Authors: Fernando Morais
The Authorized Biography
For Marina, my companion on yet another crossing
of the Rubicon
When the world fails to end in the year 2000, perhaps what
end is this fascination with the work of Paulo Coelho.
Wilson Martins, literary critic, April 1998,
Brazil is Rui Barbosa, it’s Euclides da Cunha, but it’s also Paulo Coelho. I’m not a reader of his books, nor am I an admirer, but he has to be accepted as a fact of contemporary Brazilian life.
Martins again, July 2005,
Paulo today: Budapest–Prague–Hamburg–Cairo
First play, first love
First encounter with Dr Benjamim
Ballad of the Clinic Gaol
The great escape
The marijuana years
The Devil and Paulo
Paulo and Raul
A devil of a different sort
Paulo renounces the Devil
First meeting with Jean
Paulo and Christina–publishers
The road to Santiago
The critics’ response
Becoming an ‘immortal’
One hundred million copies sold
T’S A DREARY, GREY EVENING
in May 2005 as the enormous white Air France Airbus A600 touches down gently on the wet runway of Budapest’s Ferihegy airport. It is the end of a two-hour flight from Lyons in the south of France. In the cabin, the stewardess informs the passengers that it’s 6.00 p.m. in Hungary’s capital city and that the local temperature is 8°C. Seated beside the window in the front row of business class, his seat belt still fastened, a man in a black T-shirt looks up and stares at some invisible point beyond the plastic wall in front of him. Unaware of the other passengers’ curious looks, and keeping his eyes fixed on the same spot, he raises the forefinger and middle finger of his right hand as though in blessing and remains still for a moment.
After the plane stops, he gets up to take his bag from the overhead locker. He is dressed entirely in black–canvas boots, jeans and T-shirt. (Someone once remarked that, were it not for the wicked gleam in his eye, he could be mistaken for a priest.) A small detail on his woollen jacket, which is also black, tells the other passengers–at least those who are French–that their fellow traveller is no ordinary mortal, since on his lapel is a tiny gold pin embossed in red, a little larger than a computer chip, indicating to those around him that he is a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. This is the most coveted of French decorations, created in
1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte and granted only at the personal wish of the President of the Republic. The award, which was given to the traveller at the behest of Jacques Chirac, is not, however, the only thing that marks him out. His thinning, close-cropped white hair ends in a tuft above the nape of his neck, a small white ponytail some 10 centimetres long. This is a
, the lock of hair worn by Brahmans, orthodox Hindus and Hare Krishna monks. His neat white moustache and goatee beard are the final touch on a lean, strong, tanned face. At 1.69 metres he’s fairly short, but muscular and with not an ounce of fat on his body.
With his rucksack on his back and dying for a cigarette, he joins the queue of passengers in the airport corridor, with an unlit, Brazilian-made Galaxy Light between his lips. In his hand is a lighter ready to be flicked on as soon as it’s allowed, which will not, it seems, be soon. Even for someone with no Hungarian, the meaning of the words ‘
’ is clear, since it appears on signs everywhere, alongside the image of a lighted cigarette with a red line running through it. Standing beside the baggage carousel, the man in black looks anxiously over at the glass wall separating international passengers from the main concourse. His black case with a white heart chalked on it is, in fact, small enough for him to have taken it on board as hand luggage, but its owner hates carrying anything.
After going through customs and passing beyond the glass wall, the man in black is visibly upset to find that his name does not appear on any of the boards held up by the drivers and tour reps waiting for passengers on his flight. Worse still, there are no photographers, reporters or television cameras waiting for him. There is no one. He walks out on to the pavement, looking around, and even before lifting the collar of his jacket against the cold wind sweeping across Budapest, he lights his cigarette and consumes almost half of it in one puff. The other Air France passengers go their separate ways in buses, taxis and private cars, leaving the pavement deserted. The man’s disappointment gives way to anger. He lights another cigarette, makes an international call on his mobile phone and complains in Portuguese and in a slightly nasal voice: ‘There’s no one waiting for me in Budapest! Yes! That’s what I said!’ He repeats this, hammering each word into the head of the person at the other end:
there’s no one waiting for me here in Budapest
. No one. I said
He rings off without saying goodbye, stubs out his cigarette and starts to smoke a third, pacing disconsolately up and down. Fifteen interminable minutes after disembarking he hears a familiar sound. He turns towards it, and his eyes light up. An enormous smile appears on his face. The reason for his joy is only a few metres away: a crowd of reporters, photographers, cameramen and paparazzi are running towards him calling his name, nearly all of them holding a microphone and a recorder. Behind them is a still larger group–his fans.
