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Magic, mystery, fables

Roshen Dalal turns the spotlight on Paolo Coelho, author of The Alchemist and other books.

books Updated: Mar 20, 2004 14:54 IST

Paulo Coelho is a versatile writer, with books including accounts of secret Catholic sects, pilgrimages and visions of angels, as well as explorations of magic, mystery and psychology.

In his best known book, The Alchemist: A Fable About Following your Dream, Coelho tells the story of Santiago, an Andalucian shepherd, who dreams one night of treasure in the far off Egyptian pyramids, and literally sets off to follow his dream. Finally he meets a real alchemist, who guides him on a spiritual path.

Coelho, a Brazilian, pursued his childhood dream of writing, but did not have an easy journey. In fact as he chose to follow a somewhat unconventional path, his parents thought he was deranged, and thrice had him incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital.

Coelho did not give up, and first attained some success in writing songs, and a political comic strip. The latter led to his arrest, and he was freed only after convincing the authorities that he was insane, and not responsible for his actions.

Encouraged through a chance encounter to return to Catholicism, the religion of his birth that he had abandoned because of its rigidity, he joined a Catholic sect, RAM (Regnum Agnus Mundi), and embarked on a pilgrimage to the shrine of San Tiago (St. James) in Spain. His account of this journey,

The Pilgrimage

(1987), first brought him some success as a writer. This was followed by The Alchemist, which initially did not do well, but later made him famous and known throughout the world.

Other books include The Valkyries, a fictionalised account of his encounter with an angel, By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, The Fifth Mountain, and Manual of the Warrior of Light, all of which have new age spiritual themes. The Devil and Miss Prym, examines the classic struggle between good and evil, while Brida is about the gift that every person carries within. Veronika Decides to Die, is a somewhat different book, based on his own experiences in a psychiatric ward. Here he tries to understand the reasons to go on living, when everything seems futile.

His latest book, Eleven Minutes, is an account of a young Brazilian woman Maria. Though ostensibly about a prostitute, it is also about the sacredness and beauty of love. Thus his books explore some complex and relevant themes.

Like other new age writing, Coelho's books reduce the world to something a bit too simplistic and straightforward, even as he talks of hidden signs, symbols and mysteries, which if understood, can guide one through life.

Despite this, there are no great prose or poetic passages, though this may be a problem of translation. A typical passage from

The Pilgrimage

illustrates this: "I began to climb, with my face against the humid rock. In ten minutes I was almost to the top. Only one hurdle remained: the final phase, the place where the water fell over the the crest on its trajectory toward the lagoon."

Like other new age writing, Coelho's books reduce the world to something a bit too simplistic and straightforward, even as he talks of hidden signs, symbols and mysteries, which if understood, can guide one through life. The claim he makes is that it is always possible to realise one's dreams, provided one never gives up. Anyone familiar with the lives of great artists, writers and musicians of the past would know that many followed their dreams, but were recognised and appreciated only long after their death. And there were many more, in all walks of life, who still remain unknown. Yet it is this simplistic promise of hope that leads to the popularity of books of this kind.

Coelho also writes articles and essays. His Letter to Bush at the time of the Iraq war, has received worldwide appreciation for his anti-war approach. He has received several awards and his work has been translated into 56 languages and has sold millions of copies.