The first country on my reading trip around the world is Brazil.
Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian author, most famous for his allegorical short novel The Alchemist. I have read that book previously, and found the writing style fascinating. The simplicity initially irritated me. ‘I could write this’ I thought, which is always a thought that irritates me if it is about a best-selling book, and I have not in fact written a best-seller myself. But then as the story progressed I found the cadence soothing, and the interspersed references to multiple different religious stories and philosophies to be intriguing. It has now been translated into 67 languages, and is one of the all time best selling books.
I saw Eleven Minutes at a second hand book sale, and it was soon mine for the minuscule price of $2.
As he says in the dedication at the front, this novel deals with a harsh, difficult subject- prostitution- but i found it was never judgemental, pessimistic or overly dark. It was like being carried along inside the consciousness of the main character, a young woman from rural Brazil called Maria, who travels to Geneva in search of adventure, and finds a different sort of adventure than she had planned. But we are slightly removed; we ourselves are not caught up in what is happening and what she is thinking to the same extent as we are in most novels that get us to identify as though we ourselves are the main character. I wondered whether this was Coelho’s writing style itself, the effect of translation or something to do with the language it was originally written in (Portuguese), because there was a similar effect in the Alchemist. The act of reading feels like a meditation. And although we see the happenings from the view point of the main character, we feel a slight detachment, and into that space Coelho brings in another aspect- what is her soul thinking and feeling, and how it is changing throughout the novel.
Favourite quotes (and thoughts about them):
“I have reached the conclusion that sex has come to be used as some kind of drug: in order to escape reality, to forget about problems, to relax. And like all drugs, this is a harmful and destructive practise”
The nature of sex, how it relates to love, why we do it, what we gain and lose from it… this is really the key subject matter of this book.Is it just physical, it is spiritual? There are many questions that could be explored. I had thought that more of this post would be about this, but I will let you read and make up you own mind what you think the answers are (if there are any). There were many interesting thoughts about it in the book; the above is just one quote that stood out when flipping through afterwards.
“It is true that we only know each other when we come up against our own limits, but it is wrong too, because it isn’t necessary to know everything about ourselves; human beings weren’t made solely to go in search of wisdom but also to plow the land, wait for rain, plant the what, harvest the grain, make the bread”
There is self- knowledge to be gained by learning new things, and pushing yourself into trying things you haven’t experienced, but there also a centering on your true self to be gained by living out the self-knowledge you already have. When is the right time to act in either mode? That is the hardest thing to know.
‘I felt that pain is a woman’s friend.’
‘that is the danger.’
‘I also felt that pain has its limits.’
‘That is salvation.’
“Pain is frightening when it shows its real face, but it’s seductive when it comes disguised as sacrifice or self-denial.”
“At every moment of our lives, we all have one foot in a fairy tale and the other in the abyss”
This just feels true to me. I think that at some level we are all aware the we are constantly in contradiction with ourselves. No one is just one thing. Often the facets of our personalities and life can create tension, and distress. For example, we may be someone who highly values our family and friends, while also being a shy or low energy person who often finds interacting with said family and friends to be exhausting. One one hand we want to spend as much time with them as possible, and on the other we want limit our time out with them as much as possible. The second factor does not mean we care any less.
Coelho reminds us that we can treat ourselves and our inner conflicts gently and with curiosity. I find it to be a theme that runs through his writings, and is then sometimes referred to more directly:
“I am two women: one who wants to have all the joy, passion and adventure that life can give me. The other wants to be a slave to routine, to family life, to the things that can be planned and achieved. I’m a house wife and a prostitute, both of us living in the same body and doing battle with each other. The meeting of these two women is a game with serious risks. A divine dance… If the meeting is not carried out with due reverence, on universe destroys the other.”
The juxtaposition of opposing ideas and qualities is also shown in the poem at the beginning labelled ‘Hymn to Isis’. For anyone who is interested, it is in fact part of longer text, ‘The Thunder, Perfect Mind’ which doesn’t specify which deity it relates to, and probably draws from both Egyptian and Jewish tradition. The full text can be found here.