‘When the world fails to end in the year 2000, perhaps that will end this fascination with the work of Paulo Coelho.’ — Wilson Martins, literary critic, O Globo, April 1998
A knock on the door Saturday morning, and there was the postman with a parcel. My eagerly awaited biography of Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, A Warrior’s Life by Fernando Morais.
My first thought was the size, A Warrior’s Life is the size of a large dictionary. But then could a comprehensive account of a life as eventful as that of Paulo Coelho be anything less?
We think of celebrities as larger than life, accompanied by an entourage of minders. Is this to protect the celebrity or to simply ensure that the public never gets the chance to get close enough to discover the emperor has no clothes?
Fernando Morais first met Paulo Coelho at Saint-Expéry airport. Here was this unassuming guy dressed in black on his own with a rucksack on his back.
As a journalist, I am used to accompanying international names and stars and imagined I would find him surrounded by bodyguards, secretaries and assistants. To my surprise, the man with whom I would spend much of the following three years turned up alone, with a rucksack on his back and dragging a small suitcase on wheels.
Fernando Morais was given unprecedented access to all Paulo Coelho’s archive material, a locked trunk containing his innermost thoughts, he talked to his friends (and his enemies), followed him around. The result, A Warrior’s Life.
To date the only biography of Paulo Coelho has been Paulo Coelho: Confessions of a Pilgrim a series of informal conversations with Juan Arias. A Warrior’s Life was therefore eagerly awaited.
So far I have dabbled, and A Warrior’s Life is ideal for dipping into. You can learn a lot just from the photos. This is just a sample of my dipping here and there.
Wherever Paulo Coelho goes on official visits, he is treated like a rock star.
Manual of the Warrior of Light inspired the 1998/1999 Versace collection.
When Paulo Coelho wrote a couple of pages for the Audi Annual Report, and they asked him how much he would like to paid, he said nothing, but he would like a new car. They shipped him a 100,000 euro black Audi Avant.
The venom with which critics in Brazil attack Paulo Coelho. A literary establishment, names no one has ever heard of. It is not only Brazil. I recall not long after publication of The Winner Stands Alone reading a couple of reviews. What had been written was complete and utter garbage.
But why I ask myself? I would not rank Paulo Coelho alongside Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy or Zola, I would even say not as good as Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Orhan Pamuk or Pascal Mercier, but that is not to say Paulo Coelho cannot write, far from it, he is a great writer, one of the best. Talking to friends who read his books, friends who do not read trash, they rate his writing highly. Which only goes to show you do not read what critics dictate as they are only talking gibberish.
I hate bad literature, it makes me inwardly groan. I enjoy the pleasure of well-crafted works. I have yet to read anything by Paulo Coelho that could be remotely described as bad literature.
The situation in Brazil was at one time so bad that a cartoon suggested that putting Paulo Coelho on the school curriculum would make the students more stupid!
And can it get worse? Yes, a student who wrote a thesis not critical of Paulo Coelho was attacked and accused of being his mistress!
Such is the antagonism towards Paulo Coelho, that a Brazilian delegation to Paris Expo made a point of not inviting Paulo Coelho, the best known Brazilian author. But this badly backfired as his publisher mounted a stand at the Expo with Paulo Coelho as the star attraction. French President Jacques Chirac made a point of warmly greeting Paulo Coelho, with the Brazilian First Lady who was accompanying him looking on. Chirac was to later to make him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, the highest award in France.
I was surprised at the extent Paulo Coelho scrutinizes his book sales, closely monitors the best-seller lists, almost to the point of obsession, especially as he is quite happy for books to be downloaded for free from Pirate Coelho. But then considering his background maybe not so surprising. For his first two books, The Pilgrimage and The Alchemist, he and his wife Christina were out on the streets handing out flyers. Before becoming a writer, his background was that of a record producer.
I was shocked at the amount being spent to promote his books, and wondered was it necessary. Authors like Paulo Coelho spread by word of mouth.
Paulo Coelho is a best-selling author in Russia and yet in the UK he is virtually unknown.
He has four properties: an apartment in Rio, another in Paris, a converted mill in the foothills of the Pyrenees, where one of the rules of the house is that if you are a house guest you accompany Paulo Coelho on his daily walk, plus a mansion in the Middle East donated by a grateful admirer.
He has no secretarial or other help, just a cook, though he does have an agency that collects press cuttings, helps organise his itinerary when on tour.
The Fifth Mountain, the story of the Prophet Elijah had to be rewritten when more facts emerged about the prophet.
For reasons not known, the Infant Jesus of Prague has a special place in the heart of Brazilians. On a hippie trip across Europe, Paulo Coelho visited the infant Jesus of Prague and made a special request: ‘I want to be a writer who is read and respected worldwide.’ He realised he was asking a lot and ought to offer a gift in return. He looked up and noticed the infant had a rather threadbare cloak. He promised: ‘When I am a well-known author, respected worldwide, I will return and bring with me a gold-embroidered cloak to cover your body.’ In 2005 Paulo Coelho returned to fulfill his promise. He brought with him a gold-embroidered cloak made by Christina’s mother.
I was surprised how little of the biography focused on recent years, just the last few chapters. The bulk of the book is on childhood and the years leading up to the writing of The Pilgrimage and The Alchemist, or what could be seen as the life that made the writer.
On his sixtieth birthday, Paulo Coelho sat down on his daily walk and wrote a letter to thank Fernando Morais for the work he had undertaken. At the time he admitted to many regrets at letting access to his archive material, but was pleased he had allowed the project to go ahead. His letter is published at the end of the biography.
Why am I writing to you? Because today, unlike other days, I have an immense desire to go back into the past, using not my own eyes, but those of someone who has had access to my diaries, my friends, my enemies, to everyone who has been a part of my life. I should like very much to be reading my biography right now, but it looks like I’m going to have to wait.
Even if I don’t recognize myself in your book, I know that there will be a part of me there. While you were interviewing me and I was forced to look again at certain periods of my life, I kept thinking: What would have become of me if I hadn’t experienced these things?
That was August 2007. Two years later, following publication, Paulo Coelho was to comment on the biography on his blog.
Still to read: childhood, incarceration in a mental institution (the basis for Veronika Decides to Die), sex, drugs and rock n roll, black magic and Satanic worship, imprisonment and torture by the military, life with Christina, meeting J, the road back to Catholicism, and much, much more. But I am getting ahead of myself. Hard as it will be, I am going to resistance temptation and will set A Warrior’s Life to one side, and look forward to reading it cover to cover over Christmas.
A Warrior’s Life is an absolute must for Paulo Coelho fans. But I would also recommend it to others who may never have read his books or maybe never even heard of Paulo Coelho, as it is a fascinating read and very well written.