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Heart Of Gold . . . With A Side Of Schmaltz

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Eleven Minutes

Paulo Coelho

Even if you’re not familiar with Paulo Coelho, you may have heard of a book called The Alchemist; it’s his most famous work and a book that everyone’s parents seem to like. It is, apparently, a simple and well-received holiday or birthday gift for the baby-boomer crowd. I haven’t read it so I’m not entirely sure what it’s about – although I think it has something to do with setting your old life aside and heading out into the world in search of adventure, which I think appeals to certain over-50's who may be bored, restless and in the throes of what could graciously be called their ‘mid-life crises.’

In Eleven Minutes, which is declaratively a book about sex, Coelho is definitely aiming for that same audience. Because, while it is about sex, it’s not about sex. It’s about the lead-up to sex, the aftermath of sex, the different types of sex, the societal role of sex both past and present, sex as metaphor for spiritual rebirth, sex within the context of love etc. But the actual act is always glossed over in the writing; we never really get an indication of what exactly is going on, except for one instance near the end, but shortly after this point the prose goes off into such poetical fancy that again you get the impression that Coelho is trying to walk some self-imposed line of being ‘real’ about sex without offending any of his genteel, middle-aged readers.

Why is this relevant? Because the protagonist, Maria, is a prostitute. She doesn’t start off this way, of course; she begins as a naïve young woman from a small town in the interior of Brazil, who decides to find some adventure by going to Switzerland to work as a dancer, make some money, find a husband and live a ‘happy,’ or at least secure, life. Of course, things don’t work out the way she planned, and she ends up falling into prostitution somewhat by accident and then sticks with it because the money is so good. She decides she will stay for one year before going back to Brazil and buying a farm, but, of course, just as she is planning to leave, she meets a man and falls in love, and so the drama ensues.

For almost an entire year, Maria has sex with different men three times a night, five nights a week. This fact, even if the author thinks it is only secondary to the plot, cannot be tossed aside as lightly as Coelho does. When he does mention it, we hear about going to the hotel room, then a brief mention of the eleven minutes she spends with the client (hence the name of the book), followed immediately by ‘then she had a shower.’ Never any talk or worry at all about disease, pregnancy, physical tiredness or stress – only vagaries about how she never feels pleasure from these encounters, but overall never any sort of negative impact. Which is not to say there necessarily has to be negative impact from this lifestyle, but the fact it’s never explored satisfactorily only confirms that while Coelho may think he’s taking all sorts of risks in writing this ‘scandalous’ book, what he really ends up with is just a rehash of Pretty Woman.

And he really does think he’s doing something unique and risqué, which makes it all the more absurd. He dedicates the book to a fan of his that he met while writing it; he says he was ‘frightened’ for what the man might think upon reading it, since the book was so ‘harsh, difficult (and) shocking.’ Well, sorry to disappoint Paulo, but you don’t have anything close to producing a Lady Chatterly’s Lover-type outcry here.

All this being said, however, I did enjoy the book. Despite the aforementioned glaring weaknesses in the story and the author’s hubris, what is here is compelling enough for me to recommend it. There’s a humanity to the characters that is sorely missing in much of modern writing; these are caring, feeling, thinking people, not just empty caricatures or props within some irony-laced, overly-constructed post-modernist diatribe. What he does say about sex and love is often very honest and moving, even if unabashedly romantic, which is not such a bad thing. There is over-simplification, but it is usually balanced with heart-felt insight, and, despite the typical ending, it still manages to maintain a solid measure of credence.

Overall, a flawed book, but worth the read. 03971semaj

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