The Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho is a phenomenon. Before meeting him for lunch I looked for his novels in a bookshop. They were not shelved under fiction. The assistant directed me to the Mind, Body, Spirit section, looking at me as if I were a bit of an anorak for wanting to read him.
The Alchemist (1988), Coelho’s second book, at first sold just 900 copies but eventually gained a cult following. To date, this tale of an Andalusian shepherd boy who travels the world in search of wisdom has sold more than 30m copies. The essence of its appeal is the central idea, repeated over and over again in Coelho’s other books, that anyone can change their life.
This is a fundamentally false idea. Most people are trapped by circumstance. But I was fascinated by this writer who could persuade so many people otherwise. Born in 1947 into a middle-class family in Rio de Janeiro, Coelho rebelled against his strict Catholic parentage. He became a hippy, enjoyed success as a writer of pop lyrics, married (four times) and explored the world of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Naturally left-leaning, Coelho fell foul of the Brazilian military dictatorship and, in 1974, was imprisoned and tortured.
In 1986, when Coelho was 38, his fourth wife Christina Oiticica persuaded him to walk the pilgrim’s road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and he reconverted to the Catholic faith of his boyhood. It is a small-c catholicism, which embraces the wisdom of the east, the Bhagavad Gita and so on. The journey inspired his first book The Pilgrimage, published in 1987.
Now the star author has compiled extracts from his favourite “classics” for a book called Inspirations. The result is a typical Coelho blend of sex and piety – explicitly sexual passages from Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Gabriel García Márquez rub shoulders with the Desert Fathers and the Bhagavad Gita. It is a snapshot of Coelho’s mind.
The 62-year-old spends half the year in Rio de Janeiro and half in Geneva, and it is to the Swiss lakeside that I fly to meet him. We arrange to eat in the restaurant at the Hôtel du Parc des Eaux-Vives, an appropriately spiritual name. I look forward to drinking the fountains of living water from his conversation, but also to a five-star lunch.
As you approach, you see a delightful 18th-century chateau. But the building and park are owned by the city of Geneva, and the gardens have that deadly municipal feeling. I arrive early for our one o’clock appointment, greedily anticipating the delicious-looking menu – maybe homard de Maine en médaillons et taboulé de chou-fleur au citron confit, oeuf Avruga (medallions of Maine lobster with cauliflower tabbouleh with lemon confit and caviar), followed by joues de cochons cuites basse température aux senteurs de sauge (pigs’ cheeks slowly cooked with sage).
The restaurant is filling up. An ageing blonde and her paramour occupy one corner. Two men tuck into scallops and a bottle of white burgundy in another. Suddenly, Coelho is by the French window, waving. He is shortish, with a grey beard and a long wisp of white hair at the back. He wears a black suit, black shirt, black trousers and trainers. Once inside, he gives me a bone-crunching handshake. “When I lived in London the Financial Times was very important for me. My country had a military dictatorship. This paper was the only one which told me the truth about my country.”
I graciously accept his compliment to the FT and try to interest him in the menu.
“Are you into breakfast, lunch or dinner?” he asks me.
All of them, I reply.
“I eat breakfast and dinner. No lunch,” he says.
Since the format of the article had been made clear to him, I implore him to make an exception. What about a cocktail? “Only orange juice.” I order myself a gin martini with an olive and he says he would like the same. I ask where he learnt his English, which is fluent but, at times, grammatically suspect. “I became a hippie.” A roar of laughter.
The “martinis” arrive. They are warm tumblers into which someone has sloshed white Cinzano. No ice and no gin. I hate complaining so I am all for just ordering some wine but Coelho patiently explains to the young waiter how a New York barman would shake a martini. Perplexingly, he then switches his order to orange juice.
We settle into the interview. Coelho tells me he has become an internet junkie. So I ask how many hours a day he spends online.
“More than I should.”
You have more than 677,000 friends on Facebook, I say.
“Exactly.” Another roar of engaging laughter. “How do you know?”
They are mostly women, I suggest.
“Yeah, yeah ... In a normal Facebook page you can have a maximum of 5,000 people. Then if it is more than 5,000 people it changes. It turns into a fan page. As for women, there is only one place that I can see my readership – it is my signing sessions, which I do not do any more.”
Why did you give them up?
“In London three years ago we had to go to Borders in Oxford Street. We had over six hours’ signing. I am much more like a rock star than a writer. So I decided first I cannot sign all the books.”
