Books: Audience with the alchemist

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The Independent Culture
Paulo Coelho's simple fables about omens,

myth and redemption sell millions of copies

worldwide. Alix Sharkey goes on a Personal

Quest to meet the Brazilian literary wizard

When I eventually spot him standing on the other side of the restaurant, I wonder why it took me so long. First, he is dressed entirely in black. Second, his smile is so warm and welcoming that I almost turn and look over my shoulder. Striding towards this small, compact man with silvery hair and goatee beard, I find myself looking for the flash of white starch on his collar, and realise he reminds me of a priest. At close quarters though, the eye is drawn instead to the luxurious cashmere of his blazer, and that slim but substantial gold watch.

"Please, please ..." he says, ushering me to his table. He thanks the waitress for serving tea, simply and politely. Clearly, Paulo Coelho is a very nice man, every bit as relaxed and charming as you might expect a Brazilian millionaire to be. Even so, I can't help feeling a little defensive.

During the last decade, you see, Paulo Coelho (pronounced Kwayl-yo) has become one of the world's best-selling authors, and one of the few to deserve the widely flaunted tag, "publishing phenomenon". His five books have sold a total of 15 million copies, been translated into 36 languages, and published in 74 countries. Along the way he has collected literary awards like some people collect parking tickets. The French, who adore him, recently awarded him the Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres - their most prestigious literary gong.

Yet the British press has paid scant attention to his books, despite very respectable UK sales of around 200,000. We seem to have a cultural blind spot for Coelho's popular mysticism, tending to lump him in with the New Age "cult" market. The problem, of course, is that he writes about spirituality, a topic which makes us anxious and uptight when it is discussed in public, rather in the way that sex once did.

However, it seems to work for just about everybody else. His latest novel, The Fifth Mountain, has just been published, and already he has visited Switzerland and Italy to promote it. Tomorrow, he says, he is off to Ireland, Japan and China. After a month watching the World Cup in Rio ("like a fan"), he resumes his tour. Australia, New Zealand and Japan again, then Korea, Israel, Turkey and Greece. Then it's back to Brazil for two more months, followed by the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Finland and Iceland.

Coelho's international success began in 1993, when The Alchemist was translated into English. By then he'd already published four novels in Brazil, but The Alchemist clearly hit a nerve. A deceptively simple fable about a young Spanish shepherd who goes in search of a buried treasure, it is written in the sparse, almost biblical style that Coelho has made his own. An instant hit with the young and existentially challenged, it quickly transcended its cult status, and remains his most successful book to date.

Even the Islamic republic of Iran has warmed to Coelho - a remarkable fact when you consider that an unmistakably Christian deity is the eminence grise behind most of his work. Yet not only has a pirate edition sold 300,000 copies there, but now somebody has pirated the pirate, as it were, and published The Alchemist - The Full Version, complete with an extra 100 pages. None of them written by Paulo Coelho, who, naturally enough, is intrigued to know what he left out of a novel that has sold nearly five million copies so far. On a more conventional note, Warner Bros has since acquired the film rights, and lined up Claude Lelouch, whose credits include A Man and A Woman and Les Miserables, to direct.

Remarkably, the book was almost stillborn. "It was published in Brazil in 1988, and in its first year sold only 900 copies. So my first publisher told me he didn't want it any more. He gave me back my contract and told me the book wasn't for the Brazilian market.

"I was lost, I was crazy, going mad. But then I thought about the book's moral, which says, when you want something badly enough, the universe conspires to help you."

If there is a reason for Coelho's success - and the British reluctance to embrace him - it is this New World optimism. Again and again he restates this motto: make your life a quest to realise your own Personal Legend, your particular destiny - whatever that might be. Let nothing stand in your way - especially not pride or despair. And never, ever give up.

"I do believe everybody has a Personal Legend," he says, "and must realise it. I am totally convinced of that. But this is not an ego trip. To recognise your Personal Legend doesn't make you special. It makes you normal," he chuckles. "Because that's exactly where you're supposed to be, doing exactly what you're supposed to do. Whether you want to or not."

Perhaps, but at times this came off a bit pat, especially when his characters mouth therapeutic commands such as: "If you have a past that dissatisfies you, forget it now ... Imagine a new story of your life, and believe in it"; or right-on affirmations like, "I came to care deeply about what I was doing, and I discovered something: the meaning of my life is whatever I wanted it to be."

