A new genre for romance? A review of two of Paulo Coelho's books

Coelho, Paulo. By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept  (1994)
Coelho, Paulo. Hippie. (2018)

Pir Vilayat Khan recently commented to me, “Your first Rumi volumes seemed very sexual.” He’s right. There is too much of that energy in the first work with Rumi I did, especially in some of the quatrains. I was very wet with such water at the time myself. I was thirty-nine. Now I’m sixty-five. Things change; nothing wrong with that. What’s truly alive is always changing.
-Coleman Barks, translator of RUMI: THE BOOK OF LOVE: Poems of Ecstacy (sic) and Longing (2003)

[SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t read both books to the end, it might be better to withhold reading the following, which divulges important plot points.]

        In my independent reading, I’ve always been drawn to romantic tales of humans yearning and striving after lofty ideals. Philosophically, this makes me a Platonist, someone who believes in an ideal realm of existence beyond that which sense perception affords us.


         As a boy, my senses confirmed the perceptible reality around me as painful, conflicted, and wrong. I intuitively understood that the story of my family, where depression and substance abuse drove the drama, was unhealthy and inappropriate. I felt that somewhere out there must exist a land where order prevailed, where humans experienced joy and never had to feel lonely.
         So I was naturally drawn to stories that offered escapes into fictive worlds where Justice and Love (often in severe, even frightening forms) were undeniably manifest. I experienced a feeling of profound ease and contentment at the end of these narratives (like the chivalrous tales in Morte D’Arthur). Walking away from a session with a tale of the Knights of the Round Table,  I felt renewed and inspired, like Sir Galahad, to face whatever foe the adventure of my day would reveal. I knew that any sacrifice would be acceptable, because my cause would be Just, and there would be loving acceptance as my reward at the end.  In retrospect, those stories kept me going. It seems looking back that Providence sent that poor boy those tales to ease his mind, and give him mental distance from the bad craziness surrounding him. (Still a Platonist, I assert the existence of Providence in my life’s narrative!)
       That same happy refuge I found in my childhood reading, where virtuous people struggle through inner and outer difficulties to find personal and partnership transcendence, is the world of Paulo Coelho’s By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept and Hippie. The books were published 24 years apart, and I believe imply a maturation of Coelho’s Platonic conception of human love relationships, from one in which physical/sexual union has a necessary and enduring role, to one in which sexuality is almost negligible next to the unifying effects of metaphysical exercise. In these narratives, the reader is invited to take Platonic pleasure in contemplating how ultimately, the realm of material sense objects that passes for reality will itself pass. Only transcendent virtues will abide.
        There might be a biological explanation for this shift in the place of sexual love.  Coelho was 47 when he published the first book, and 71 when he published the second, which could explain the author’s developing concept of Platonic love. It correlates with Coleman Bark’s explanation of his evolving tone in the translation he did of Rumi’s love poetry (see epigraph), which has central importance in Hippie. “What’s truly alive is always changing,” we’re told, and as long as we have breath, and we’re moving through life, our voice will age, and our perceptions shift.
        Coelho’s asserts in these books that only spiritualized Love endures, and that a couple’s sexual relations, while natural and wonderful, are never the end they should settle for. Sex is seen as an important means by which humans can understand and strive toward the noble end of real (spiritualized) Love. In this Coelho’s can be connected to a modern tradition that includes Susan Horwath, Hermann Hesse, and W. Somerset Maugham in crafting what could be called narratives in the Spiritual Romance genre (which does not yet exist on goodreads.com. I checked)

           Let me be so bold as to outline some of the features of this narrative genre, Spiritual Romance, using these two Coelho works as exemplars.
       First, the hero/oine of the Spirtual Romance must have the following qualities in common with Prince Siddarttha.
The protagonist (“the lover”) is:

