In France, Australia, Spain, and Brazil,
    naturally, he has been a constant guest of the best seller lists. The
    US market has been a little harder to crack, but magus Paulo Coelho is
    getting there.

    Bondo Wyszpolski

    “It doesn’t matter which nationality and language we speak. We share the same ideals, the same passions, the same quests.” (Paulo Coelho)

    Paulo Coelho owns the best seller list in Brazil.
    Really. A couple of months ago, if you’d have picked up the Folha de
    Săo Paulo (the biggest newspaper in Brazil, with more than one million
    copies), you’d have noticed four of Coelho’s titles among the top ten
    fiction, and one title — just to rub things in — on the top ten
    non-fiction list. O Alquimista, in particular, has been like a starfish
    on a rock; for five years no one has been able to pry it off the
    charts, and in South America alone it has sold over two million copies.

    Harper San Francisco has just released the paperback
    edition of O Alquimista, in English The Alchemist: A Fable About
    Following Your Dream (177 pp., $10), as well as Coelho’s re-packaged
    first work, The Pilgrimage: A Contemporary Quest for Ancient Wisdom
    (226 pp., $12), which was originally published in this country (and in
    Brazil) as the Diary of a Magus. In September, The Valkyries: An
    Encounter with Angels will be hitting local bookstores.

    These short and simply written works tend to combine
    spiritual and inspirational ‘new age’ ingredients with distinct fairy
    tale qualities, much like The Little Prince. They’re ‘feel good about
    yourself’ books, but they’re also charming, thoughtful, and easy to
    read.

    Coelho has yet to become a big sensation in the
    States, but this success is nothing if not worldwide. The Alchemist has
    topped the best seller lists in France, Spain, and Australia, was
    recently published in Japan, has been optioned for film by Warner
    Brothers, and in September it will be released by a major publishing
    house in Italy. So, although he lives in Rio de Janeiro with his wife,
    Christina, Coelho has become, by necessity if not by choice, a globe
    trotter of the first order.

    The three of us sat down together in Los Angeles
    recently as Coelho began an extensive US tour that will take him across
    the country and even into Canada. I’d met the Coelhos twice in 1993,
    when Paulo was here to talk about The Alchemist after it was first
    published in English, and so the following interview was not as
    impersonal as many interviews tend to be, especially with someone of
    international stature.

    Paulo, I say, when you travel to all these different
    countries — which you seem to do all the time — do you ever have the
    chance to relax and just sight-see?

    “There are moments, yes; and there are moments when
    it is impossible. Right now in the United States it will be impossible.
    I arrived on Saturday evening [we met Monday morning]. Yesterday I went
    to walk around and I knew that it would be my only free day during this
    tour. I tried to profit as much as I could.”

    Harper San Francisco’s got him on a tight leash, all
    right. “My itinerary is that thick,” Coelho says, indicating an
    imaginary portfolio about an inch deep. For example, minutes after our
    talk concluded he was appearing in France — via satellite — to
    receive a writing award.

    Coelho grumbles a bit, but then who enjoys waking up at five o’clock to catch a plane?

    Nonetheless, “This is very exciting,” he states
    matter-of-factly; “This is a unique moment in my life and I try to live
    it with as much intensity as I can.”

    It’s exciting, I say, but I’m sure that sometimes when you sit back and think about it, it must be very surreal, too?

    Coelho acknowledges that the ramifications of his
    success are beyond his grasp. He says he does not dare to think about
    it or try to explain it, because “Either I’ll be fearful or very proud,
    and these are very dangerous things. It’s better to keep a distance. To
    be aware of things, but never to lose your innocence.”

    It’s an important point, because we all know that fame can often exact a terrible price.

    “The danger exists,” Coelho admits. “I hope to keep
    my innocence intact. Of course I’m not dumb, I know that I’m a big
    business and there are those sides of business that I have to be very
    aware of. But up to now I think I have kept a naiveté.”

    In other words, he’s not jaded yet.

    What about the depletion of energy? Even popular rock’n’roll artists aren’t on the road this long.

    “I’ve been touring for almost two years. I started in
    1993 with Australia, Argentina, Chile and the United States, and from
    that moment on I didn’t stop.” He did have two months to himself in
    Brazil last summer. “But this was all. I’ve been touring all over the
    world, all the time.”

