The Brazilian author Paulo Coelho has sold over 178 million books worldwide. His most famous book, The Alchemist, is one of the best-selling books in history and has been translated into 68 languages making it the most translated book by any living author. He is also a Catholic Christian. In a recent interview he talked about some of the things he has learnt from Jesus. This part of what he said:
“Jesus lived a life that was full of joy and contradictions and fights, you know? If they were to paint a picture of Jesus without contradictions, the gospels would be fake, but the contradictions are a sign of authenticity. So Jesus says: ‘Turn the other face,’ and then he can get a whip and go woosh! The same man who says: ‘Respect your father and mother’ says: ‘Who is my mother?’ So this is what I love – he is a man for all seasons.”
His latest book, Manuscript Found in Accra, refers heavily to the New Testament, containing biblical and spiritual themes. It is described by its publisher, HarperCollins, as ‘a life-affirming book which together with The Alchemist are the perfect books for anybody going through serious life changes or just after a much needed morale boost.’ They’ve asked me if I’d be interested in reviewing it from a Christian perspective. I have to admit that I’m not familiar with his work, but Andrea Skevington who has authored the award-winning Lion Classic Bible has read a number of his books and has kindly offered to review it for this site. Here is her review:
What a joy, a brand new book to review, and by Paulo Coelho, too! I remember when a friend recommended The Alchemist, I read it with great pleasure, and then quickly went on to borrow more of Coelho’s novels from the library.
As I read this one, I remembered why I had enjoyed them, and also, why I never quite made it to the end of the shelf. There is much in this book to delight Paulo Coelho’s many fans. It contains moments of beautiful prose, and breathes a well-lived wisdom through its pages. Other readers will find it too nebulous, too unorthodox for their taste. I found myself in both camps at once, so I do not feel a very settled or certain reviewer.
I can start on solid ground, though, by telling you what the book is about. We are, in the world of the book, reading a manuscript from the time of the Crusades, and the manuscript records the last evening of Jerusalem before the city falls to the French. The fearful people of the city have gathered “in the same square where, a millennium ago, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, handed Jesus over to the mob to be crucified” and they ask questions of the Greek, known to all as the Copt. The book is constructed as a series of questions, or implied questions, and answers. We know a little about the people who seek answers: for example, “And a woman who was getting on in years and had never found a husband, said: ‘Love has always passed me by’”. The answers we read are specific – an answer for this woman, at this moment in her life – and universal – an answer for us all.
The book does not have a story, there is no unfolding plot, and I think it works well as something to be read and savoured a little at a time, a dilemma at a time. Of course, we do progress through these ideas, these insights, but it is not in the manner of the classical Greek dialogue of Plato. We are not progressing by logic, but by something else, something less tangible.
Much of the writing is fine, and much of the wisdom is good, and helpful. I was particularly struck by his words on love, on living courageously, on defeat, and on community. His writing, too, on enemies and forgiveness is memorable, and bears truth. “The wounded person should ask himself: ‘Is it worth filling my heart with hatred and dragging the weight of it around with me?’” There are also threads that run though the whole book, and I was particularly moved by the thread that spoke of the value of the ordinary, the everyday, the way we live in love and kindness among each other. That is a truth worth dwelling on.
Coelho’s prose is rich in epigrams: “Only he who gives up is defeated, everyone else is victorious…. Wait patiently for the right moment to act. Do not let the next opportunity slip by you. Take pride in your scars”, and whether you respond well to the book will depend on how you like your epigrams. He does write lucidly on spiritual matters in a way that is accessible to many millions of people. His words have a way of speaking truth to those who have struggled with conventional religion, who feel they are within a besieged city while the orthodox believers intimidate beyond the walls. They remind all of us that we need to do better, and speak truth better. As the book progresses, we find more and more examples where he is saying the words of Jesus. I was rather delighted by finding these words in a different setting: a different setting casts new light on the stone. However, I think it will need further readings to fully understand how these words have been used. Context matters.
I am much less comfortable with the way the book is framed, and the expectations it sets up. The Preface and Greeting includes some discussion on ancient manuscripts, including the formulation of the New Testament, which I found unclear in its intent. It is well worth considering how we have arrived at the Cannon, but this passing glance does not do the topic justice. There seems to be an implication just under the surface that this particular “Manuscript found in Accra” is to be seen in the same sweep as other wisdom literature. This reference to ancient and highly esteemed texts, coupled with the structure of a Socratic dialogue, raises our expectations too high. I would have been more delighted with the beauty of some insights, and more inclined to overlook the thinness of others, if I had not been invited to compare the work to the teachings of the New Testament, or the writings of Plato.
Similarly, some words at the end made me uneasy: “ ‘Blessed are those who hear these words or read this manuscript, because the veil will be rent from top to bottom, and there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed to you.’” The tearing of the veil will of course bring to mind the moment recorded in the Gospels, when darkness covered the land, and Jesus breathed his last, and the veil in the Temple that screened off the Holy of Holies was torn in two. The tearing of the veil was not to do with wisdom, or words, or manuscripts. It was to do with the death of Jesus, the work he accomplished on the cross, and indeed the revelation of God. Coelho’s grammar is open to interpretation here, but I think he aims too high with his words.
If we look at the warmth and wisdom of the reflections in this book, we see much that is good, and true, much that will help and sustain. Nevertheless I cannot help feeling a little unsatisfied, a little hungry, after reading it. I shall now expand my reading to learn more of the original writings of the Early Christians; and the ancient and still persecuted Coptic Church, which is, I presume, connected with this particular “Copt”. My curiosity has been piqued.
Manuscript Found in Accra is published by HarperCollins and can be purchased from various book retailers including Amazon, here.