‘Mister Cole-ro! Mister Paulo Cole-ro!’
This is how Hungarians pronounce the surname of the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, the man in black who has just arrived in Budapest as guest of honour at the International Book Festival. The invitation was a Russian initiative, rather than a Brazilian one (Brazil doesn’t even have a stand), Russia being the guest country at the 2005 festival. Coelho is the most widely read author in Russia, which, with 143 million inhabitants, is one of the most populous countries in the world. Along with the reporters come people bearing copies of his most recent success,
, all open at the title page, as they step over the tangle of cables on the ground and face the hostility of the journalists, simply to get his autograph. The flashbulbs and the bluish glow from the reflectors cast a strange light on the shaven head of the author, who looks as if he were on the strobe-lit dance floor of a 1970s disco. Despite the crowd and the discomfort, he wears a permanent, angelic smile and, even though he’s drowning in a welter of questions in English, French and Hungarian, he appears to be savouring an incomparable pleasure: world fame. He is in his element. Mister Cole-ro with his sparkling eyes and the sincerest possible smile is once again Paulo Coelho, superstar and a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, whose books have been translated into 66 languages and dialects across 160 countries. He is a man accustomed to receiving a pop star’s welcome from his readers. He tells the journalists that he has been to Hungary only once, more than twenty years before. ‘I’m just afraid that fifteen years of capitalist tourism may have done Budapest more harm than the Russians did in half a century,’ he
says provocatively, referring to the period when the country was part of the former Soviet Union.
That same day, the author had another opportunity to savour public recognition. While waiting for the plane at Lyons airport he was approached by a fellow Brazilian, who told him that he had read and admired his work. On being called to take the bus to the plane, they walked together to the gate, but the other Brazilian, when asked to produce his boarding pass, couldn’t find it. Anxious that the other passengers would grow impatient as the man searched clumsily through his things, the Air France employee moved him to one side, and the queue moved on.
Out of kindness, Paulo Coelho stood beside his fellow countryman, but was told: ‘Really, you don’t need to wait. I’ll find it in a minute.’
All the other passengers were now seated in the bus, and the Air France employee was threatening to close the door. ‘I’m sorry, but if you haven’t got a boarding pass, you can’t board the plane.’
The Brazilian began to see his holiday plans falling apart, but he wasn’t going to give up that easily. ‘But I know I’ve got it. Only a few minutes ago I showed it to the author Paulo Coelho, who was with me, because I wanted to know if we were going to be sitting next to each other.’
The Frenchman stared at him. ‘Paulo Coelho? Do you mean that man is Paulo Coelho?’ On being assured that this was so, he ran over to the bus, where the passengers were waiting for the problem to be resolved, and shouted, ‘
Monsieur Paulo Coelho!
’ Once the author had stood up and confirmed that he had indeed seen his fellow Brazilian’s boarding pass, the Frenchman, suddenly all politeness and cordiality, beckoned to the cause of the hold-up and allowed him to board the bus.
Night has fallen in Budapest when a tall, thin young man announces that there are to be no more photos or questions. To the protests of both journalists and fans, Paulo Coelho is now seated in the back of a Mercedes, its age and impressive size suggesting that it may once have carried Hungary’s Communist leaders. Also in the car are the men who are to be his companions for the next three days: the driver and bodyguard, Pal Szabados, a very tall young man with a crew cut; and Gergely
Huszti, who freed him from the reporters’ clutches and who is to be his guide. Both men were appointed by the author’s publisher in Hungary, Athenäum.
When the car sets off, and even before Gergely has introduced himself, Paulo asks for a moment’s silence and, as he did in the plane, he gazes into the distance, raises his forefinger and middle finger, and for a few seconds prays. He performs this solitary ceremony at least three times a day–when he wakes, at six in the evening and at midnight–and repeats it in planes when taking off and landing and in cars when driving off, regardless of whether he is on a long-haul flight or a short trip in a cab.
