The Alchemist of Banality

(This wasn’t a hatchet job, just a little light rapier work. Published in the Business Standard, February 2010.)

“Paulo Coelho… has a poor vocabulary. What are his merits? The same as Isabel Allende. He sells books.”

Roberto Bolano was one of the towering literary figures of this century, a writer discovered and feted as the new Borges, the new Cortazar. His response to Paulo Coelho is a classic: in its brevity and sharp dismissal, it captures the critical response to the bestselling writer. Bolano’s brief lines are the ultimate putdown: I think so little of your work, he is saying, that I will not even do you the honour of engaging with it before dismissing it, and you.

I have read some of Coelho’s works, but for this article, I am foolish enough to try to re-read all of them in the space of a month. Statutory warning: this is not recommended for the faint-hearted. For a week afterwards, I speak in oracular bromides: “Follow your dream,” I tell my rapidly diminishing tribe of friends. “When there is no way backward, there must be a way forward. Find your inner warrior. Don’t let him beat the shit out of your inner wimp.” Also, you will offend many Paulo Coelho fans if you refer — inadvertently but compulsively — to his work, Veronika Decides to Die, by the title Veronika Deserves to Die.

But the new biography of Paulo Coelho—A Warrior’s Life by Fernando Morais (BookArmy, Rs 599, just released in India)—is riveting despite its solemnity. I am not gripped by Coelho’s work—read in bulk, his weaknesses are glaringly evident. He recycles old myths, badly; he writes in hyperbole, bromides and his characters speak in oracular pronouncements; his erotic explorations (Eleven Miles, The Devil and Miss Prym) would not have been acceptable as rejects from the wastepaper baskets of Vargas Llosa and Jorge Amado; and as Bolano noted, he has indeed a poor vocabulary. But the life Coelho has led has all the fire, excitement, hubris and epic force his works promise but lack.

Coelho was born in Brazil to a well-off family but soon slid down the rails of rebellion. He was a poor student; his parents over-reacted by placing him in mental institutions on two scarring occasions. He was at one stage of his life a heavy drug user, good at picking up women if sensitive about his 1.69 metre height (“it remains this height to this day”, Morais intones), struggled to make it as a lyricist and as a writer, was prone to mystical experiences, suffering on occasion from the after-effects of his electroshock therapy. He was imprisoned by the government for his “subversive” lyrics and tortured. He dabbled heavily in black magic—one of his early contributions as a writer was to The Practical Manual of Vampirism — and had a life-changing spiritual experience on the road to Santiago.

All of this is refreshingly different from the kind of author’s blurb that reads: “X was born and lives in Poughkeepsie and attended creative writing school at the institution of Y. Her work has been published in the literary magazines M and N.” But it also obscures the real Paulo Coelho story, his determination to become a “world-famous writer”; his faith in himself, never letting his intentions falter, believing in his own dreams.

His first book, Hell Archives, was a rambling failure that touched on homeopathy, astrology, William Blake and visions of torture and martyrdom in the Inquisition. By the time he wrote The Alchemist, he had found his touch. Today, Coelho spells cult, for millions of readers around the world, and he manages his business empire with flair and élan. He is respectful of fans, takes on book pirates through new file-sharing technologies, and keeps his eye on the main question: has his new book sold more copies than the last bestseller? He makes sure, as much as any author can, that the answer to this is yes.

Instead of offering a Coelho takedown, here is a pastiche of quotes from his novels. Condensed here is the essence of Coelho’s wisdom—or, depending on your perspective, banality.

“The boy and his heart had become friends, and neither was capable of betraying the other. Every Warrior of the Light has hurt someone he loved. That is why he is a Warrior of the Light, because he has been through all this and yet has never lost hope of being better than he is. When I had nothing to lose, I had everything. When I stopped being who I am, I found myself. Love is an untamed force. When we try to control it, it destroys us. When we try to imprison it, it enslaves us. When we try to understand it, it leaves us feeling lost and confused. The girl was playing the music with such soul because she knew she was going to die. And am I not going to die? Where is my soul that I might play the music of my own life with such enthusiasm? When you really want something to happen, the whole universe conspires so that your wish comes true.”

And so perhaps Coelho, who has received his share of critical slams, will not take it to heart if I say that while I am glad his wish —to be the world’s most widely read author —came true, he might also have wished to be a better writer while he was at it.

9 comments

  1. big fan and all…tell me one thing why aren't you ever there on HLR and does it have something to do with the bitter sweet relationship you seem to have with it? (judging by the space you give it " but it comes out only once a month")_ uninitiated but very admiringly yours, Manish Jha

  2. The Hindu? I used to write for it years ago, and still read it with pleasure. There was no major reason I stopped writing–think it had something to do with cutting down on my freelance work while I was in publishing. I do miss its weekly/ fortnightly avatar, and wish the monthly supplement was at magazine length–that would be fun.

  3. aah….wonderfully put, that last sentence. imagine, they used to gift the alchemist to motivate employees at work….my wife got a copy. imagine, coming home after a hard day's work to read the interminable 'iff' loops that coelho so loves to weave.

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