    Apart from the energy it demands, it must also take away from your time to write?

    Coelho agrees. “But you know, in Brazil we have a
    saying, ‘When it needs to, the frog can jump.’ The same thing goes for
    me. I thought at the beginning that I could only write in my office
    with my desktop computer, and then I discovered that this is not true,
    that I could do it wherever I am.”

    He illustrates this by saying that he’d once had the
    notion of going up to the mountains, sitting in front of a tranquil
    lake, and composing inspired prose. However, “I never, never could work
    like this,” because the external stimulus is missing. He says he wrote
    his first four books in Brazil, “with the fax and the phone ringing,
    and my friends calling me; and then I can write a book. But if I go —
    and I’ve tried this, of course — to a fantasy landscape with mountains
    and loneliness and time to write, then I can do nothing. Nothing at
    all.”

    Which isn’t all bad. Because when September rolls
    around, Coelho will be on the world-circuit once again: Italy, Japan,
    the Scandinavian countries, and probably back to the US to promote The
    Valkyries. “But, like the shepherd in The Alchemist,” Coelho says, “I’m
    still on a constant pilgrimage through life.”

    If he seems a bit tired on the morning we meet, it’s
    probably the jet lag (there’s six hours difference between Rio and
    L.A.), but overall his spirits seem just fine: He’s up and in for the
    long haul. “This is the only way that I have to contact my readers, to
    get in touch with people. This is the best thing about the job. You are
    never a foreigner, you are always there because your book was there
    before you and it shows people who you are. And then when you go there
    you have ‘soulmates’ to meet and to talk with.” Your book is like a
    calling card, I tell him. Coelho laughs. “Exactly,” he says.

    “To see my book doing well in several different
    countries, it shows that there are things that we share, that we are
    the same. It doesn’t matter which nationality and language we speak. We
    share the same ideals, the same passions, the same quests.”

    One reason for Coelho’s international success may be
    that word-of-mouth occasionally transcends national borders, especially
    in Europe where one country’s best seller list is carefully eyed by
    another. And sometimes international travelers will come back from a
    far-off land with tales of a particular book, thus arousing some
    interest in it before the translation has been completed.

    When you travel the world, do people ever expect you
    to be a spokesman, not only for the books you write, but for other
    Brazilian writers who are not as well known?

    “I don’t think so, ” Coelho replies, “Because to
    begin with my books are not typical Brazilian literature. Nonetheless,
    I hope I can open the door for Brazilian writers… In a certain way
    I’ve profited from the situation of Jorge Amado.”

    In the United States, Amado remains the best known
    Brazilian author — and I like to think I’ve helped to sustain the
    momentum in some small way, having written about The War of the Saints
    for the Los Angeles Times — but lesser known figures like Rubem
    Fonseca, Ignacio de Loyola Brandăo, Moacyr Scliar, Joăo Ubaldo Ribeiro,
    and the late Osman Lins — are also worth reading.

    “I’m a fan, I’m a groupie of Jorge Amado,” Coelho admits, “because he’s very, very important for us.”

    Not only that, Amado stood up for and defended Coelho
    against unfavorable and harsh criticism. “Even with these very tough
    reviews,” he says, “I acquired an immense public that grows and grows.
    Today I’ve sold nearly four-and-a-half million copies of my books. This
    has never happened in Brazilian literature. I’m very proud of my
    country and my people, because I’m not one who had to go abroad to be
    recognized.”

    In your books there’s sometimes a sense of the future, a glimpse of things to come.

    “I believe neither in the importance of the future
    nor in the importance of the past, past lives and that; I don’t believe
    this. I do believe in the present — that we can change either the past
    or the future. Perhaps my characters foresee things, but they know that
    all these things are linked to the way that they were going to behave
    in the present. In any case, I think that the present is our gift. It
    is the most important part of our life and we can change any future
    that we have if we live the present intensely.”

    Coelho’s remark reminds me of Octavio Paz, in
    particular his 1990 Nobel Lecture, published as In Search of the
    Present. As Paz writes, “The present is the source of presences.”

    Are your other books, or those you’re planning to create, along the same lines as The Alchemist and The Pilgrimage?

    “They are not the same,” Coelho answers, “But I
    always focus on this message of ‘Be faithful to your dream, and fight
    for your dream, and pay the price of your dream.’ I always try to focus
    on this because this is my personal quest also.

