Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Coelho’s Counter Alchemist: A Review of Eleven Minutes

(I would like to thank Curious Jew for recommending this book to me.)

Paulo Coelho is best known for his book, the Alchemist, a spiritual fable about a Spanish shepherd boy’s journey of discovery, traveling to see the pyramids and find his treasure. Eleven Minutes can be seen as Coelho countering his own book and turning it on its head. The title, Eleven Minutes, is a reference to the amount of time it takes for the actual act of sex once one takes away everything that leads up to it. This is the story of Maria, a girl from a small rural Brazilian village, who becomes a prostitute in Geneva, Switzerland. Like Santiago, the hero of the Alchemist, Maria is also on a spiritual journey, with many different stops, which changes her and changes the people that she meets on the way. Coelho even engages in some self parody in the book itself, noting that Maria had read by a “certain Brazilian author,” which talked about pursuing ones dreams.

Coelho is conscious of this turn about. He dedicates Eleven Minutes to an elderly fan, whom he met in France, right before the publication of the book. This man came over to Coelho and thanked him for his work and told him how “they make him dream.” This frightened Coelho, knowing that Eleven Minutes would likely offend this man. It would be very easy to accuse Coelho of selling out and writing a pornographic novel all for the sake of trying to shed his “clean-cut,” “wholesome” image and gain the respect of the literary establishment by writing something “daring” and “controversial.” Certainly Coelho does not pull any punches here; Eleven Minutes is quite explicit and is not for everyone. With that being said, Eleven Minutes is a powerful spiritual work and a worthy companion to the Alchemist, which explores the distinction between love and sex and pleasure and pain by examining them as spiritual entities.

There is a long history of religious literature dealing with the theme of the redeemed prostitute. For example there is the story of Thais. She was a prostitute who was converted by the church father Athanael. She then went off to a nunnery and, to repent for her sinning ways, lived in a box until the end of her life. Eleven Minutes can be seen as an heir to this sort of storyline. Not that Maria finds God or Jesus or the like. Coelho is too smart for that; he recognizes that to reach people, in this day and age, one cannot simply appeal to some religious structure. One needs to be able to go back to the basics and talk about spiritual values. For this reason, even though Coelho’s work is effused with Christianity and no one reading him would think that he is anything but a Christian, Coelho does not preach Christianity. This has helped Coelho reach people of all creeds.

Eleven Minutes is, in a sense, a traditional love story with a female character torn between two male characters and having to choose between them. The two men competing for Maria are Ralf Hart, an artist, and Terence, an English music executive. The twist here is that Maria’s relationships with these two men are distinctive for the lack of sex; she sleeps with lots of men so sex cannot define a relationship for her. Maria’s relationship with Terence is built around the exploration of pleasure through pain. Terence is a sadomasochist, who finds fulfillment through bondage and humiliation. Ralf is in love with Maria; he sees an inner light within her and desires for her to see that light. There are two climatic scenes in the book in which Maria “makes love” with the two male protagonists. With Terence she undergoes a ritualized process of humiliation in order to achieve the spiritual high that Terence knows so well. With Ralf, she gets naked with him and the two of them close their eyes and start to feel each other in order to experience the other as they truly are. Both of these scenes are quite graphic, but in neither of these scenes is these scenes is there any actual sex. This is the essential irony of the book. Sex is such a presence that its absence speaks volumes; sex is so important to this book yet its importance makes it irrelevant.

In Coelho’s hands, Maria’s two relationships come to symbolize two different forms of religious experience. Terence is the religious aesthetic, the flagellant, who embraces his own suffering. Ralf finds his spirituality through joy. Ultimately the book becomes a defense of the later and an attack on the former. Coelho’s argument, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, is that service through joy is the more authentic approach and hence more spiritual than service through suffering. Ralf’s love, which wins out, is the sort of Eros that C. S. Lewis talked about in Four Loves. He is in love with an idea of Maria and his greatest joy is to be able to think about her. He does not desire sex. In a sense sex would take away from what he has. As Lewis noted this love, when seen in its true sense, is a profoundly spiritual love because there is no demand for physical pleasure. On the contrary it often means the sacrifice of physical pleasure.

As I said earlier, Eleven Minutes is not for everyone. I would defiantly not recommend this for someone’s first foray into Coelho’s work. I would hope, though, that those already immersed in Coelho, will not hold themselves back from reading this book. I think that this book allows one to better appreciate Coelho’s other work. Coelho’s light shines all the better when seen in the darkness.


love to read said...

A rather interesting way of learning about the meaning of love.
You did a good job describing this book.
Curiousjew never ALWAYS has good pics,espcially when it comes to books. Glad you are friends!

Izgad said...

I assume you meant to say "Curious Jew Always has good pics." As to us being friends. I would not put too much into it as I have not actually spoken to her for over a year and a half now. I have on occasion commented on her blog and she has responded.