Idealised tale of hyped-up New Age writer


PETER CUNNINGHAMreviews A Warrior’s Life: A Biography of Paulo CoelhoBy Fernando Morais Harper Collins, 470 pp, £18.99

IT IS hard to argue with a man who has sold over 100 million books. This seems to be the line taken by Brazil’s Academy of Letters, which, after years of snubbing Paulo Coelho, decided in 2002 to elect him to their ranks. Brazilian literary critics took the same view. In 1990, describing his work as “one of those books which, once you’ve put it down, you can’t pick up again”, by the end of the century Coelho’s critics had become as starry-eyed as his publishers the world over.

Coelho’s slight books are simple allegories woven out of the author’s alleged mystical experiences and served up with enormous publicity to a worldwide audience hungry for “New Age” pop psychology. This approved biography of Coelho, which at times lurches into hagiography, will be of interest not only to Coelho’s many fans but also to anyone interested in the art of self-promotion.

The fixity of purpose that Coelho brought to his lifelong ambition to become an international celebrity is examined in detail. He suffered enormously for being different. Incarcerated in mental institutions at his father’s behest, he was subjected to electric shock therapy. He spent much of his 20s and 30s experimenting with drugs in company with numerous women. When he became a successful songwriter, he was incarcerated by the secret police of the Brazilian dictatorship and tortured for his subversive views. Yet, his dream of becoming a writer never faded.

Alongside this commendable persistence, he comes over unattractively in his early life, His diaries wallow in self-pity. Coelho delved into Satan worship and vampirism in an attempt to find a vehicle to promote himself. In the end, good old Christianity would be his medium.

The line between reality and the hallucinatory has been deliberately blurred by Coelho throughout his life. Mysterious gaps in time and experience are left unexplained. Coincidences and occult omens abound. Bad trips on LSD are recounted as actual Satan encounters.

This kind of creepy mysticism is lapped up by the writer of this biography. In 1982, aged 35, and five years before his first real book, The Pilgrimage, was published, Coelho visited Dachau concentration camp in Germany. Although most people would feel moved for the tens of thousands who died in Dachau, for Coelho it was an opportunity to indulge in more self-pity.

Later in Bonn, after a month-long binge of pot and hashish, we are asked to believe Coelho met a total stranger, who turned out to be the spiritual guru who would change his life forever. Over the next 10 years or so, Coelho was “sent” by “J”, his “Master”, on a series of tests to places such as the Mojave desert. The writer would then come home, lock himself away for a few weeks and knock out a book that went on to sell the standard five million copies.

Coelho’s appointed biographer plays along happily with the idea that the writer is merely a vehicle for spiritual forces greater than himself. Who is the master with the initial J? Does J stand for Jean? Jesus? As is usually the case whenever someone tries to cross the frontier of his mystical world by asking too many questions, Paulo Coelho neither confirms nor denies this.

It would be hard to come up with a more elaborate concoction of mystical balderdash. But then, it’s nice work, if you can get it.

Peter Cunningham’s most recent novel The Sea and the Silenceis published by New Island