As of this moment, Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian author of such novels as “Aleph’’ and “The Alchemist’’ is ranked on Amazon.com as one of its top sellers in literary fiction, religion, and spirituality, historical fiction, literary fiction, and self-help. Though assessing authors on the basis of their book sales is a method more suited to an industry reporter than a critic, the wide array of categories represented here provides insight into one of the reasons behind Coelho’s success.
Like Raul Seixas, a rock star for whom Coelho once wrote song lyrics, he is a crossover artist; he purveys spiritual enlightenment in the guise of literary parables, attempting to do the work of Kahlil Gibran and Jorge Luis Borges simultaneously. Though some might titter at his T-shirt ready aphorisms, the fact that the brilliant translator of his books is Margaret Jull Costa — who has also translated the works of Jose Saramago, Javier Marias, and Fernando Pessoa — suggests that Coelho should be taken somewhat seriously. To update a line about Elvis, 10,552,144 likes on Coelho’s Facebook page can’t be all wrong.
The premise of Coelho’s latest work, “Manuscript Found in Accra,’’ has some basis in historical fact and allows the skeptical reader to hope that the author has written another of his trademark alchemical blends of pop fiction and pop philosophy. In a cave in Egypt in 1945, two brothers discover an urn full of papyruses, most of which wind up at the Coptic Museum in Cairo, and one of which is acquired by the Carl Jung Institute.
The papyruses come to be known as the Apocryphal Gospels. In 1982 — and here’s where Coelho’s imagination begins to take over — the narrator meets the son of a noted English archaeologist who discovered another manuscript, which the narrator claims to be transcribing in this novel. The manuscript was purportedly written in 1099 by a 21-year-old man on the eve of the Crusaders’ invasion of Jerusalem and recounts the dealings with a mysterious Greek man, referred to as the Copt, who counsels a group of men and women on their most pressing questions on love, loyalty, beauty and so forth.
This is an intriguing and playful premise, but as the novel proceeds it becomes dismayingly clear that it really is only a setup for a series of questions and answers through which the Copt (and, by extrapolation, Coelho) offers advice on how one should live his or her life. As the Copt and his followers await the arrival of the invaders, the advice ranges from the poetic (“Beauty exists not in sameness but in difference” ) to the tediously obvious (“None of us can know what tomorrow will hold, because each day has its good and its bad moments”). Some of it sounds like Chance the gardener in Jerzy Kosinski’s “Being There’’ (“Until the wheat is in the oven, it cannot be called bread.”) and some of it smacks of scripture (“Never repay hatred with hatred, but with justice.”). In fact, some of the Copt’s words of wisdom are lifted or adapted from the Koran and the Old and New Testaments, among other sources — i.e. “To he who knocks, the door will open.” is taken from Matthew’s “to him that knocks it shall be opened.”
Along the way, Coelho paraphrases or quotes, without crediting everyone, from luminaries such as Alfred Lord Tennyson to Octavio Paz to “Three Cups of Tea’’ author Greg Mortenson. Much of this could function well enough scrawled on the back of a notebook or posted on Twitter (where Coelho has more than 7 million followers) but to call this a novel is to stretch that term beyond recognition. It’s more like a series of Platonic dialogues.
And the self-seriousness with which the pronouncements are offered makes the Copt seem less like a profound thinker than a young cad quoting song lyrics and passing them off as his own. “Manuscript in Accra’’ winds up becoming less a book to be read than something to be skimmed and occasionally underlined, if one is so moved.
What is most interesting about Coelho’s approach is not anything he states or quotes, but what he suggests about how texts, biblical and otherwise, should be read. In this iPod shuffle worldview, anything and everything can be read selectively in order to provide either insight into or justification for one’s particular perspective. This is, perhaps, a somewhat interesting epiphany, but to have to slog through 200 pages of “Manuscript Found in Accra’’ to get there seems like a questionable trade-off; by novel’s end, the reader of this gospel of self-realization may begin to feel like a member of the chorus of followers in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,’’ parroting back their savior’s words — “Yes, we’re all individuals.”
Yes, we all find the wisdom and enlightenment we choose to find in what we choose to read — some of us find it in scripture; others find it in the works of Paulo Coelho. And some of the less religiously inclined may find it just as easily in our favorite songs — a passage from, say, the Rolling Stones, can apply equally well to life and to “Manuscript Found in Accra’’: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need.’’
Adam Langer is the author of the novels “Crossing California’’ and “The Thieves of Manhattan.’’ His next novel, “The Salinger Contract,” will be published in the fall.