A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Paulo Coelho: The Pilgrimage

I was a book rep for twenty-five years, and for part of that time I carried the list of a publisher of self-help books, New Age books, books that were loosely 'spiritual'. Many of these titles were frankly unreadable. Some were written by those in pursuit of a quick buck, some by well-meaning people with woolly ideas, others by out-and-out charlatans and snake-oil salesmen. It was a question of separating the wheat from the chaff, and there was a lot of chaff. Often, unfortunately, the chaff dispersed widely, and the wheat was scarce — though precious.

As I've said before, I'm not a big fan of Paulo Coelho, and find his novels, parables, fantasies and so-called autobiographical books about 'the spiritual journey' too simplistic, too trite and too eager to please. Needless to say, he's an internationally bestselling author with a huge base of readers and admirers. I wouldn't go so far as to call him a charlatan — no, not at all, I'm sure he's totally sincere — but I find his sparsely told, derivative fables annoyingly childish. The message of The Alchemist (the book which propelled him to fame in 1988) seems to be that the treasure is not to be found at your journey's end (in this case the Pyramids of Egypt) but at home when you return. OK, but there's nothing earth-shatteringly new in this. In fact, many have remarked that the whole novel is simply a retelling of one of the stories in A Thousand And One Nights.

Having been disappointed with The Alchemist when I read it a while ago, I recently picked up a second-hand copy of The Pilgrimage, a book he wrote in 1987 after completing the pilgrim route to Santiago the previous year — and, again, I felt let down. There are real spiritual insights in the book, to be sure, but they're put across in far too simple and populist a way. Also the story is marred by all sorts of fantastic nonsense about the Knights Templar and their rituals. (It seems that writers can't get enough of the Knights Templar nowadays — from Umberto Eco and Dan Brown to Kate Mosse and Steve Berry.) In addition, Coelho uses far too much vocabulary and far too many concepts to do with 'winning', 'losing', 'conquering' and 'fighting the good fight' for my own personal spiritual taste. So I fear you're unlikely to find profound answers to profound questions in Paulo Coelho. You may think he's more sham than shaman. I leave it for you to judge. However, I did like this passage from early on in the book:

When you travel, you experience, in a very practical way, the act of rebirth. You confront completely new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys you don't even understand the language the people speak. So you are like a child just out of the womb. You begin to be more accessible to others because they may be able to help you in difficult situations. And you accept any small favour from the gods with great delight, as if it were an episode you would remember for the rest of your life.

At the same time, since all things are new, you see only the beauty in them, and you feel happy to be alive. That's why a religious pilgrimage has always been one of the most objective ways of achieving insight. The word peccadillo, which means a 'small sin', comes from pecus, which means 'defective foot', a foot that is incapable of walking a road. The way to correct the peccadillo is always to walk forward, adapting oneself to new situations and receiving in return all of the thousands of blessings life generously offers to those who seek them.


George said...

Thanks for this informative post, Robert. I was thinking that I might read "The Pilgrimage" for its insights on the Camino. Having read your account, however, I may take a pass. Like you, I do like the passage that your quoted in the post.

I've read a number of Camino books in the last few months and many fell below my expectations. Nancy Louise Frey's study, "Pilgrim Stories," suggest that many embark upon the Camino for egotistical purposes—to write a book or to position themselves for claims of special insight. Who knows? As your experience has shown, however, one is likely to encounter charlatans in sacred places.

Herringbone said...

I have a hard time critically judging things. I'm sure I've been influenced by something,somewhere along the line. I appreciate technical competence, but still go with feel. Those times I run into both is especially sweet. I think the passage is upbeat and positive.

ksam said...

To begin with, I haven't read Coelho. Or I should say I started, I believe, The Alchemist and just couldn't get into the thing. One thought I've had though, is it perhaps a cultural bent that I'm just not getting? Anytime I'm reading a translation and I don't "get" it, I wonder if it may have something to do with reading thru a filter if you will. I know the feel and flavor and sense I get reading Isabel Allende is very different than reading a North American author. There is just a whole different feel and flavor, and perhaps, in Coelho's case, we're not accustomed or adjusted to those flavorings? Almost like eating a cuisine we're not accustomed to. Just a thought. I think I may have to give him another try before I say a complete no thank you!

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks George, Herringbone and Karin for your comments! I'm really not trying to influence anyone here about whether to read Coelho or not - everyone must judge for themselves. He's massively popular all over the world, and obviously many, many people find inspiration and spiritual nourishment in his writings. I'm simple giving a very personal and subjective opinion here, based on reading only two of his books.

Herringbone said...

SW-Totally.Your personal and subjective opinion is why I'm here.

John Zorn said...

I share your views on Coelho.

I remember his account of Mme Debril (I forget his name for her) in St Jean Pied de Port and I realised just how he converted experience into nonsense. It was all formulaic, and I think fake.

I met Mme Debril in 1991, and I can see how he used his meeting which he converted into narrative. He is right however that she was an impossible character.

I would be less kind than you in discussing Coelho.

Anonymous said...

Very trixy guy... Gets subject he knows it would catch on people, his characters ask the same questions he knows people would normally ask in the created subject, turns left and right giving you nothing in return. He can't even use his imagination to create at least something original in the end... At the end of the book you realise you didnt receive any usefull information ... and for the ones that read a book "just to escape" than.... Tom and Jerry will give more satisfaction ...