A week after Paulo Coelho’s latest offering, a novel about distasteful excess, arrived in Crossword book store in Mumbai, it climbed to No.3 of the store’s best-seller list. His most popular novel, The Alchemist, which was first published in 1988, still sells on Indian streets. In fact, it is the most translated book in the world.
The Winner Stands Alone: Harper Collins, 373 pages, Rs325.
The 61-year-old author’s appeal has obviously not waned. Is it because, in his own pop way, Coelho has sold ideas of Eastern spirituality and mysticism to the world?
The new book, set in the Cannes Film Festival, has come out soon after an adaptation of The Alchemist premiered on the Mumbai stage. Directed by Mahesh Dattani and produced by Ashwin Gidwani, the musical ran to a packed house when it opened on 18 April in Mumbai.
It was my first brush with Coelho’s work. Unlike most of Dattani’s earlier plays, it is a work of very large scale. Gidwani has said that his budget for the play, in the making for the past three years ever since he acquired the rights to adapt it from Coelho himself, is Rs15 lakh.
For the few who are unfamiliar with the story of The Alchemist, here it is: Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy, harbours thoughts of marrying a merchant’s daughter. One day, he has a dream in which a child tells him to go to the Egyptian pyramids, where a treasure meant for him is hidden. After much soul searching, Santiago decides to go. On his way, he is guided by the alchemist, a mystic, who becomes the instrument of Santiago’s self-discovery.
Dattani’s musical has two Santiagos—one is the Santiago on a journey towards his destiny, the other narrates it after he finds his treasure. All the characters—the two Santiagos, the Chrystal Merchant, the King, Fatema and the Alchemist—have their own distinct point of view. Written by film critic Deepa Gahlot, the role of the alchemist is played by actor Mohan Kapoor (he said it’s his comeback role) and that of the young man is played by first-time actor Tarun Singh Negi.
Mohan Kapoor and Tarun Singh Negi in ‘The Alchemist’.
It’s a beautifully produced adaptation—the sweeping sets, the innovative use of lights and good, a rich, eclectic score, and some overacted performances don’t drown what The Alchemist is supposed to be: a fable about human failings and how to follow one’s dream.
After watching the play, I picked up Coelho’s new book, The Winner Stands Alone, where Coelho seems to say that those in need of his brand of pop-spirituality now are the glitzy set who congregate at the Cannes Film Festival.
Psychiatrist Igor Malev reaches Cannes in search of his former wife Ewa, who left him for a fashion designer. Once he’s there, amid the hedonism, he embarks on a day of gruesome violence. Coelho disdains this world, yet he delineates it with a lot of pain (incidentally, it was in Cannes, two years ago, that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein bought the rights to produce The Alchemist with a budget of $60 million, around ).
Paul Coelho in Brazil.
I laboured over 100 pages of the book—he was better on stage, not over 373 pages when all that’s happening is mindless, largely unexplained violence, with a moral voice judging everyone in the book because they are oh so rich and decadent.
This one, in fact, could be great material for an American-French indie thriller on screen.
The Alchemist, at St Andrews Auditorium, Bandra, Mumbai on 30 April, at 7.30pm, and on 1 May at Tata Theatre, NCPA, at 6.30 pm.