Paulo Coelho coolly observes his surroundings from a chair in a hotel lobby in Tallinn, Estonia. He is modest in his general demeanor, but once in a while he exhibits unusual strength, influence, even magic. This mystical charisma is probably derived from his down-to-earth attitude towards life: he has been equally happy working as a waiter in a Polish restaurant, participating in an Estonian language lesson in a village in Estonia, helping Brazilian street children with tens of thousands of dollars, and visiting the most underground night clubs in Paris.
Coelho prays three times a day and performs rituals whose meaning he does not explain. Still, his behavior does not appear at all strange. It is in fact charming to see him wrapped in an orange scarf casting magical spells on his books at a small book store in a faraway Nordic country.
Coelho does not fit into stereotypes. One can argue that he is more of a magician than a writer. But you will not find in him the classical literary bohemian- he keeps his word, is punctual, and his hotel room is painstakingly tidy. Still, there is no stiffness or aloofness about him. He claims that he has always been like this, and attributes his success to his impulsiveness and spontaneity. In fact, he was so impulsive as a teenager that his parents checked him into a mental ward for a few days.
There is a line in his book Brida dealing with magic and sorcery that really captures his nature for me, "The one who is not afraid to make mistakes travels on the path of wisdom".
The magical confidence and warmth that radiates from Coelho leaves one with a strange security, a feeling that all the good in the world has not yet disappeared. He tells me that he is afraid of only one thing, and that is to perform or talk in front of a large audience.
When Coelho was accepted into the Budapest Club, he struggled to come up with words to deliver to the room full of white and gray cardinals, people who already know everything. Finally he came up with an answer - you don't have to tell them anything, you just have to be yourself.
The dedications he writes to his books when signing them usually say something like: "Love is a journey", "Observe signs!", and "Find your inner magician!" To a cynic, these statements might seem na´ve, but they seem to have a very real effect. Coelho is a medium that simply reaffirms the fact that simple rules work.
KK: You have been translated into 56 languages and there are over 37 million copies of your books sold worldwide. Clearly you have conquered the hearts of your readers. But have you ever been tempted to conquer the hearts of your critics as well?
PC: I have never had such plans and hardly ever will. I cannot understand when people measure things on based on their degree of complexity. In my opinion, books such as Ulysses by James Joyce, and especially Finnegan's Wake, are poor books because they have been made complex artistically.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco was a good book but Foucault's Pendulum by the same author was, shall we say, horrific at best, because it was written not in language but in code. By the same token, Nabokov's Lolita is so much more powerful than his other works because it is his most heartfelt and painful book; it was not constructed.
The form of art, as opposed to the content, is heavily overemphasized in today's literature. It is like some sort of general fashion in which people forget heart and character. The form, or the language, is after all simply a vehicle for passing on ideas. What is the point in describing things in illusory formalism? No point.
My experience as a writer has been that one should never listen to critics. If an author begins to align him or herself according to critics, he or she will be gone. Take for instance Jostein Gaarder. Sophie's World is a wonderful book, but soon enough Gaarder began to align himself according to critics and eventually he lost both his critics and readers.
By Kadri Kousaar. Translated by Jurgen Kaljuvee
To read the full interview, please
look for our forthcoming issue of SWAY magazine.