Paulo Coelho's 'Eleven Minutes': Anatomy of a pop-culture miracle

On Books

April 04, 2004|By Michael Pakenham

Take The Bridges of Madison County and stitch on a Hallmark Card coda. Embroider in swaths of the gurgling infantilism of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Then give the novel a central character straight out of a Horatio Alger saga -- except that instead of Dudley Doright chastely scaling a golden staircase of probity and personal industry, the character-in-chief is a 22-year-old from a Brazilian back-country village who makes her fortune -- quite cheerfully -- doing three tricks a night out of a friendly Swiss family brothel in Geneva.

This is a thumbnail precis of Eleven Minutes, by Paulo Coelho (HarperCollins, 288 pages, $24.95). It would be of no interest to readers of even the mildest literary inclination -- except that the author, according to his publicists, has sold more than 50 million copies of his previous eight books, in 57 languages in 150 countries. His most successful novel, a "spiritual quest" called The Alchemist, is said to have sold 27 million and to have pleased a panoply of notables, including President Clinton. This latest tome already is the top fiction best seller in Germany, which, if my memory serves, produced Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, inter alia.

The story begins in Maria's early adolescence, born to a struggling family in rural Brazil, and follows her briefly through her teen-age years. While growing beautiful she is disappointed by romantic love, and begins to think of men as manageable and exploitable.

Coelho begins the book: "Once upon a time, there was a prostitute called Maria. Wait a minute. 'Once upon a time' is how all the best children's stories begin and 'prostitute' is a word for adults. How can I start a book with this apparent contradiction? But since, at every moment of our lives, we all have one foot in a fairy tale and the other in the abyss, let's keep that beginning." He does.

At 22 she goes to Rio de Janeiro for the first time, on a week's vacation she has long saved up for. She stands on the beach and looks out on the ocean: "Her geography lessons told her that if she set off in a straight line, she would reach Africa, with its lions and jungles full of gorillas. However, if she headed in a slightly more northerly direction, she would end up in the enchanted kingdom known as Europe, with its Eiffel Tower, EuroDisney and Leaning Tower of Pizza." Pizza -- get it? Ah! Sweet innocence!

She meets a Swiss man who is recruiting dancers for his showplace nightclub in Geneva. She signs a contract, gets an advance, arrives, begins dancing and is paid barely enough to get along. Facing disappointment, she writes in the diary that she keeps punctiliously and is quoted throughout the book -- "I can choose either to be a victim of the world or an adventurer in search of treasure. It's all a question of how I view my life."

So she drops out of the samba line, which is Swissily respectable -- no chatting with customers -- and finds her way to the notorious Rue de Berne, a venue of nightclubs run for the sole purpose of off-site prostitution. She enlists in the Copacabana, where the proprietor is a protective, prudent family man who demands only 50 of the 350 Swiss francs (U.S. $273) that each customer pays, plus the price of a hotel room. She can make in one night what took two months in Brazil. She adapts quickly. She finds the trade neither pleasant nor unpleasant. There is no violence, no humiliation. It's business, and dull business at that.

She had arrived knowing only Portuguese, but takes a class and apparently within a matter of weeks is speaking and understanding fluent, nuanced French. She is acutely lonely, but resigned to it -- and has chosen decisively to avoid emotional involvement with anyone. She gradually becomes aware that her clients are mostly stressed and lonely (!), and starts reading psychology and self-help books. The clients seem to share her sense that nobody really cares about them.

"Something was very wrong with civilization," she is described as musing. "And it wasn't the destruction of the Amazon rainforest or the ozone layer, the death of the panda, cigarettes, carcinogenic foodstuffs or prison conditions, as the newspapers would have it. It was precisely the thing she was working with: sex."

She calculates that if one deducts practicalities and formalities -- chatting, handing over 350 francs, undressing and dressing -- the human sex act takes an average of 11 minutes. Thus the title of the book.

Within six months, she has 60,000 francs (U.S. $46,800) in the bank, and starts budgeting for the day she can return to Brazil, buy a farm for herself and her family and live happily ever after.

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