Paulo Coelho

This first appeared in the Sunday Independent in September 2007

A trail of publicity leads me steadily toward Paulo Coelho. At Manchester airport the main lobby is dominated by a huge poster alerts passengers that his new book, the Witch of Portobello, is coming soon. In the gloomy train station another huge hanging tells me I’m still moving in the right direction. The rain streaked windows of the bookshops we pass on the way on the way trough town are already emblazoned with his name.

As I arrive at his five star hotel the man himself is sitting down to lunch but graciously defers his hotdog (yes, a hotdog) for a few moments and moves away from his all female retinue so we can chat in peace. In person he is small, delicately proportioned and the only real giveaway that it’s actually him and not another expense account businessman is the monkish little wisp of white hair at the back of his head. He presses my hand warmly. This, he tells me mischievously, is all a glorified excuse to get out of the house. ‘I don’t need to sell myself, I’m just here to pay respect to my readers and sign some books. And you know, writing can be fairly lonely. I couldn’t stay at home and be completely isolated from the world.’

This seems to have been something of a theme for him recently. In the month before we meet he invited 10 of his fans to a party in his house in Santiago. ‘It was through my website. Of course many more people wanted to come, so I said I’d just take the first 10 who emailed me. They were from all over the world – Japan, Venezuela, Qatar and so on.’

Then it emerged that there had been some terrible misunderstanding. The fans had been silly enough to think that their multi millionaire literary hero was actually going to pay for their flights and accommodation. ‘I had to break the news to them that I wanted to stick to my word but I meant it was just going to be a party for a few hours.’ They came anyway. ‘For them it seemed like some kind of pilgrimage’ he adds, mildly bemused.

Paulo has always had the ability to inspire almost religious style fervour in his readers. He doesn’t have fans so much as followers. Since the publication of his first book the Pilgrimage in 1987 he has slowly snowballed into an unparalled literary phenomenon. He has sold 65 million books, making him the best selling author in the world, ahead of Dan Brown, John Grisham and even the seemingly unassailable JK Rowling. More than any other author his sparely written parables seemed to capture the modern obsession with self help and spirituality.

He bristles ever so slightly when I mention this. ‘I don’t consider the spiritual element in my books to be the main framework. I can write about prostitution like I did in Eleven Minutes or about madness as I did in Veronica Decides to Die. In the Witch of Portobello there is a lot of discussion about spirituality but not just that. What probably links me to my readers is much more the questions than the answers.’

Of the supposed self help element to his books he tells me ‘if the books are going to help anyone it’s me. They are a journey of self discovery for me, to find out who I am. If I can take some people with me, that’s a bonus.

He may not like the ‘sage of spirituality’ label but the feeling that you are in the presence of some kind of nattily dressed oracle is inevitable. His heavily accented English is peppered with the same nebulous axioms and mysterious musings that appear in his books (which are first written in Portuguese and then translated into English). When between thoughtful drags of his cigarette he talks about ‘vibrations of peace’ or says ‘We are in a constant process of expiring as human beings… everything we see here was here before we came here… from this moment on your life is meaningless’, you feel torn between asking what the hell that means really and going away and thinking about it. I’d read that he can be a little cranky but today even when he’s interrupted mid thought by an awestruck (and very handsome) autograph hunter he responds warmly and generously.

If he’s serene now he tells me it was hard won. As a young man he had his share of difficulties. He’d always wanted to be a writer but his deeply religious parents interpreted this as a sign of mental illness and placed him in a mental institution. (This wasn’t so bad in a way, he adds because ‘if anyone criticised me after that I could say ‘leave me alone, I’m mad’’). As an adult he made a career composing lyrics for Brazilian rock singers and became involved in an anarchist group which was considered by the local military to be subversive. Coelho was imprisoned and tortured with electric shocks to the genitals, an experience he describes as ‘difficult to forget… I was scared to death.’’ He didn’t publish his first book until he was 38.
He tells me that ‘time heals everything’ and today he is involved in with Amnesty International and other organisations that campaign for civil rights and an end to torture. He has also founded a school for street children in Brazil, where he lives for part of the year with his wife, sculptress Christina Oiticica. The other half is spent in their house in the Pyrenees.

His publicist hovers nearer, signalling that time is almost up. He not only signs a book for me but kisses it and gives me a big hug. I grumble aloud about travelling straight back to Dublin that evening and it prompts this remiscence. ‘In 1982 we (his wife and he) had a bit of money. We quit everything and decided to go travelling. The ship arrived in Dublin in the early hours of the morning. I remember the city in the dawn – it was so beautiful. We tried to find a hotel. It was the Adelphi hotel. I’ll never forget that time. I adore your country. You are lucky to be going back there.’ I tuck the blessed book under try to repeat this to myself on the walk to the train. And suddenly the queues at the airport don’t seem so daunting.

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~ by Donal Lynch on January 21, 2008.

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