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Writer Mystery

Paulo Coelho, At Peace With The Inexplicable

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2004; Page C01

MONTPELLIER, France -- "I'm a very famous author all over the world, totally unknown in America," says Paulo Coelho.

True. He's one of the most successful writers on the planet, yet virtually unrecognized in the United States. According to the industry newsletter Publishing Trends, Coelho's latest novel, "Eleven Minutes," appeared at the top of more best-selling fiction lists around the world last year than any other novel, including the Harry Potter volumes and John Grisham's "King of Torts."

Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho signs copies of "The Alchemist" at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2003. (Michael Probst -- AP)

In the United States it's another story. Published in the spring by HarperCollins, "Eleven Minutes" has not landed on the top-selling fiction lists of either The Washington Post or the New York Times.

Mysterious, that. But Coelho is a man at peace with the inexplicable. "Nobody can explain successes," he says, speaking in his particularly crypto-mystical way. "One can only explain defeats.

He says, "We are dealing with a lot of things we can't understand."

The sky darkens as he rests his elbows on a patio table. He is at Le Petit Jardin, a small cafe in the historic center of this town in southwest France for midday repast and rumination. It's bound to rain, but Coelho is in no hurry. He speaks in measured sentences as he dines on shrimp and pate aux pruneaux, enhanced by the house red.

He's a compact man with close-cropped white hair, whitish goatee, tan skin and a black T-shirt. Behind blue-rim glasses that he wears low on his nose: dark eyes.

He has a tattoo on his left forearm. "It's a butterfly," he says, " the symbol of alchemy and transmutation." He is given to saying cosmic things.

Such as: "We are reformulating our values as human beings."

What might sound pretentious from others seems natural when Coelho speaks. He talks simply of complex things. "Emotions are much more effective," he says, when we want to communicate with each other.

He is not surprised that books addressing spiritual matters, such as "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" and "The Da Vinci Code," are so popular. "We are dealing with spirituality in a much more open way," he says.

"What are we here for? Sometimes we forget. Stories like 'The Da Vinci Code' reopen our horizons."

"We must recognize the feminine form of God," he says.

Then he pauses, chooses his words. "God is mother."

In the near distance, a church bell tolls once in the breeze. Coelho cocks his head and smiles, as if the sound is some sort of divine affirmation. "It is a sign," he says. And shrugs.

"Eleven Minutes" has been published in 39 languages in nearly 50 countries. "The Alchemist," translated into 56 languages in 150 countries, has sold more than 27 million copies worldwide since it was published in 1988.

Julia Serebrinsky, Coelho's American editor, has a theory about his phenomenal success.

"He writes about pivotal, transitional moments in our lives," she says. His novels, therefore, appeal to the many people in the world whose countries are undergoing deep, dramatic change.

"There is something about his writing," Serebrinsky continues, "that makes you find peace in your life."

She tells one more story about the author's international appeal.

Serebrinsky was born in Moscow. Her family immigrated to the United States 25 years ago. Her parents go back to Russia every summer. A couple of years ago, Serebrinsky got a phone call from her mother, who had just returned from the old country. "You've got to read this author," her mother said. "Everyone is going crazy for him. His name is Paulo something." It was Coelho.

"Mom," Serebrinsky said, "I've told you a hundred times that I publish Paulo Coelho!"

As Coelho says, he's a very famous author totally unknown in America.

Well, not totally unknown. Coelho does have a loyal following in this country, and "The Alchemist," a fable about a Spanish shepherd who follows his dream, became a New York Times bestseller. His 15 or so other books, including this year's "Eleven Minutes," a novel about sexual exploration, have sold well but have not been national blockbusters.

Harold Petersen, an economics professor at Boston College, teaches Coelho's "The Alchemist" in his interdisciplinary "capstone" course for seniors. In the seminar course, students are encouraged to "think about where they've been and where they'd like to go," Petersen says.

" 'The Alchemist,' " he says, "so well captures the notion of life as a journey." His students love the book.

"Nearly everyone I have referred 'The Alchemist' to has loved it," Petersen says.

A few readers have felt that Coelho's story was simplistic, Petersen says, "but they just didn't get it."

Always provocative, Coelho's books stem from an extraordinary life. He was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1947 to an engineer and a housewife. He went to a Jesuit elementary school and won a prize in a poetry contest. According to his Web site, www.paulocoelho.com, his sister, Sonia, also won a literary award by submitting one of her brother's essays that he had tossed in the trash.

From an early age, Coelho knew he wanted to be a writer. His parents, however, tried to steer him toward a more practical skill -- engineering.

He rebelled. "I fought against my father and my mother," he says. "I was not obedient."