    “In my books, I’m very attentive to the signs.”
    Indeed, there’s an omen every few pages or so in both of his translated
    words, and woe to the one who ignores them. These signs don’t always
    make logical sense, Coelho says, and we may have to rely mostly on our
    sixth sense, our intuition.”

    “This is important for us,” he emphasizes, “To be
    aware of all the signs around. Even if they don’t have logic they are
    most powerful.”

    As if on cue, several people enter the lobby where
    the three of us have been sitting alone. Although they are not
    literally ejecting us from the room, the sound of scraping chairs and
    shuffling feet clearly unbalances the equilibrium we’ve attained during
    the course of our hour long conversation. Christina, Paulo, and I smile
    and laugh and look at one another with knowing glances. This was a
    sign, all right. It was time to go.

    Master of oneself

    How Petrus shows the author and its readers the path to self enlightenment and reining in the moment.

    Bondo Wyszpolski

    The Pilgrimage, by Paulo Coelho, translated by Alan R. Clark ($12 paper, Harper San Francisco, 226 pp.)

    “Even if I were not able to find my sword,” writes
    Paulo Coelho, “The pilgrimage along the Road to Santiago was going to
    help me find myself.”

    The 700-kilometer trek between the French city of
    Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and the Spanish cathedral of Santiago de
    Compostela was undertaken by the author several years ago, and became
    the inspiration for the first of his many books to be published in
    Brazil. Coelho’s US publisher has re-released it to coincide with the
    paperback edition of The Alchemist, as well as to herald the impending
    hardcover publication of Valkyries: An Encounter with Angels.

    Without going into the order of RAM, the magical sect
    in which Coelho aspires to become proficient, I’ll simply say that the
    author’s “adventure of traveling towards the unknown” is both literal
    and metaphysical, or physical and spiritual. As befitting any novice
    who seeks enlightenment, Coelho is assigned a guide: During the course
    of their few weeks together, Petrus shows the author several mental
    exercises to increase his self-mastery in different areas. The reader,
    too, is invited to use these formulas for personal enrichment.

    The book’s simplicity — it has a soft, soothing,
    quiet tone –works well in its favor. The search, as fable-like
    searches tend to be, is open to everyone who is receptive, willing, and
    patient. The real goal, of course, is the journey itself: Mastering the
    present moment carries us to our heart’s desire. It’s a message that
    appears in The Alchemist as well.

    Petrus, who is closer to Castańeda’s Don Juan than to
    Dante’s Virgil, tells the author that “When you are moving towards an
    objective, it is very important to pay attention to the road.” Heed the
    signs, the omens, he says. We walk the road; later, the road walks us.
    This concept seems to echo Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery
    [with the archer ‘becoming’ the arrow], as well as Miyamoto Musashi’s A
    Book of Five Rings.

    Two other primary themes arise. One, we must fight
    the good fight; do not be deterred by fear from setting out to achieve
    what you desire. Two, follow your dreams (there’s a well put
    inspirational pep-talk on pages 50-52). Coelho tells us that often
    people don’t pursue their dreams because they wouldn’t know what to do
    with them if they achieved them, and that many times people will stay
    with what they have, however detrimental, only because it’s familiar to
    them.

    The Pilgrimage — chockfull of sagacious one-liners
    — gently addresses these issues. I tend to prefer The Alchemist, and
    feel that The Pilgrimage is simply more of the same. My friend Kari, to
    whom I gave both books, red them back to back and says she prefers them
    equally. We did, however agree that they are uplifting and easy to
    digest, and will likely appeal to a wide audience.

    The Alchemist, an excerpt:

    That night, the boy slept deeply, and, when he awoke,
    his heart began to tell him things that came from the Soul of the
    World. It is said that all people who are happy have God within them.
    And that happiness could be found in a grain of sand from the desert,
    as the alchemist had said. Because a grain of sand is a moment of
    creation, and the universe has taken millions of years to create it.
    “Everyone on earth has a treasure that awaits him,” his heart said.
    “We, people’s hearts, seldom say much about those treasures, because
    people no longer want to go in search of them. We speak of them only to
    children. Later, we simply let life proceed, in its own direction,
    towards its own fate. But, unfortunately, very few follow the path laid
    out for them — the path to their destinies, and to happiness. Most
    people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the
    world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place.

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