BORN: 1947, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The Pilgrimage (1987)
The Alchemist (1988)
The Gift (1991)
Veronika Decides to Die (1998)
Paulo Coelho. Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images
Brazilian author Paulo Coelho has penned several books that have been translated into English and numerous other languages. They include The Diary of a Magus: The Road to Santiago and The Alchemist. According to a reviewer writing in the Economist, Coelho’s ‘‘stories are packed with proverbs, parables and advice (or ‘sharings’ as he prefers) that resemble entries in a New Age self-help manual: pursue your dreams, resist temptation, banish ‘negative thoughts,’ listen to your heart.’’
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Troubled Youth. Coelho was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1947. He was raised to be a devout Catholic, and this strictness could be partly responsible for his seeking other forms of spirituality. in addition, he was raised to be a lawyer, but he decided relatively early on to pursue other interests.
As a young man, Coelho was committed to mental hospitals on three occasions by his parents, who did not understand their son’s wish to become an artist. In his novel Veronika Decides to Die, Coelho questions his involuntary commitment. His protagonist, twenty-four and working in a library in Ljubljana, Slovenia, despairs over her inability to make changes in her life and the world. She overdoses on sleeping pills in a suicide attempt and finds herself in Villette, the infamous asylum for the insane. As Veronika meets other patients and becomes aware of their diagnoses and treatments, she questions the definitions of mental illness and the use of drugs to alter people who fall outside descriptions of what is considered normal. Following the original publication of the book in Brazil, new laws were put in place to restrict involuntary commitment. In 1998, with book sales exceeding twenty-seven million in over one hundred countries, Coelho became the second-best-selling author worldwide.
Wide-Ranging Interests Coelho has worked as a journalist, a director, and a songwriter. He wrote many songs but is most famous for those written with musician Raul Seixas in the seventies. In addition to his jobs and creative endeavors, Coelho has traveled a great deal, most notably on the lengthy, ancient Spanish Road to Santiago, which he writes about in The Pilgrimage.
Brazil was transformed from a democracy into a military dictatorship following a coup in 1964 and remained a dictatorship until 1985. Coelho was imprisoned (and reportedly tortured) in 1974 for antigovernment activities, including his musical collaborations with Seixas and their unconsummated plans for an anarchistic society. He was a recording executive in the late 1970s, first for Polygram, then CBS, and he founded the Instituto Paulo Coelho, a nonprofit organization to help underprivileged Brazilians, with his wife, Christina Oiticica, in 1996. He is currently an adviser to UNESCO and active on the Web and in film. He and his wife split their time between Brazil and France.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Coelho's famous contemporaries include:
Elena Poniatowska (1932—): Mexican author and journalist best known for her work commemorating the 1968 massacre in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City.
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986): Coelho based The Alchemist on this famous Argentine writer's Tale of Two Dreamers.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927—): Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novelist and magic realist writer.
Raul Seixas (1945-1989): Popular Brazilian songwriter who collaborated with Coelho.
Works in Literary Context
Journeys. The Alchemist concerns the journey of a young Spanish shepherd to Egypt. As his odyssey progresses, the shepherd undergoes a spiritual transformation and receives advice from various old sages, gypsies, desert people, and an alchemist he encounters. Coelho used the short tale Thousand and One Nights to lead him, as he explained in a UNESCO Courier interview: ‘‘I took four guiding ideas from it: the personal legend, the language of signs, the soul of the world, and the need to listen to one’s heart.’’ Coelho also remarked on the journey of writing the book: ‘‘The rest was vague, like being in a fog. The only thing I knew was that the boy would eventually return to his starting point.’’
Obsessions. Coelho calls upon his interest in the spiritual world in The Zahir: A Novel of Obsession. In Arabic, the title word means ‘‘the obvious’’ or ‘‘unable to go unnoticed’’; essentially an object that inspires fanatical focus and pursuit, or obsession. The novel revolves around a writer whose wife has disappeared with someone who is most likely her lover. The writer’s search to find out exactly what happened to his wife takes him from Paris to Kazakhstan, but it is in reality a journey of selfdiscovery as he learns that he really can never find his wife until he finds himself. In an interview for HarperCollins, Coelho explains the emotional difference between reaching for a personal goal and becoming fixated on an object, fantasy, or idea: ‘‘If you pursue your dreams as Santiago did in The Alchemist, you are enjoying each step. But if you are searching for the Zahir, not only you do not arrive there, but your life will be full of anxiety.’’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Coelho explores the theme of humankind's spirituality and quest for alternate forms of faith and knowledge. Here are some other works that emphasize some people's search for wisdom via mystical means and physical journeys:
The Dharma Bums (1958), a novel by Jack Kerouac. In this novel, the famous Beat writer chronicles his journey to a remote mountain, where he finds peace and wisdom in solitude.
