NEW YORK — “Spiritual guru” is not an epithet that should be thrown around lightly. But for internationally renowned author Paulo Coelho — to whom said moniker has often been attached and whose following includes Madonna, Bill Clinton, Jacques Chirac, Russell Crowe and Julia Roberts — it might not seem inappropriate.
Coelho’s second book, “The Alchemist,” the story of a young shepherd boy who finds enlightenment on a journey from Spain to Northern Africa, became the best-selling book in Brazilian history, earning him a loyal readership eager for his spiritual nuggets as well as dismissive critics equally eager to call his works New Age rubbish. This month he offers another chapter of his philosophical musings when his latest novel, “The Zahir,” (HarperCollins) is released in the U.S.
Born in Rio in 1947, Coelho, 58, was drawn to writing as a teenager. But when he informed his highly religious parents of his chosen path, they, concerned for moral reasons about his interest in journalism, had him committed, in a rather radical fashion, to a mental asylum multiple times, in the hopes of swaying him. Their efforts clearly failed and Coelho has, graciously, since forgiven them. But it took him until the age of 39 to pursue his dream of becoming a novelist. After years as a hippie, a songwriter and a newspaper journalist, he finally took the plunge when he was inspired by a personal pilgrimage he took along the road to Santiago de Compostela between France and Spain.
His literary counterpart in “The Zahir,” a best-selling author, has a similar epiphany after traveling this same route. Focusing on the idea of a zahir, an Islamic concept of an object or person that becomes an obsession, the novel begins when Esther, the protagonist’s wife and a war correspondent, runs away suddenly to Kazakhstan. She becomes his zahir, as he obsesses about finding her. In the process, he finds himself on the road toward self-discovery, as he meets a young Kazakhstan mystic and friend of Esther’s and learns to let go of his past.
Coelho based Esther’s character on The Sunday Times of London journalist Christina Lamb, whom he met when she interviewed him — and who has subsequently accused him, half-jokingly, of “stealing her soul” — but he himself has been married to his fourth wife, Christina Oiticicia, for 26 years (coincidentally, or what Coelho might call “a sign,” Lamb’s husband is Portuguese and named Paulo). The Kazakhstan storyline emerged after he traveled there a few years ago.
This story first appeared in the September 1, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
He is an avid globe-trotter, a hobby that has certainly been facilitated by his fame and wealth accumulated as a result of his 15 novels, most of which involve a journey of self-discovery. But he does not see any conflict between this and the antimaterialist philosophy he espouses. “I’ve made a lot of money out of my books, which makes me travel with less things — only a credit card!” he quips, by phone from his mill house in the French Pyrenees, where he lives part of the year. “Because if I need something, I buy instead of carrying. But I see no contradictions. In fact, the opposite. The moment I decided to go to Kazakhstan, I knew nobody there, but then my books had arrived there, carrying my soul, so it was not difficult to make contacts.”
While his celebrity status may have many such perks, much like his character in “The Zahir,” Coelho claims to give little thought to his identity as a world-famous author. Nor has his status prevented him from letting go of his past, as he describes his protagonist doing in the new book. “I cannot sit here, I can, but it would be stupid, and say, OK, I’m a very famous author. I’ve sold millions and millions of copies,” says Coelho, who can’t help adding, “65 million, 65 million copies … so I’m very important. This is my personal history, no? Instead I should think, ‘Oh, I have to move forward.'”