Paulo Coelho de Souza is a Brazilian lyricist and novelist and is best known for his novel The Alchemist. In 2014, he uploaded his personal papers online to create a virtual Paulo Coelho Foundation. His books have been widely translated into several languages, earning him the prestigious Guinness World Record for the most translated book by a living author. He has received much honour as a renowned writer.
Paulo Coelho was born in the city of Rio de Janeiro situated in Brazil on 24 August 1947. His parents were devout Catholics and were stringent concerning their faith and religion.
As a young teen, Coelho wanted to pursue writing as his career. However, upon telling his mother, she responded by saying, “My dear, your father is an engineer. He’s a logical, reasonable man with a very clear vision of the world. Do you actually know what it means to be a writer?” However, Coelho continued to persevere.
At 17, Coelho’s unique way of life filled with introversion and strong resistance to following the traditional path led his parents to commit him to a mental institution while worrying about his antisocial tendencies. Coelho escaped three times before he was finally released at the age of 20. Coelho later commented, “It wasn’t that they wanted to hurt me, but they didn’t know what to do. They did not do that to destroy me, they did that to save me.”
After getting out of the institution, Coelho enrolled in Law School following his parent’s wishes and abandoned his lifelong dream of becoming a writer. However, this was not long-lived; just a year later, he dropped out of college and lived as a hippie, travelling across the world to North Africa, South America, Mexico, and Europe.
He spent his youth as a songwriter working for Raul Seixas, one of Brazil’s famous rock stars at the time. Composing music with the rock star led to Coelho being associated with occultism and magic due to the content of his songs. In 1974, Coelho was arrested for ‘subversive’ activities by the ruling military government in Brazil, who had come into power ten years earlier and viewed his lyrics as left-wing and dangerous. Taken prisoner by this government, Coelho was tortured using electric shock to the genitals. However, he admitted that the experience was a traumatic one yet does not regret it.
This incident had a tremendous impact on his life, and he decided to take a break from the rock’n’roll lifestyle. During this period, Coelho was contemplating his purpose in life and remembered his parent’s advice to him to be a lawyer and lead a good life. He resigned to their idea of perfect and got a job as a lawyer and married a devout catholic woman. Between 1975 and 1982, he says he was ‘normal’, leading a life of routine encounters, regular meals and stable paychecks. But Coelho says, “It soon turned out that I could not stand to be normal.”
He soon left his wife and the country to travel the world with Christina Oiticica, his current spouse. In 1980, Coelho married artist, Christina and they currently reside in Geneva, Switzerland.
In 1986, during his travels, Coelho met a stranger in an Amsterdam café who told him to make the traditional Roman Catholic pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain. He walked the 5000 plus mile road of Santiago de Compostela that inadvertently was a turning point in his life. During the challenging walk, Coelho had a spiritual awakening, which he described autobiographically in The Pilgrimage. Coelho explained, “I was very happy in the things I was doing. I was doing something that gave me food and water – to use the metaphor in The Alchemist, I was working, I had a person whom I loved, I had money, but I was not fulfilling my dream. My dream was, and still is, to be a writer.”
This epiphany put Coelho put things in perspective for the author and he soon left his lucrative career as a songwriter and pursued writing full-time. In 1982, Coelho published his first book, Hell Archives, which unfortunately failed to impact his readers substantially. After his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in 1986, Coelho wrote The Pilgrimage, published in 1987. While overcoming his procrastination to launch his writing career, Coelho said, “If I see a white feather today, that is a sign that God is giving me that I have to write a new book.” Coincidentally he found a white feather in the window of a shop and began writing that day and has continued ever since.
The following year, he wrote The Alchemist and published it through a small Brazilian publishing house that made an initial print run of 900 copies. Coelho recalled, “Not long after it came out, my publisher said, ‘It’s not selling.’ And I said, ‘Give it some time,’ and they said, ‘No, this book is never going to work.’ But there is a sentence in the book that says, ‘When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.’ And I thought to myself, I wrote this so I have to live by it.”
Emboldened by his own words, Coelho approached a different publishing house, which printed the book – and made it a legend of self-help literature. It performed so well that HarperCollins decided to publish the book in 1994. Soon the book became an international bestseller.
Since then, 65 million copies of The Alchemist have been sold worldwide; an unprecedented number exceeded only a handful of classics. All in all, Coelho has sold over 150 million books, which have been translated into about 60 languages. From Pinochet to Clinton, Putin to Madonna, celebrities and political figures worldwide have sworn their allegiance to the Coelho fan base. In addition to this, Coelho is the most quotable living author, simultaneously, The Alchemist is the most quoted book after The Bible.
Concluding with an infamous quote by the renowned author in The Alchemist that is befitting for the pandemic; that sums up taking control, especially in turbulent waters, “What is the world’s greatest lie?” the little boy asks. The old man replies, “It’s this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.”