The Teachings of Don Juan (1968), a book by Carlos Castaneda. This controversial novel/memoir claims to be about the author's journey with a knowledgeable shaman.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), a novel by Robert M. Pirsig. In this novel, the narrator and his son question the nature of reality and delve into metaphysics while on a cross-country motorcycle trip.
Works in Critical Context
Despite being a favorite of readers, Coelho often endures criticism from reviewers, who, as one Economist contributor noted, ‘‘denounce him as a charlatan, a bore, a seller of snake oil.’’ Although critics recognize readers’ interest in Coelho’s ideas, they often fault his writing.
The Alchemist. The Alchemist did not receive widespread critical attention in the United States, although the novel did garner some favorable reviews. School Library Journal contributor Sabrina Fraunfelter commented that ‘‘this simple, yet eloquent parable celebrates the richness of the human spirit.’’ A reviewer asserted in Publishers Weekly that the book ‘‘has the comic charm, dramatic tension and psychological intensity of a fairy tale.’’ Booklist contributor Brad Hooper noted: ‘‘Beneath this novel’s compelling story and the shimmering elegance with which it’s told, lies a bedrock of wisdom about following one’s heart.’’
Veronika Decides to Die. ‘‘Employing his trademark blend of religious and philosophical overtones,’’ wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor, ‘‘Coelho focuses on his central question: why do people go on when life seems unfair and fate indifferent?’’ The reviewer added that Veronika Decides to Die ‘‘will appeal to readers who enjoy animated homilies about the worth of human existence.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Look up the definition of new age and write a two-to three-page essay describing how this term applies to a particular work you have read by Coelho. Use specific examples from the text to support your ideas.
2. Read Borges’s Tale of Two Dreamers and The Alchemist. Write a six- to seven-page essay exploring how Borges’s work seems to have inspired The Alchemist. Use specific examples from each text to illustrate your findings.
3. With a few of your classmates, come up with a list of books, such as Veronika Decides to Die, that have helped shaped policy or alter laws and trends. You may use resources from the Internet or your library to aid in your search.
4. Write an informal essay explaining how a particular piece of Coelho’s fiction, like The Alchemist, can be viewed as nonfiction. Discuss how seeing the messages or themes in the book as conveying ‘‘truth’’ affects the reader differently than seeing those same messages or themes as mere authorial creations.
Asia Africa Intelligence Wire. ‘‘Paulo Coelho: A Global Writer Lives the Simple Life in France,’’ September 7, 2005.
Economist. ‘‘Loved by Readers, Hated by Critics,’’ March 11, 1995.
Elnadi, Baghat, and Adel Rifaat. Interview with author. UNESCO Courier, March 1998.
Flanagan, Margaret. Review of The Zahir: A Novel of Obsession. Booklist, September 1, 1995.
________. Review of The Devil and Miss Prym. Booklist, March 1, 2006.
Fraunfelter, Sabrina. Review of The Alchemist. School Library Journal, July 1993.
Hooper, Brad. Review of The Alchemist: A Fable about Following Your Dream. Booklist, May 1, 1993.
Kirn, Walter. ‘‘Dateless in Seattle.’’ New York Times, May 23, 2004.
M2 Best Books. ‘‘Brazilian Author’s Book Banned in Iran,’’ May 16, 2005.
McGrann, Molly. Review of Veronika Decides to Die. Times Literary Supplement, October 8, 1999.
Publishers Weekly. Review of The Alchemist, March 22, 1993.
Publishers 'Weekly. Reviews of Veronika Decides to Die, April 3, 2000; July 11, 2005.
Mudge, Alden. ‘‘Identity Crisis: The Many Faces of an Amazing Traveler.’’ Accessed from http://www.bookpage.com/0204bp/hari_kunzru.html.
Paulo Coelho Home Page. Accessed April 26, 2008 from http://www.paulocoelho.com.
Paulo Coelho on The Zahir: Author interview. Accessed from http://www.harpercollins.com/author/authorExtra.aspx?authorID=1858&isbn13=9780060825218&displayType=bookinterview.
Warrior of the Light Web site. Accessed April 27, 2008, from http://www.warriorofthelight.com/.