentences only exist because the blank spaces exist.”
So far, so good—the wise can understand the simple. But as the book progresses, it turns into a farrago of pap sourced from around the world. Readers will find themselves in a vortex of mind-numbing assertions about the Great Mother, Philemon and the Doors of Perception.
Coelho’s contention, like that of many other New Age gurus, is that we have lost contact with the primeval energies that exist in the world, and in order to tap into them, we have to break down the structures of logic and “reality” and discover how everything is interconnected.
And for those dedicated readers who follow him all the way, there is even a plot twist at the end. Nothing more remains to be said, except to note Coelho’s penchant for the simple, telling final line. If The Alchemist ended with the bathetic “‘I’m coming, Fatima,’ he said”, The Witch of Portobello closes with the flourish of “Love simply is”. It can’t get any simpler than that.
Coelho’s journey from being a pop lyricist in Rio de Janeiro to the brand he is now
Paulo Coelho, 70, was born in Rio de Janeiro, where he also grew up and later became a lyricist. He wrote song lyrics for many famous performers of Brazilian music, such as Elis Regina. His most well known work has been done with Raul Seixas—a Brazilian rock star who was heavily influenced by American music of the 1960s, including Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Coelho and Seixas together produced 60 songs that include many hits such as ‘Eu nasci há dez mil anos atrás’(I was born ten thousand years ago), and ‘Gita'—based curiously on the ‘Bhagvad Gita, of which five million copies sold in Brazil.
At the age of 38, Coelho realized that his life’s calling was to be a fiction writer. While he was growing up, his parents disapproved of his spiritual bent of mind and even sent him to an asylum. Through the early 1960s, he travelled all over the world as a hippie and returned to Brazil. In 1986, he went on a pilgrimage to Saint James of Compostela—a Catholic pilgrimage destination in northwestern Spain, where the remains of St James the Great are supposed to be buried—which he documented in his book ‘Pilgrimage
In 1987, he published ‘The Alchemist’Slow initial sales convinced his first publisher to drop the novel, but it went on to become one of the best-selling Brazilian books of all time. It’s the story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy, who one night dreams of a distant treasure in the Egyptian pyramids. And so he’s off: along the way he meets many spiritual messengers. The book is a fable based on simple truths of life, akin in form and content to Richard Bach’s‘ Jonathan Livingstone Seagull’.
His literary influences are American novelist Henry Miller, poet William Blake, Brazilian writer Jorge Amado and Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.
Although Coelho has achieved great international success, his work has not been unanimously appreciated at home; his election to the Brazilian Academy of Letters was controversial because some Brazilian critics consider his works similar to that of self-help books. Religious authorities in Brazil have also criticized him, saying that his books are incompatible with Catholicism because they combine mysticism, spiritual exercises, meditation and supernatural experiences.
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