‘I thought I’d be as fa­mous as Ian Flem­ing’ Madonna adores him, his book sold 65 mil­lion. So why Paulo Coelho never recog­nised?

The Al­chemist is

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Madonna says his book changed her life. Will Smith and Ju­lia Roberts agree. Oprah Win­frey keeps a copy by her bed. But Paulo Coelho brushes it all away with a sweep of his hand. ‘This is very mov­ing, to see all these peo­ple try­ing to help me, but for the sake of sales it does noth­ing.’

Yet Coelho, 71, has sold 65 mil­lion copies of The Al­chemist, a de­cep­tively sim­ple story of a shep­herd boy who crosses the desert in search of trea­sure, only to find it back where he started.

The book is far more fa­mous than its au­thor, so who is this Brazil­ian with the white goa­tee and the chain-smok­ing habit? Event has come to his home by Lake Geneva to find out.

Is it hard to keep track of all these fa­mous fans when you’ve sold books in 170 coun­tries and been trans­lated into 81 lan­guages? ‘I was in a park the other day and I saw a lady read­ing my book,’ says Coelho. ‘I said, “I’m the au­thor.” She said, “No you are not!” She could not be­lieve that an au­thor as fa­mous as me could walk around like a nor­mal per­son. Peo­ple fan­ta­sise that I live in a cas­tle sur­rounded by body­guards.’

The woman in the park was read­ing The Al­chemist, of course. The book was a flop when it was first pub­lished in Brazil 30 years ago, but then it was trans­lated into Eng­lish and be­came a huge suc­cess.

cole more­ton

The story is shot through with mag­i­cal sym­bol­ism and the mes­sage that you can have or be any­thing you want, as long as you want it enough and dare to act on your dream. Coelho in­sists his own life proves that it is true. ‘I’m not the al­chemist – I’m the shep­herd.’

Paulo Coelho de Souza had a trou­bled child­hood in Rio de Janeiro, with strict Catholic par­ents who didn’t un­der­stand his de­sire to be a writer. He started law school but dropped out to do what the char­ac­ter of ‘Paulo’ does in his new novel Hip­pie: travel Europe, meet a girl in Am­s­ter­dam and get on a Magic Bus to Kath­mandu. ‘I wanted to write it be­cause of the state of the world, which has be­come to­tally po­larised. Good and evil. This drives me crazy. As hip­pies we used to value im­por­tant things like food, trav­el­ling, con­tact­ing eye to eye. There’s this gi­ant leap back­wards – borders ev­ery­where. When we ar­rived with hair down to our shoul­ders it was so friendly. It’s not like that any more. Hip­pie is a phi­los­o­phy: sim­plify your life, trust your­self as a hu­man be­ing, be open to con­nec­tion.’

Coelho be­came a song­writer in the early Sev­en­ties, with great suc­cess. ‘It was like you go to a casino, you buy some chips, and all of a sud­den you win a lot of money.’

But the Brazil­ian gov­ern­ment saw him as a sub­ver­sive, locked Coelho up and tor­tured him with elec­tric shocks. Af­ter his re­lease he worked as an ac­tor and di­rec­tor while re­cov­er­ing and did not be­gin to write un­til tak­ing the pil­grim­age to San­ti­ago de Com­postela in Spain in 1986. That was when he re­alised he should pur­sue his dream, writ­ing first a book called The Pil­grim­age and then The Al­chemist.

I as­sume the game-changer came when the US Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton was pho­tographed with a copy in 1999, but Coelho de­nies it. ‘I re­mem­bered that Ian Flem­ing had be­come fa­mous be­cause John F Kennedy liked to read James Bond and I thought, “The same thing is go­ing to hap­pen to me.” But it had no ef­fect. Zero. Word of mouth is the holy grail for the writer.’

Peo­ple want an­swers and they think Coelho has them, which is why he’s one of the most pop­u­lar au­thors alive, hav­ing sold 225 mil­lion books world­wide. His writ­ings say that the an­swers lie within us, but to­day he adds, ‘Even within us, we’re a mys­tery to our­selves.’

Madonna would be hor­ri­fied, I say. But the writer, who re­fuses to be any­body’s guru, just laughs. ‘Hip­pie’ by Paulo Coelho is pub­lished by Hutchin­son, £14.99 41

Madonna – The Al­chemist changed her life

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