If the dialogue can falter, his strength lies in his compulsive narrative style. For Coelho creates credible characters, and then manipulates their fortunes, dashes even their modest dreams and confronts them with dream- like, symbolic challenges that resonate with the reader's own hopes and aspirations. In The Fifth Mountain he uses the biblical tale of the prophet Elijah, a young man who hears voices and has a big problem with women, to urge readers to follow their inner convictions beyond unimaginable pain and sorrow. And in world where such conviction is so rare, it is not difficult to see why he has captured the public imagination. Indeed, The Fifth Mountain begins with him relating his own Damascene conversion to the creed of perseverance.

Now 51, Coelho was born into a middle-class family in Rio de Janeiro, the son of an engineer. He dismisses the idea of a spiritual background with a wave of his hand. "A Jesuit education," he says, "is the quickest way to lose your faith." However, in the next breath he claims to have been a hippy "when spirituality was a part of it," and later got involved in a sect that practised black magic based on the works of the satanist Aleister Crowley. He also studied Buddhism and Zen.

After dropping out of law school in 1970 to travel throughout Latin America, Europe and North Africa, he returned and started writing lyrics for Brazilian pop hits (for which he still receives royalties). But that old black magic got him under its spell, earning him three short but very disturbing periods in jail: apparently, the military junta of the time decided that his lyrics, based as they were on Crowley's libertarian philosophy, were subversive. It was enough to scare him into "going straight".

"The paranoia is worse than anything else. When you realise you live in a country with no human rights, the prison is inside of you. You control your own thoughts." And so, despite a yearning to become a writer, he forged a career as a successful recording executive with CBS Brazil.

It went well, he put writing out of his mind. One morning in 1979 he was getting ready to fly to America for the biggest meeting of his career when - without warning or explanation - he got a call telling him he'd been sacked.

"I said `OK, I'm so curious about spirituality, and I'm trying to control this force inside my self. So, now I have to try and understand what it means.'

"I had $17,000 that I'd saved to buy an apartment. So I said to my wife, `Let's travel, because I have to try to find the sense of my life. And whatever it is, it must cost less than pounds 17,000, because that's all I have.'"

His rite of passage was to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, an ancient Christian pilgrimage from the foothills of the Pyrenees to the Galician capital on the Atlantic coast, where legend has it that the apostle James is buried. "Before that I had never dared to write a book. Because then I'm dealing with my dreams, I can't say any more, `Oh, that's not important in my life,' or `Oh, I was forced to do that.' It hurts when you are trying to do something that is meaningful to you. But I knew after that I had to write a book." That book was The Pilgrimage, a Brazilian bestseller.

Coelho went back to Catholicism, but is quick to stress that though he believes organised worship is important, he does not equate religion with the spiritual search. "I am a Catholic, I go to church and pray with others. But I don't say to the priest, `Guide me.' Nearly nine millennia ago, in Sumeria, they created a wall between the temple and the city. And we still have this wall inside us. We separate the sacred and the profane. And we have to tear this wall down, and understand that everything is sacred."

Does he really believe this is possible in a modern, secular, consumerist society? In an age as cynical as our own? You bet he does.

"If you are open, if you give the sense of sacredness to every moment of your life, then everything is sacred. And then you have to learn this strange, symbolic language, which I call the Language of Omens. For each of us, it's a different language, our own personal language. My signs are not your signs, and to learn them we have to make mistakes. And that takes courage and discipline."

But if he is a Catholic, where does he stand on rebirth? After all, the Pope is clearly not having it, thank you very much. And yet at the end of The Fifth Mountain Coelho seems to allude to it.

"Well, that is a very clear biblical reference to reincarnation," he corrects me, "when Christ tells Matthew that St John the Baptist is Elijah. And I do believe in it."

Well, that sort of talk, I say, won't get him an invitation to dine at the Vatican, will it?

"Oh," says Coelho, "I was with the Pope two weeks ago. You can get the photos from Associated Press." He laughs conspiratorially, shaking his head and adding, "Oh, they're wise. They know, they know."

What, I demand. What do they know?

"They know that the church is a living body, that things are changing, that some people have to dare to talk about certain subjects, like I do about the feminine face of God, for example. And rebirth. It takes time, maybe 100, 200 years, perhaps ..." he beams, "but they will accept it." And once again, he looks just like a priest.

`The Fifth Mountain' is published by HarperCollins at pounds 12.99