Brazilian author thrives on contradictions, extremes

'The Witch of Portobello,' out May 15, offers inspirational messages

Posted: Friday, May 11, 2007

PARIS - Paulo Coelho hates seeing books neglected, gathering dust on his shelves. And so he leaves most of what he reads in parks, bus stations, his local Japanese restaurant, for random readers to find.

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"One day the shelves in my apartment collapsed, and I saw all my books on the floor, and I thought to myself, why do I have these books, to impress my friends?" the author of "The Alchemist" said, explaining how he lugs bags of books around to give them away. "I feel a book must travel."

And so the walls of Coelho's otherwise luxurious Paris apartment are lined with near-empty wooden bookcases, giving the place a strangely spare atmosphere despite the moldings, high ceilings and carefully arranged sofa cushions.

The Brazilian writer is full of contradictions.

With his gray beard, knowing eyes and talk of dreams and inspiration, he seems like a sage - then suddenly he's talking with glee about his global book sales. He's drawn to the ascetic life, following pilgrimage routes or wandering in the Mojave desert, yet he's an Internet addict who's in "withdrawal" without his computer. He's a talker - at ease in English and French as well as Portuguese - but every few months he goes into retreat in the countryside.

"My life is extremes, I am totally connected and totally disconnected, there are these moments of retreat, and that means to be really disconnected, with nothing, just silence," he said, sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor in front of his couch.

Like Coelho's past novels, his new book, "The Witch of Portobello," out May 15 in the United States, offers inspirational messages and spiritual musing wrapped up in the package of a novel.

Its blend of mysticism, signs, visions and visitations will enchant some readers and leave others confused - about where the novel is going, and about what it is exactly that makes Coelho one of the world's best-selling writers across borders. He has sold about 75 million books in 150 countries and 63 languages.

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