The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 21, 2003

Coelho’s experiment with the truth of sex
Manisha Gangahar

Eleven Minutes
by Paul Coelho. HarperCollins, London. Pages 275. £ 8.99.

Eleven Minutes"ONCE upon a time, there was a prostitute called Maria" begins Paulo Coelho, and one would, undoubtedly, find it tremendously difficult to put away his new novel before having read the final sentence. Even before the narrative gets into motion, Coelho makes it a point to justify the use of fairytale terminology in a story that does not belong to that genre. The story is about the bitter reality of the materialistic world of human beings.

Eleven Minutes is not merely a biographical account of a young Brazilian girl, Maria, whose aspirations are the same as those of every other girl: to find a rich husband who will provide her with a house and children and a life full of love. Instead, it is about her quest for harmony between the body and soul. Her adolescent passions disappoint her and she is disillusioned with the idea of love very early in life. Still she nurtures one dream, to visit Rio de Janeiro. The visit to the city is a turning point in her life. She meets a Swiss businessman there who promises to help her become a star if she agrees to accompany him to Europe. As must have happened and will continue to happen to many, Maria is trapped in the labyrinth of predicaments once she lands in Geneva. However, she has makes the choice of selling her body for the fulfillment of her desire to go back to her village triumphant.



Everything tells me that I am about to make a wrong decision, but making mistakes is just part of life. What does the world want of me? Does it want me to take to take no risks, to go back where I came from because I didn’t have the courage to say ‘yes’ to life?

I made my first mistake when I was 11 years old, when that boy asked me if I could lend him a pencil; since then, I’ve realised that sometimes you get no second chance and that it’s best to accept the gifts the world offers you. Of course, it’s risky, but is the risk any greater than the chance of the bus that took forty-eight hours to bring me here having an accident? If I must be faithful to someone or something, then I have, first of all to be faithful to myself. If I’m looking for true love, I first have to get the mediocre loves out of my system. The little experience that I have had has taught me that no one owns anything, that everything is an illusion... and that applies to material as well as spiritual things. Anyone who has lost something they thought was theirs forever (as has happened often enough to me already) finally comes to realise that nothing really belongs to them.

And if nothing belongs to me, then there’s no point wasting my time looking after things that aren’t mine; it’s best to live as if today were the first (or last) day of my life.

Nevertheless, at no point is the author moralistic or judgmental in any way. This is what Coelho said in an interview: "I’ve tried to avoid any kind of moralizing tone and in any way judging the main character for the choice she makes. What really interests me is how people relate to each other sexually. My intention, as always, is to be straightforward without being superficial." This is not to mean that sensual pleasure is the sole concern of the novel, instead it is crucial to the understanding of the myths that have been constructed about love and sex. Coelho tries to look beyond the conventions that people use to play safe, not realising that they are jeopardising their chances of experiencing tranquility and fulfillment by doing so. Partners are more often than not caught up in false pretensions and fail to discover and explore one another. Making love should not be merely an obligatory act but an endeavour to seek that blissful love which involves not only the body but also the soul. But most people do not do so. As Maria writes in her diary: "Although my aim is to understand love, and although I suffer to think of the people to whom I gave my heart, I see that those who touched my heart failed to arouse my body, and that those who aroused my body failed to touch my heart".

But Maria does meet her soul mate, Ralf Hart, in a cafe that stands across the signboard that reads ‘Road to Santiago’. This becomes a metaphor for the fusion of body and soul and from then on the flames of real love once again begin to smolder within Maria’s heart.

In Eleven Minutes, Coelho presents sexual experience as a route to self-discovery. He emphasises the sacredness of the act which is often referred to as something that happens in the heat of the moment. Through Maria’s story the author attempts to facilitate an understanding of the importance of sexual love in human life. Maria’s dilemmas are resolved with intelligence and sensitivity.

It has been the character of Coelho’s writings to celebrate the ordinariness of things that are routine yet very significant and beautiful. Eleven Minutes is yet another attempt to celebrate a physical act that would last merely 11 minutes. However, if there existed that utopian harmony, it would last for an eternity and something that was considered to be profane could be discovered to be beautiful. Coelho’s proclamation in his Dedication seems, indeed, to be his very signature: "Some books make us dream, others bring us face to face with reality, but what matters most to the author is the honesty with which a book is written". And Eleven Minutes is definitely a truthful, frank and provocative piece of writing that is not culture or territory specific but talks of a universal experience.