Brazilian author Paulo Coelho is the author of “The Alchemist,” a book I haven’t read but understand is a book that many embraced.
I tried to embrace “The Spy,” his most recent novel from last year, which is a reworking of the final days of notorious World War I spy Mata Hari. It is a novel that fell awfully short of convincing me that Mata Hari was “a woman whose greatest sin was having a free mind in a world where people were becoming increasingly closed-off.”
Well, Coelho is still claiming that “he has flirted with death, escaped madness, dallied with drugs, withstood torture, experimented with magic and alchemy, studied philosophy and religion, read voraciously, lost and recovered his faith, and experienced the pain and pleasure of love. In searching for his own place in the world, he has discovered answers for the challenges that everyone faces. He believes that, within ourselves, we have the necessary strength to find our own destiny.”
Oh, boy, here we go again.
“Hippie” contains a lot of what Coelho says he “flirted with.” It chronicles the author’s ostensibly coming into himself during the psychedelic 1960s and ’70s, especially on the Magic Bus that drove Flower Children of that era through Europe to Kathmandu.
Getting on that bus in Amsterdam is Paulo, a young man sometimes called “the Brazilian.” (Get it?)
Amsterdam’s Dam Square is one of the central gathering spaces for young people wearing pulsating colors with their blue jeans and their long hair. (On the back of the book’s dust jacket is a full-page photo of Coelho intent upon proving just that.).
In Dam Square, Paulo meets Karla — she’s slightly older than he — and agrees to accompany her to Nepal via the Magic Bus.
The 20 people on the bus all have stories to tell (like Chaucer has his Canterbury pilgrims pass the time?). Then, after everyone tells their stories, they find time to behave like all good hippies are supposed to behave.
Sex: There’s the obligatory skinny dip in all the requisite rivers.
Drugs: There’s the obligatory acid trip, this one at the Istanbul Bazaar, a trip that begins with chewing a piece of page 155 of Karla’s copy of “The Lord of the Rings,” a page soaked in LSD!
Rock ’n’ roll: There’s the obligatory immersion in whatever available enlightenment there might be.
Quaint, maybe, but all of this is presented in the most florid prose imaginable. One of the bus passengers says, for example: “‘I need to immerse my soul and my body in rivers I’ve not yet known, drink things I’ve not yet drunk, contemplate mountaintops I’ve only seen on television.’”
Karla will tell Paulo at the end of their journey together: “‘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.’”
What sort of book is “Hippie” intended to be anyway? History? Memoir? Fiction?
To further the confusion, Coelho freely admits in an author’s note, “All of the characters in this book are real but — with the exception of two — had their names changed due to the complete impossibility of finding them (I knew them only by their first names).”
That’s the inherent problem with Paulo Coelho’s new book. It seems to be searching for direction just as much as those who boarded that bus in September 1970 for their “Magical Mystery Tour.”
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.