It is time for us to order. Eventually, Coelho finds a simple boiled egg on the menu – oeuf de ferme Suisse cuit molle à notre façon (egg boiled “in our own way” – although their way of boiling an egg is very much like anyone else’s. They take the shell off, though). In the circumstances I can hardly order the menu gastronomique for myself, so I settle for fish – filet de cabillaud au beurre et au combawa (cod fillet with butter and kaffir lime).
Coelho asks if I have read Eleven Minutes (the world’s bestselling fiction title of 2003), which is the diary of a prostitute. Luckily, I can say that I have. Coelho tells her life story almost as if it is a fairytale. “Every one of us has one foot in a fairytale and another in the abyss,” he writes. The “11 minutes” of the title is the time it takes for one of her clients to satisfy himself, and she imagines the rest of his day while the procedure is taking place.
It is, I think, not only the boldest but the best thing he has written. The book is based on the diary of a real Brazilian woman who was working as a prostitute in Switzerland. He is bursting to talk about it and he does so while sipping his orange juice. I order a glass of house red, a Pinot Noir.
“I used her diary as the basis for the story.”
How did you meet her?
“It’s a very strange story. I was giving a conference in Mantova [Italy]. And in the middle of the multitude there was someone with a placard, saying, ‘I need to talk to you,’ in Portuguese. I say, ‘This is a troubled person.’ I said to my Italian publisher, ‘I must talk to this lady’ ... Well, she came to me and said, ‘I have a manuscript.’ I said, ‘My lawyer forbids me to read any manuscript. If I read it and eventually there is one sentence...’”
They’ll say you borrowed it and then they will ask for money, I say.
“Yah. Plagiarism. Anyway, she left the manuscript in the hotel. I had nothing to read that evening and I start reading this book. And I always had as one of my goals in life to write a book on sex. But I could never find a great line. I read the book, and I say, ‘Oh, she is a prostitute.’”
Is she still?
“No, she’s not any more. She married.”
They arranged to meet when Coelho was next in Zurich. “She said, ‘Do you want to go to the red-light district?’ I say, ‘Why not?’” There follows a long account of his giving an interview to a Swiss journalist, then having some dinner. With the prostitute? I ask, struggling to keep up.
“No, no, no” – a slight testiness suggests I should pay more attention. “With an architect.” After dinner Coelho takes the journalist and the architect out. “I am going to show you Zurich by night. But not the one you expect. At 9.30 this prostitute is going to arrive, and we go to Langstrasse [the red-light district]. So we went to this nightclub and she had brought all her friends – there were all the prostitutes there, their pimps, and we had a signing session!”
What had seemed to be a story about Coelho being tempted by the red-light district has turned into the red-light district being tempted by Coelho.
Where was your wife?
“She was in Brazil ... I called her on the telephone, in case this, you know, get into the press, and she say, ‘So what? You’re not the Pope.’”
How old was Sonia [the prostitute]?
“Twenty-seven, 28. I was 55. We do not have any ... you understand.”
No, I understand that, I reassure him.
I ask how his wife copes, not with infidelities, but with all his female fans?
“She is very happy. We have been married for 30 years. There is nothing I treasure in my life more.”
You married before The Alchemist?
“Long before. She’s been with me through the whole process.”
Is she very devout?
“She is very devout. Thanks to her I went back to Christianity.”
I ask what his wife thinks of the Pope.
“I don’t know what she thinks but I know what I think about the Pope.”
“He is much more into politics than into religion ... There was a Brazilian monk, a Franciscan who was preaching to help the poor. Ratzinger made this monk take a vow of silence for a year. He does real damage. Great damage is done by fundamentalism. In Christianity. In Islam.”
I agree with him. What are we to do, Paulo? I ask. I’m of religious temperament, so are you. We have an essentially religious response to life. But we see all these lunatics, and in so many quarrels I am on the side of the unbelievers.
“So am I!” he says. “But in the same way that America survived George Bush, and England survived Tony Blair, the church will survive this Pope.” Roars of laughter.
As well as being a dispenser of wisdom to millions, Coelho has done great good back home in Rio, and I ask him about his charity, the Paulo Coelho Institute, which funds a school for poor children.
“You understand, as one of your wise preachers in the UK said, no man is an island.”