On the way to the hotel, Gergely reads out the planned programme: a debate followed by a signing session at the book festival; a visit to the Budapest underground with the prefect, Gabor Demszky; five individual interviews for various television programmes and major publications; a press conference; a photo shoot with Miss Peru, one of his readers (who is in Hungary for the Miss Universe contest); two dinners; a show at an open-air disco…
Coelho interrupts Gergely in English. ‘Stop there, please. You can cut out the visit to the underground, the show and Miss Peru. None of that was on the programme.’
The guide insists: ‘I think we should at least keep the visit to the underground, as it’s the third oldest in the world…And the prefect’s wife is a fan of yours and has read all your books.’
‘Forget it. I’ll sign a book especially for her, but I’m not going to the underground.’
With the underground, the disco and Miss Peru scrapped, the author approves the schedule, showing no signs of fatigue in spite of the fact that he has had an exhausting week. With the launch of
he has given interviews to reporters from the Chilean newspaper
, the French magazine
, the Dutch daily
, the magazine produced by Maison Cartier, the Polish newspaper
and the Norwegian women’s magazine
Kvinner og Klær
. At the request of a friend, an aide to the Saudi royal family, he also gave a long statement to Nigel Dudley and Sarah MacInnes from the magazine
, a British business publication.
Half an hour after leaving the airport, the Mercedes stops in front of the Gellert, an imposing four-star establishment on the banks of the Danube, one of the oldest spa hotels in Central Europe. Before signing in, Paulo embraces a beautiful dark-haired woman who has just arrived from Barcelona and has been waiting for him in the hotel lobby. Holding her hand is a chubby, blue-eyed little boy. She is Mônica Antunes and the boy is her son. Although she acts as Paulo Coelho’s literary agent, it would be a mistake to consider her, as people often do, as merely that, because it accounts for only a small part of the work she has been doing since the end of the 1980s.
Some people in the literary jet set say that behind her beautiful face, soft voice and shy smile lies a ferocious guard dog, for she is known and feared for the ruthlessness with which she treats anyone who threatens her author’s interests. Many publishers refer to her–behind her back of course–as ‘the witch of Barcelona’, a reference to the city where she lives and from where she controls everything to do with the professional life of her one client. Mônica has become the link between the author and the publishing world. Anything and everything to do with his literary work has to pass through the modern, seventh-storey office that is home to Sant Jordi Asociados, named in Catalan after the patron saint of books, St George.
While her Peruvian nanny keeps an eye on her son in the hotel lobby, Mônica sits down with the author at a corner table and opens her briefcase, full of computer printouts produced by Sant Jordi. Today, it’s all good news: in three weeks
has sold 106,000 copies in Hungary. In Italy, over the same period, the figure was 420,000. In the Italian best-seller lists the book has even overtaken the memoirs of the recently deceased John Paul II. The author, however, doesn’t appear to be pleased.
‘That’s all very well, Mônica, but I want to know how
has done in comparison with the previous book in the same period.’
She produces another document. ‘In the same period,
sold 328,000 copies in Italy. So
is selling almost 30 per cent more.
are you happy?’
‘Yes, of course. And what about Germany?’
is in second place on
’s best-seller list, after
The Da Vinci Code
As well as Hungary, Italy and Germany, the author asks for information about sales in Russia and wants to know whether Arash Hejazi, his Iranian publisher, has resolved the problems of censorship, and what is happening regarding pirate copies being sold in Egypt. According to Mônica’s figures, the author is beating his own records in every country where the book has come out. A week after its launch in France,
topped all lists, including the most prized, that of the weekly news magazine
. In Russia, sales have passed the 530,000 mark, while in Portugal, they stand at 130,000 (whereas
had sold only 80,000 copies six months after its launch). In Brazil,
has sold 160,000 copies in less than a month (60 per cent more than
in the same period). And while Coelho is appearing in Hungary, 500,000 copies of the Spanish translation of
are being distributed throughout the southern states of America–to reach the Spanish-speaking communities there–and throughout eighteen Latin-American countries. The only surprise is the last piece of news: the previous day, an armed gang stopped a lorry in a Buenos Aires suburb and stole the entire precious cargo–2,000 copies of
that had just left the printer’s and were on their way to bookshops in the city. Some days later, a literary critic in the
Diario de Navarra
in Spain suggested that the robbery had been a publicity stunt dreamed up by the author as a way of selling more copies.