  • A tortured genius with a complicated past
  • Ascetic in temperament (“a little is enough” “sacrifice is the path”)
  • Moderately sociable, since s/he sees him/herself as a “seeker” first, then a companion
  • Physically handsome/beautiful
  • Aberrant in certain trait(s): special sensitivity or capacity (e.g., a male possessing stereotypically female traits of compassion and healing; a female with assertive “masculine” traits that set her apart, etc.)
  • Experienced, not a beginner, in the ways of love. Heartbreak or other trials have somewhat closed their hearts (or depressed them)

       As in any good “rom-com,” there is in this genre the “meet cute” of these experienced strivers. In Hippie, it happens in Dam Square, where Karla posts herself for a rendezvous with a mystery partner predicted by a fortune-teller. In Piedra, the meetup occurs via an unexpected invitation Pilar gets to a seminar with her unnamed childhood friend after a ten-years’ silence. Once in physical proximity to each other, there is undeniable physical chemistry. Yet in each story the lovers suppress their ids for a significant period of time. They need to first get right within themselves.
       Instead of going straight to bed, the lovers work through problems that arise in any relationship between two strong personalities. But the main striving each faces is within. Each must undergo a private, torturous ordeal, it seems, one that pushes the lover to sacrifice beyond what s/he thought possible. Only after emerging clean from the crucible of private renunciation does the lover feel worthy to unite physically with the other. Only then, Coelho’s narratives imply, can one’s love transcend one’s matter, and become worthy of another’s respect and that of the Universe. As the unnamed hero in Piedra remarks, “True Love is an act of total surrender.”
      While each of the heroes and heroines achieves an epiphany in a different Gesthemene, the Love that emerges at the end for each lover has similar traits: it requires the lover’s ego death and boldness, and it plunges us into deep communion with others and ourselves. In Piedra, for instance [SPOILERS AHEAD], the morning after Pilar has drunk two bottles of wine with her beloved at a fountain, she wakes up feeling victorious over the belittling voice of her unloving self (“the Other”) and come into a warm acceptance of who she is–spiritually and physically– for the first time:

“I got up, banished the Other [embodiment of the negative impulse, the ego ] from my thoughts, opened the window again and let the sun in. Its light bathed everything, the mountains with their snow-covered peaks, the ground blanketed in dry leaves, and.the river. The sun shone on me, bathing my nude body. I was no longer cold. I was consumed by a heat, the heat of a spark becoming a flame, the flame becoming a bonfire, the bonfire becoming an inferno. I knew. I wanted this. I also knew that from this moment on I was going to experience heaven and hell, joy and pain, dreams and hopelessness… I knew that from this moment on, love would be my guide…

Later, after Pilar’s near-death experience at the mountain monastery, she returns with a deep understanding that the irrational and mysterious spirit of love serves a primary function in humans:

“Son los locos que inventaron el amor” ~ It must have been the lunatics who invented love. But love is always new. Regardless of whether we love once, twice, or a dozen times in our life, we always face a brand-new situation. Love can consign us to hell or to paradise, but it always takes us somewhere. We simply have to accept it, because it is what nourishes our existence. If we reject it, we die of hunger, because we lack the courage to stretch out a hand and pluck the fruit from the branches of the tree of life. We have to take love where we find it, even if that means hours, days, weeks of disappointments and sadness.

       Similarly, in Hippie, after making physical love with Paulo for the second (and last) time in Istanbul, Karla is ready to finally “unlock” her heart and embrace him as her life partner. But the very next day Paulo’s path leads him away from Karla and the Himalayan retreat her soul has been yearning for. They’ve been traveling for weeks on the Magic Bus toward that very destination. For less evolved lovers, this would pose a problem. But Karla has transcended the lover (Paulo) and herself (Ego), and come closer to the Platonic ideal of Love itself: She explains the process by which she came to see herself more mindfully:

The outer self, that which you believe yourself to be, is nothing more than a limiting place, a stranger to the true self… It’s something I’ll never be able to explain, but suddenly, I don’t know exactly the moment, my heart opened. And I’m going to love you for the rest of my life. When I’m in Nepal, I’ll be loving you. When I return to Amsterdam, I’ll be loving you. When I finally fall for someone else, I’ll continue loving you, even if in a different way from today.

