This is the first book I’ve read by Paulo Coelho and, I suspect, it won’t be my last. The whole novel is, in many ways, a contradiction in motion and, true to that spirit, much of what I think of it is contradiction too. It is certainly one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read yet possibly the most easy to read. In short: it is philosophers’ porn.
I’ll come back to that and justify my statement shortly. First, for those who haven’t read it and are considering it let me tell you the novel is about a young Brazilian prostitute and her adventures in both sex and love as she spends a year in Geneva. Coelho is both very explicit about sexual activity yet also tells you almost nothing. It is erotica without being erotic; pornographic without being about porn; solely concerned with sexual activity yet highly spiritual and innocent. Don’t read if you don’t care to read about clitorises, vaginas and penises. Don’t read either if you want something to arouse you and help you masturbate. It isn’t that kind of a book.
Even Coelho’s writing style is contradictory. Every budding writer will spot instantly that he writes appallingly according to the writing gurus because the whole book is ‘tell not show’ which is completely the wrong way around. Certainly I found it uncomfortable to read at first as I felt like it was a man telling me in person about something that happened to someone else rather than a novel where you feel yourself sink into the world of the characters themselves. I didn’t lose myself into this novel. I was always reading a book in my room where I am in my country and my world.
Yet, that isn’t criticism. What Coelho managed – and which so few other writers achieve (though the good ones bring me oh so close) – was to make me lose myself in my own world. I had been advised by one friend to read it slowly because every page makes you think and this was sage advice. The book is so easy to read I could have finished it in a single day, but instead I found myself often having to put the book down because what I’d read had generated so many thoughts that I couldn’t concentrate on it any longer.
Although I didn’t identify nor come to care about any of the characters, I did find their thoughts and reflections sparked many and contradictory reflections of my own. One minute this character made me think of someone, then in the next paragraph that same character made me think of someone else, then it was me the character reminded me of, but in the next sentence they didn’t. And so on it went throughout the whole book.
It is little wonder that Coelho is so loved and so often quoted around the world. Though some find some of his books a little too ‘preachy’ (and I can see hints of that here) many identify with the thoughts he generates and love him for them. I can particularly see why women identify with his books. In this case, the research he undertook with real prostitutes must surely have given him insight which enabled him to understand at least something of how a woman thinks and feels.
I loved the earthy reality of his subject matter. This is about sex, the abuse of it, the life of prostitution and the reality of sexual love which is usually far from the clean, straightforward presentation you find in romantic novels and movies. Yet there is no titillation here. This isn’t some ‘Fifty Shades’ to arouse the reader and make them dream of dark sexual desires. This is deeply philosophical but not about life, faith, the purpose of being or other lofty and impractical considerations. This is about what it means to be a woman (and, to an extent, a man) as a sexual being but also a spiritual one. This is about why sex goes wrong or fails to be fulfilling for so many. This is about challenging what we think of the sexual act, its meaning, its worth and the moral compass by which we judge it. I love this kind of challenge because it is rooted in reality. You can walk away from this book changed in a way that might not ‘save the world’ but could very well save you.
So I stick with my opening summary: this is philosophers’ porn. This may not be a heavy treatise into deep thoughts; there may be no intricate or even accurate theology or anything to tax the mind of a philosophy student at university. But in the ‘telling’ rather than showing Coelho manages to fire out a thousand thoughts which make you stop and question and does so at such speed that for the thinker it’s like philosophical foreplay. How you reach orgasm at the end of it though, is up to you. I’m saying nothing.
Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page.
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org