John Donne, I say.
“So I said [to myself], ‘You are not an island, you have to participate.’ I said, ‘I cannot change my country ... but I can change my street.’ At the end of my street there is favela. There are terrible conditions. And I went to these two women doing something very wonderful. The idea was very clear, it moved me. ‘We can take care of the child. But the child cannot sleep here. He or she will go back to home. And the child will then change the whole family with positive energy.’ Of course we went beyond that and we have 430 children.
“These ladies are saints. I am here eating in this beautiful restaurant, looking over this beautiful lake and they are there working hard with the poor children of Brazil.”
I feel a little guilty as I wipe up the last of the buttery sauce from the tiny helping of fish. Coelho has finished his boiled egg. Obviously there won’t be a dessert but he agrees to a coffee. “You know something,” he says. “You did not ask me what all the journalists always ask – ‘Tell me the secret of your success.’ If I knew the secret, I would spoil the whole thing.”
I mention my theory that the secret of his success is his idea that we can all change our own destinies. I tell him how false I think this is. Imagine being a factory worker aged 40 with children. You can’t just escape, or change your life.
He looks hurt, and disappears into the Gents to mull over my heresy. When he emerges, and we say goodbye on the municipal lawns, he again crunches my hand. What he says makes me realise that there is another country – Bestseller Land – where dreams come true.
“You do have a choice,” he smiles. “Follow your path. So, you work in this factory, you have to adapt yourself like Scarlett O’Hara. She changes the curtains into a beautiful dress. Then you will have done your best. Then you become the king of your own kingdom.”
I look for him going down the drive, but he walks off beyond a shrubbery and then I see he has broken into a run.
‘Inspirations: Selections from Classic Literature’ by Paulo Coelho (Penguin, £20)
AN Wilson’s most recent novel is ‘Winnie and Wolf’, an account of Hitler’s relationship with Winifred Wagner (Hutchinson)
Restaurant Hôtel du Parc des Eaux-Vives
82, quai Gustave-Ador,
Dry martini x 2 SFr16.00
Orange juice SFr5.50
Boiled egg SFr24.00
Cod fillet SFr28.00
Halfbottle of Evian SFr7.00
Glass of Pinot Noir SFr7.00
Espresso coffee x 2 SFr9.60
Total SFr97.10 (£60)
Paulo Coelho: alchemy and piety
1947: Paulo Coelho is born in August, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His parents, devout Catholics, send their son to a Jesuit-run school. His father is an engineer and wants Paulo to be one, too.
1964: As a teenager, Coelho rebels and joins an amateur theatre group as a way to meet artistic people. One morning nurses, hired by his parents, come to take him away to a mental institution. Released from a third spell in hospital just before he turns 20, he returns home. The experience forms the basis for Veronika Decides to Die (1988).
Later 1960s: Coelho is drawn into the Alternative Society, a sect inspired by the occultist Aleister Crowley. In 2007 he tells The New Yorker: “I don’t regret my experiences with black magic.” (He destroyed, at his wife’s request, an unpublished book based on his two years in the sect.)
1971: Having dropped out of law school and spent time travelling, Coelho meets Raul Seixas, a record producer and singer, and writes lyrics for him. Seixas becomes a pop star, and Coelho and Seixas collaborate throughout the 1970s.
1974: Arrested (with Seixas) by the military dictatorship in Brazil, for leftwing political views and subversive lyrics. Coelho is tortured during a week’s imprisonment.
1980: Marries his fourth wife, Christina Oiticica, a painter. The couple is still together.
1986: Walks the Camino de Santiago – the Way of St James – the 500-mile pilgrimage across northern Spain. The trip inspires him to return to Catholicism and to become a writer, and The Pilgrimage is published the following year.
1988:The Alchemist, Coelho’s most famous book, is published. Written in a fortnight, it sells just a few hundred copies in Brazil. After the publication of his next book, Brida (1990), The Alchemist becomes an international bestseller. To date it has sold more than 30m copies and is translated into 67 languages. Fans include Will Smith, Bill Clinton and Madonna.
1996: Founds the Paulo Coelho Institute, which uses his royalties to help the poor of Rio de Janeiro.
1999: Receives the Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum, for individuals who have “used their art to improve the state of the world”. In 2000 the French government makes him a knight of the Legion of Honour, and in 2007 Coelho is made a UN Messenger of Peace.