by Fernando Morais
I should confess, in the interests of honesty, at the outset, i was prepared not to like this book. I have read only one of Coelho’s works, and i did not especially enjoy it (though i’ve not yet reread my review of it, to see exactly how i felt). I was not impressed, then, when on page four an egregious error such as calling Hungary a “part of the former Soviet Union” was made; i expected to be frustrated by reading a book which needed copy-editing properly. So, to continue with the honesty, i was pleased as i continued; there were not a lot more ridiculous errors, nor typos, nor other nonsenses the reader can do without. To be sure, there are points about the book i don’t like (more later on that), but the microlevel structure, to put it that way, was not one of them. What did i like?
Actually, i liked Morais’s writing style; he is very easy to read and, once i was able to devote a bit of time to it, i moved very quickly through the book. I found, as i have found previously, that the introduction of names is an awkward thing in biographies, as the choice seems to be either to overwhelm the reader with footnotes or reminders or to confuse him by hoping he remembers with no context a name introduced fifty pages previously; neither is a good choice, yet some biographers manage to make the process work. Not, i am afraid, Morais; i did not struggle as badly as i have in the past, but i was confused a couple of times as a name was mentioned without a reminder of who it represented ~ one time, especially, as the person was described as Coelho’s best friend on the flimsiest of evidence yet given. This complaint, however, is minor, when compared with the fine work that Morais has done on his authorised biography. There is much good here, evidence of a great deal of research : Eighty-plus people listed as interviewees, forty-odd years Coelho’s personal diary gone through in detail, over four hundred and fifty pages of text. All leading to quite a detailed biography.
The questions raised for me, though, are several variations on Why? Why is Coelho so successful? Why will the book be read? And why, oh why did Coelho allow this book to be written? To take them in order. Success as a writer was not overly quick in coming to Coelho, as told here. He was successful fairly early on in life as a lyricist for an outstandingly popular Brazilian singer, and wrote enough lyrics to keep himself and his partner of the day in sufficient luxury not to have to worry about the morrow. The immense success that he now enjoys, however, that he longed for from childhood, was much longer in arriving. While it has, it is purely a popular success; the critics almost universally despise Coelho and his writing, for a number of different reasons, from its quality to its content (and, one suspects, its very popularity). So why this popularity? The biography doesn’t enter into any real critique of Coelho’s writings, those since his popularity began in the late eighties, anyway, so it is perhaps outside the remit of this review; the closest Morais comes to giving a reason for the success is to report straight-faced that not long before that success began Coelho made a promise to a particular image of Jesus in Prague that, in return for huge popularity, he would give Jesus a new cape.
The premise of the first question answers the second: Why will the biography be read? Because the huge numbers of Coelho’s readers (over 100 million books sold throughout the world) will want to know more about their author, what makes him tick, how he writes what he does. Curiously, i think that many of them will be less than thrilled, because much more of Morais’ attention is given to Coelho’s presuccess than to any exploration of his writing technique or practice; indeed, when talking about the next book, at one point, Morais effectively just says, “He thought about it for a time, then sat down for a fortnight and wrote it all out”, which gives very little insight to the compulsive fan about methods. Perhaps this was done, as it is an authorised biography, with Coelho’s agreement, in order to maintain that air of mystery and mysticism which appears to be so important to him. Again, surprisingly little information is given about what must be the crux of the book, Coelho’s meeting with and training by a mysterious figure known as (but surely not called) Jean, Coelho’s spiritual master in Regnus Agnus Mundi, apparently an organisation within the Church of Rome (to which Coelho once again belongs) devoted to the individual’s journey towards truth. He is now, it seems, completely obedient to Jean, who at times makes varying demands upon him, demands requiring strict compliance, with the results we have seen.
Finally, i have to ask myself, why has Coelho allowed his biography to be written; more specifically, why is it this biography which, as mentioned above, is authorised? Because it does not present its subject in a flattering light. At all. The Coelho we meet in these pages is egotistical, a monomaniac about being a hugely successful writer, polygamous while apparently expecting monoandry from his women, mystical or spiritual without being careful about the source spirit ~ not a flattering portrait at all. We learn that he was three times put under treatment, including electroshock therapy, in what appears basically to have been an insane asylum, sent there by his parents, whom he was defying ~ to no greater degree than is to be expected from any teenager. We see that, even in the course of his mystical training in the work of RAM, he was faulted and held back by his enormous ego. And we are shown a picture, indeed, just about the first image we are given, of an author whose sole concern is with publicising himself and his books, for whom no amount of success is enough. I find this very odd in a biography written with the subject’s blessing. Maybe he is looking for some spiritual release in the permission for the dark side being shown. I don’t know. In the end, though, the important question is, Is this a book worth reading? And i am ambivalent, i’m afraid. I’m glad i read it, but i’m not sure that i’d pick up another by Morais and, for me, that latter is the single criterion upon which i decide i like a book.
And, finally, i ought to continue my opening honesty, and state that i have gone back and read the review of the one Coelho i have read, and i liked it more at the time than i remembered. Funny, maybe i should read another, and see if he’s better in the actual book than my recollection.
Obviously, this is not one of the series of reviews i am posting; rather it is the latest book i have received and read from the Librarything Early Reviewer programme. And it is a review i have struggled over (it's taken four different sessions over the five days since i finished it), so i am a bit tentative in offering it up. But i feel bound to.
I think i shall also put up the review of the one book of Coelho's that i have read, in the interests of completeness, if nothing else! Soon to follow...