The Alchemist (Coelho)

Paulo Coelho's Reception in Brazil

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In many ways, Paulo Coelho's career has faced the same difficulties as other wildly successful writers. He is simultaneously adored by millions of fans around the world and completely reviled by the literati of every country his books have conquered. This could not be more true than in Brazil, a country whose literary community feels maligned for lack of attention, and a country whose literary tradition only receives attention for its most commercial, light productions. The world, especially the English-speaking world, does not regularly consider Brazil among the great literary traditions, and Brazil was somehow excised from the general fervor surrounding Latin American fiction in the 60s with the rise or Garcia-Marquez, Vargas Llosa, etc. Essentially, Brazil's two best (internationally) known authors have been Jorge Amado and Paulo Coelho. While the substance of the accusation is different in each cases, both of these writers have been accused of being simplistic and sub-literary. Jorge Amado was accused of essentially trafficking in worn-out stereotypes of Brazil and commercializing them for the world's consumption.

Paulo Coelho, on the other hand, cannot be accused of any such thing. One reason is that his books have almost no discernible trace of "brazilianness." The fairy-tale quality of his stories, especially The Alchemist, makes it very clear that historical accuracy is not the point of the story. In Coelho's case the arguments against him are of a different sort. First, there is the complaint that his Portuguese is, in fact, not very good. What is interesting is that most of his grammatical missteps are elided in translation. Thus, one only perceives them if one reads Portuguese, something that only a tiny portion of his readership does. In fact, these sins against grammar do nothing so much as give a mild colloquial quality to the language, and do not detract at all from the enjoyability and comprehensibility of the text. The complaint is more political than anything else, since Brazilian Portuguese, a language which still distinguishes sharply between written and spoken language, has also been open to the inclusion of colloquial speech in literature. The problem is political because it is understood that these inclusions were done by members of the intelligentsia whose intellectually elite status made them above reproach. Paulo Coelho was not part of this elite and his membership in the intellectual elite now is contentious.

One aspect of this contentiousness can be seen in reactions to Coelho's inclusion in the Brazilian Academy of Letters, the most prestigious group of literary intellectuals in Brazil. The Academy is a group of 40 poets and writers that meets every week and is a large intellectual force in Brazil. Paulo Coelho's acceptance into the Academy was an extremely controversial affair, in part because his work has been dubbed as sub-literary, as self-help literature, by much of the critical community. Even those who are not instantly repelled by the self-help theme of his books argue that what Coelho is espousing is a sort of religion stripped of all difficulty and hardship that is completely compatible with materialist consumerism. (Ironically, his proponents also point to these things as evidence of the vitality of his philosophy. Coelho indicates a completely pragmatic spirituality, they argue.) Detractors also point out the aforementioned use of Portuguese and the fact that Coelho's style does not warrant serious literary attention. These opinions are so commonplace that they have become something of a reflex in critical circles, prompting many to judge his novels without even reading them. A famous example is the printed remark of a critic for the Folha de Sao Paulo, a major national newspaper: "I didn't read it and I don't like it."

There are, however, proponents of Coelho's membership in the Academy and of his literature in general. Some claim that that his style is simplistic not because of any defect on his part, but because he is seeking to create a fairy-tale world whose depth comes not from the psychological complexity of the characters but from the message that it conveys to readers. On the other hand, there are plenty of proponents who would agree that Coelho's books are not of optimal quality nor are they great pieces of literature. What they are, though, are extremely important cultural artifacts. This is a man who has touched literally millions of lives using the written word. It also could be claimed that he is attracting readers that are in no way accustomed to reading or to literature in general. Thus, Paulo Coelho is doing Brazilian letters in particular a great service - by putting Brazil on the map as a center of relevant literature.