And in a lyrical prayer to a God she’s been estranged from, Karla petitions to receive the benefit of her and Paulo’s lessons concerning the most important reality, the crown of thorns that is love’s prize:

God…I ask to never again allow me to be satisfied with only my own company; that I never feel afraid of needing someone, or of suffering, because there is no suffering worse than the dark, grey room where pain cannot reach. And that this love so many people speak of, so many share, so many suffer on account of, that this love lead me to that which was unknown and is now becoming clearer. That, as a poet once said, ‘he takes me to a world where there exists no sun, no moon, no stars, no earth, not even the taste of wine in my mouth. Merely the other–he whom I will find because you opened the way”…

How close Karla’s final epiphany is to Pilar’s in Piedra! In both stories, the mere act of communicating the insight suffices. Tearing it into pieces and hurling it into the river, Pilar’s story becomes a rounded stone for the benefit of future pilgrims’ feet.

      Besides being very satisfying Spiritual Romances, with transcended lovers achieving a kind of apotheosis at the close like Abelard and Heloise, these books of Coelho stand up as solid travelogues. Piedra takes the reader into the starkly beautiful Pyrenees, and onto the ancient Camino Santiago, while Hippie relates (one presumes) Coelho’s own experience in a volatile South America in the late 60s, and then later, in an 1970’s Amsterdam that is happy to capitalize on being one of the hubs of the counter-culture. From Holland we travel with a bus of seekers on the Magic Bus through Western Europe and into the Soviet Bloc before getting as far as Istanbul, where East meets West. Readers who like a realistic travelogue into exotic locales will find much to enjoy in these books.
      I also appreciated Coelho’s exposition of Madonna worship and charismatic speaking in tongues (in Piedra), reminding readers of God’s ancient, female character. He does something similar in Hippie when he sketches Sufism for the reader, a mystical, ecstatic religious tradition often overlooked. Paulo’s day-long dancing and chanting through the streets of Amsterdam with the Hare Krishnas is equally engrossing to anyone who ever wondered what it would have been like to live among those Orange-robed dancers and chanters of the early 1970s.
       Critics of Coelho’s writing assault his superficiality. And regarding incident and detail, his style is scarce. His narrator does not dwell, like a great novelist’s might, in the minutiae of the dramatic moments.Once Pilar and her lover begin their journey, it moves at a brisk pace considering all that is achieved in a single week. [Incidentally, there is a trilogy of Coelho books called “On the Seventh Day” that begins with Piedra. I think I’ll try another to see how it conforms to the pattern I’m describing.]
      But to my Spiritual Romance-loving mind, Coelho’s explanations of his characters’ psychology is clear and plausible. And when he does sink into an episode, as he does when explaining the huge impact of the 1968 riots in Paris, or when he relates the French university student Marie’s first LSD experience (which perilously occurs in the Istanbul marketplace, with Karla functioning as a kind of Beatrice to her less experienced friend), his writing is strongly affecting.
      Maybe because I am somewhat older, I felt the big reversal near the end Piedra felt a bit forced, but that book was a novel, not a memoir, and if Coelho’s editor told him he should make it more “Hollywood,” that would make sense.
       The more realistic finish for me was Hippie’s definitive irresolution. We’re not sure at the close whether Karla is communing with God in her Himalayan cave, has been sold into white slavery and an early death, or is working as a mom and Yoga teacher in the country she earlier reviled. All seem equally possible.
       Paulo’s continuing to wonder (in the afterword) about his lover decades later feels more appropriate for a memoir of a Platonic love affair, too, since in life, only death is final. Whether immediately present or not, the transcendental lovers remain, through thought and commemoration, eternally connected.

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