The tension became so unrelenting that Coelho's parents put their son in a psychiatric hospital off and on, beginning when he was 17. He was treated several times over the years with electroconvulsive therapy.

Eventually, the family gave up and accepted the fact that Coelho was a creative spirit.

He got involved in theater in Rio, let his hair grow long, toyed with various drugs and launched a short-lived magazine. When he met musician Raul Seixas in 1972, they teamed up to write rock-and-roll songs. Their second record, "Gita," became a hit in Brazil, selling more than a half-million copies. He and Seixas, according to Coelho's Web site, joined the anti-capitalist Alternative Society. And they flirted with black magic.

Between 1972 and 1982, Coelho penned scores of tunes -- with Seixas and other Brazilian singers -- and made tons of money.

Coelho and Seixas also published a series of anti-government comic strips for which they were thrown in prison. Coelho spent several weeks there. They were eventually released, but then Coelho says he was kidnapped and taken to a military detention center where he was tortured. He escaped death, he says, by telling his captors that he had been in and out of mental hospitals and by mutilating himself to underscore his point.

Hoping for some normalcy in his life, he went to work for Polygram record company. And he met the woman who became his first wife. They moved to London in 1977, but Coelho was unhappy and wanted to write again. He went back to Brazil and they divorced. He married twice more before settling down with an old friend, Christina Oiticica . "She is my fourth wife," he says, "and last."

In 1982, Coelho and Oiticica visited Germany. While touring the concentration camp at Dachau, Coelho had a vision. He says a man appeared to him. A few weeks later, Coelho ran into the ghostly man again at a cafe in Amsterdam. "You must close the circle," the man said crypto-mystically. "You will see the image of God in everything from now on."

The man instructed Coelho to rediscover Catholicism and to take the pilgrim's walk on the road to Santiago, between France and Spain. Coelho took the walk. In 1987 he wrote his first book, "The Pilgrimage," about his journey. Since then, he has written more than a dozen books.

Today Coelho and Oiticica live in a renovated water mill in St. Martin, in the Pyrenees. "We found the house in a little village," Coelho says, "by chance."

So much that has happened in Coelho's remarkable life has been by chance, he says.

Every morning when he is at home, he wakes early and takes a two-hour walk with Oiticica. "Once a week we climb a mountain," he says. After the hike, the couple practices kyudo, a form of meditative archery. Coelho shoots 24 arrows using one of three bows. "The best bows are from Italy," he says.

They shoot for nearly an hour. Then they eat a light breakfast and sip cafe au lait.

In the early afternoon, Coelho surfs the Internet and takes care of his business. His Paulo Coelho Institute, supported by a portion of his royalties, is a charity for children and families.

He writes fiction only when he has a story to tell.

He works fast. It takes him only a few weeks to write a novel. He then shows it to a handful of friends and revises accordingly. He publishes a book about every two years so he won't saturate the market. His next novel, "O Zahir," about a best-selling writer who walks the road to Santiago and who has everything, including a water mill in the Pyrenees, and is deserted by his wife, will be published in Brazil in the spring.

Coelho believes that all storytelling flows from four plots: a love story between two people; a love story among three people; the struggle for power; a journey. "The Alchemist," he says, is basically a retelling of "1001 Arabian Nights."

He returns to Rio de Janeiro three or four times a year. It's easier to live in France, he says, because there are fewer demands on his time. He has become such a celebrity in his home country that people are constantly approaching him on the streets and in restaurants. "It's easier to live in France," he says.

As if on cue, a pleasant woman from a table across the patio comes over and asks if he is Paulo Coelho. She wants autographs and several pictures taken with the patient author. He, in turn, bums a cigarette from her son.

He returns to his lunchtime conversation. "If you are not translated in English, you are nothing," he says.

Coelho marvels at his success. He is constantly hearing about pirated editions of his books.

He sells extremely well in disparate countries such as Iran and Israel. He cannot explain such a strange fact. He does not try. He appreciates life's little ironies.

"I always dreamed of having enough money to travel everywhere," he says, cigarette smoke swirling like a genie over his head. Now that he is richer than Croesus, he says, "I'm invited to go everywhere for free."

And go he does.

As he leaves, another woman, who has heard Coelho was lunching at the cafe, has brought several books for him to sign. One is a pirated edition. He signs it happily. He shakes hands with several well-wishers.

On the street, he continues to talk of things that cannot be explained. He finishes one sentence. Then another. Then another. With a shrug, he turns and ambles down the narrow street toward his car, which is parked nearby.

Everywhere now there seem to be signs. A church bell rings again. There is thunder in the charcoal clouds. In a few minutes, sure enough, gentle rains begin.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company