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.