Brazilian author Paulo Coelho not only writes about self-fulfillment and personal happiness, he also embodies his success stories. The best-selling author now turns 70.
The books of Paulo Coelho, the world's most successful contemporary Brazilian author, are not marketed as the works of an author from Brazil. That might be one of Coelho's greatest triumphs: He managed to break with the expectations associated with homeland-bound Brazilian authors.
Coelho's territorial independence made him the most famous Brazilian author abroad. His books have been translated into 81 languages and published in 170 countries. Over 210 million copies have been sold.
Coelho clearly distinguishes himself from other Brazilian authors. His books do not feature the tropical opulence characterizing Jorge Amado's renowned works, nor the urban violence found in Paulo Lins' best-seller, "City of God," which was also adapted into a movie.
Journey to self
Coelho's first books were based on his impressions of a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela along the Way of Saint James. When they came out in the 1980s, nothing could have predicted the success of "The Alchemist," published in Brazil in 1988. The title became the most-sold Brazilian book ever, landing simultaneously on best-seller lists in 18 countries.
Born on August 24, 1947, in Rio de Janeiro, Coelho went through several phases of soul searching. He grew up in a Catholic family, but was opposed to religion as young man. As a student, he experimented with drugs and occultism. After a short stint as the director of the record company CBS in Brazil, he decided to focus on writing. Meanwhile, he had returned to the Catholic faith.
Coelho's religious explorations, ranging from mysticism to monotheism, were well received in the Western world. Coelho became something of a literary guru for spirituality. His recipe was simple and effective: He didn't waste time with linguistic pirouettes or psychological analyzes, but rather offered the reader well-written narratives combined with self-help advice.
Literary critic Idelber Avelar, professor for Latin American literature at the Tulane University in New Orleans, summarized the phenomenon: "Coelho has brought the genre of the parable into modern commercial literature," he wrote. Traditionally, the parable has always fascinated readers, because it is simple and easy to understand while remaining enigmatic. This was the case with Jesus in the Bible or the minstrels of the Middle Ages.
Coelho's work also operates on this rich variety of levels: His books cannot be completely classified as self-help manuals, yet they go beyond literature, too. Coelho's works manage to find their place both on best-seller lists and the coffee tables of the Brazilian Academy for Literature.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, interest in literature from Latin America dropped throughout Europe, but Paulo Coelho remained one of the few commercially successful authors from Brazil, outranking the country's then top-selling author, Jorge Amado.
"Paulo Coelho is not characterized as a Brazilian author; his work does not influence the image of Brazil abroad," explained translator and literature professor Berthold Zilly. "Coelho is a globalized author. If you look at the themes in his books, they could just as well have been written by a European, a North American or an Arab."
What explains Coelho's success in a country as skeptical about religion as Germany? Oliver Precht, who has translated complex works by Brazilian authors such as Oswald de Andrade into German, links Coelho's success with universal aspirations, such as the search for the meaning of life, general truths and personal destinies.
The books of Paulo Coelho are also set beyond an established historical context. The stories take place between the Way of Saint James and the desert of the Sahara. They stand for an ideological movement separating success from social conditions and connecting it with personal commitment and individual beliefs instead.
The worldwide most successful parable remains the myth of the self-made man.