Brazilian author Paulo Coelho has published 30 books of fiction, poetry, and spiritual guidance, selling tens of millions of copies in as many as 70 languages. Like oral-tradition fables or Biblical parables, Coelho tells tales of characters immersed in universal struggles (such as the search for one’s destiny, or the balance between erotic temptation and love) peppered with quotable life advice. Here, we’ve rounded up the top Coelho classics and teased out the lessons on love, sex, and hardship they provide.
Good things come to those who persevere
In The Alchemist, Coelho’s most popular novel, a young Spanish shepherd named Santiago has a prophetic dream that treasure awaits him in some distant land. After consulting with a gypsy who tells him the treasure lies under the Pyramids of Giza and Egypt, he embarks upon a long and arduous journey across Africa. The obstacles he encounters in the desert—he struggles to secure food and shelter, crosses paths with armies, and even falls in love—make him second-guess his dubious quest. But for every hurdle discouraging him, there’s a signpost reminding him to keep his faith alive. Early in his journey an old king tells Santiago: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
Pain is inevitable
Coelho’s 2013 novel opens in 1099 in Jerusalem, where citizens of the walled city are awaiting an attack from crusaders. Anxious and desperate, they hang on the words of a wise man known only as the Copt. The Copt’s central message is that the pain and destruction they are all anticipating is unavoidable, and that anxiety and worry will do nothing to stop it. Once his listeners have accepted that they have limited control over their fate, they’re able to transcend their fear, savor the present moment, and focus their attention on higher matters, including beauty, sex, success, and love.
Don’t wait for life to be over to appreciate it
Veronika Decides to Die is one of Coelho’s darker novels and, at the same time, one of his more life-affirming. It’s the story of a successful but unhappy 24-year-old girl who, following a suicide attempt, wakes in a psychiatric hospital where a doctor tells her she has only a few weeks to live. This is a ruse—the doctor theorizes that if Veronika believes her death to be imminent, she’ll learn to appreciate her life. And he is right: Adopting a “nothing to lose” attitude, Veronika allows herself to experience the world and her emotions more fully and intensely than ever before. In its depictions of mental health professionals as controlling and manipulative, the novel sends a complicated message about psychiatric care. But Veronika’s realization resonates for anyone who has struggled to see beauty amid the pain of life.
Love is bigger than pleasure
Eleven Minutes explores two types of affection—one based in “true love” and the other in sensual pleasure—through the character of Maria, a successful prostitute working in Sweden. Maria’s line of work, which requires her to indulge the sometimes-dubious fantasies of wealthy men, has heightened her sense of erotic pleasure while forcing her to keep her heart closed. But when she meets and falls in love with a young painter, she rediscovers a deeper, more spiritual affection. Through Maria’s new confusion and vulnerability, Coelho weighs the risks and rewards of higher love: “Keeping passion at bay or surrendering blindly to it,” he writes. “Which of these two attitudes is the least destructive?”
It’s never too late to be reborn
Aleph is Coelho’s novelization of his own “crisis of faith” that he experienced in middle age. The protagonist (also Paulo) has every reason to be satisfied—he’s financially successful, happily married, and surrounded by good friends—but a lack of mystery and spiritual wonder has left him feeling anxious and at loose ends. He sets out on a journey that takes him from Africa to Europe to Asia, reawakening his senses and reminding himself of life’s mystical essence. The novel is a reminder to anyone feeling numbed by day-to-day drudgery that one’s spiritual side can always be awakened.
This piece originally ran in April 2013.