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Paulo Coelho's ‘Maktub’: rehashed advice and pop philosophy

A mish-mash of Coelho’s columns from 30 years ago, ‘Maktub’ says nothing insightful

Some stories in Coelho’s new book are merely bumper-sticker material. (Getty Images)

By Vangmayi Parakala

LAST PUBLISHED 07.04.2024  |  04:00 PM IST

About halfway through Paulo Coelho’s Maktub is a brief but direct call-back to The Alchemist, arguably his most popular work, and its central message: “Life is like a long bicycle race whose goal is the fulfillment of our Personal Legend…. We end up asking if it’s worth all that effort. Yes, it is. Just don’t give up."

Written in 1988, The Alchemist, which has now sold over 65 million copies worldwide, not counting pirated versions available freely, preaches that every person has a unique destiny, or personal legend, that the universe takes them towards. The same messages find their way into Maktub, a collection of his columns for the Brazilian newspaper Folha de Sāo Paolo, published in Portuguese in 1994 and now translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa. But there is little merit in Maktub—which means “it is written" in Arabic—being marketed as “an inspirational companion to The Alchemist". Braiding many religious philosophies into one strong, even if simplistic, parable, The Alchemist is a work of pop-spiritualism. It was crafted with a clear plot and a point of catharsis, helping anchor various strands of thought. Setting aside the philosophical reductiveness or spiritual superficiality inherent in such an endeavour, the book continues to appeal to those afflicted with modern, individualistic problems of realising one’s dreams. 

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Maktub, however, is just a series of vignettes. They, too, draw from various religious traditions, including Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu and Judaistic thought, but the collection has no flow or cohesion. The stories are not uniform in their tone or cadence. Some are merely bumper-sticker material (“It’s important to try, to fall, to get up and carry on, but we should allow God to help us"); some are seriously problematic (a story borders on advocating for self-harm as a way to stop negative thoughts); and others with their references to “the master" or “God" are mawkish.

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There are glimmers: One snippet, delightfully, even if unintentionally, undercuts the need for the Coelhos of the world. Common-sensical advice, such as being open to changing one’s opinions in an ever-changing world, finds place in Maktub. If only lines like “Let the Universe turn around you" didn’t immediately follow. Or perhaps infusing a vague pseudo-spiritualism is the only way to appeal to a cohort of rudderless, sage-smudging hipsters. 

Situating the appeal of Maktub in the time when the columns were first published—when works of secular-seeming syncretic pop-philosophy were few and far between—can excuse its flaws. However, the decision to publish them in 2024, without stronger editing and curation, is puzzling. 

Coelho’s own personal journey to spirituality and religion after rejecting and rebelling against his strict Jesuit upbringing is a lively and interesting one. Republishing his old columns 30 years later could have been a great way to explore that evolution in this immensely popular author’s thought and philosophies. Maktub, filled with mostly banal content, is a missed opportunity.

Also Read: ‘Where God Began’: A tale of everybody’s loneliness

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