- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 20, 2004

Internationally bestselling author Paulo Coelho opens his latest novel, “Eleven Minutes,” in the words of a fairy tale: “Once upon a time, there was a prostitute called Maria.” Like Maria, Mr. Coelho’s novel was born under a lucky star. Lecturing in Italy, he found a manuscript left behind for him at the hotel front desk: A true account of the adventures of a Brazilian prostitute. Intrigued by the well-written story, Mr. Coelho got in touch. Her story became the basis for “Eleven Minutes.”

Known worldwide for “The Alchemist,” a fable about a boy in search of treasure who ultimately finds a hidden reserve of goodness within himself, Mr. Coelho gives offers a portrait of a different adventurer in search of treasure, only this time the adventurer is a prostitute and the treasure the true meaning of love.

In the first of an impressive series of coincidences, a gentleman approaches Maria on the beach and offers her a job as a nightclub performer in Switzerland. Maria accepts his offer. But her hopes of fame and fortune abroad are dashed on arrival when she discovers her salary will barely cover the cost of room and board.

One night, over dinner and drinks, a producer presents Maria with a formative choice. Astonished by his offer of $1000, Maria agrees to spend the night with him. In her journals, Maria describes that night as an opportunity and a test. She blames the lure of easy money for her decision and invokes the hand of fate, but ultimately Maria accepts responsibility for her choice, coursing quickly through sadness to resignation to “a tremendous sense of freedom, because she didn’t need to explain herself to anyone.”

One character’s sad plight as a social outcast is, apparently, another’s unique vantage point. Maria puts time and energy into her job at the upscale Copacabana Club, hoping for any insider knowledge it might bring. Following the valuable direction to “always pretend you’re a beginner,” she coyly waits for a client to approach her before accepting one virgin cocktail from him and his offer to dance. To Maria’s surprise, a good number of men confess their loneliness to her and ask only for her to listen. Seizing an easy opportunity to build a steady clientele, Maria reads up on male psychology on regular visits to the library.

Though she excels as a good listener, she gains little on-the-job knowledge of love. The details of her adventures with the men she sleeps with from the club are deliberately vague, in contrast to exacting accounts of the materials she reads.

Mr. Coelho pushes the boundaries of taste with a dash of S & M and a passionate scene heralding the moment Maria feels she is truly in love.

Still, “Eleven Minutes” is not as risque as it might have been. Reading books on travel and anthropology, Maria finds companionship, and fodder for her dreams. Through writing in her diary, she constructs her vision of the world and her place in it and the entries, inspired by the confessions told to the author by the prostitutes she meets, are often written in a loose, poetic style. These comprise the richest moments of the book. Through them, the novel unfolds.

Some recurring themes include Maria’s reflections on the power of fate weighed against her native ability to bring about the events she desires. Fortune and fate play an important part in this novel as they have in others Mr. Coelho has written.

Maria exclaims, “I let fate choose which route I should take.” Prevented from unraveling the mysteries of motivation, the reader is left wondering if the author’s apparent embrace of the powers of fate explains why, in some bookstores, he’s marooned in the New Age section of bookstores.

But years atop the bestseller lists in France, Australia, Israel, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Brazil, his rare distinction as the first non-Muslim writer invited to Iran since 1979, and his receipt of the Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum for “uniting people of all cultures through language,” confirm Mr. Coelho’s appeal.

Readers will enjoy pondering many of the thoughts Maria puts down on paper: “Desire is not what you see, but what you imagine.” “Each day I choose the truth by which I try to live.” “When I had nothing to lose, I had everything.” Through writing, Maria makes her most important realization: To love most fully, one must be free.

Determined to free herself, Maria takes a walk along a new route. She spots a sign marked Santiago, not so incidentally the name of the hero in “The Alchemist,” and finds herself magnetically drawn to a roadside cafe. Inside, she meets a painter named Ralf Hart and her fortunes take another unexpected turn.

Captivated by her “inner light,” Ralph paints her portrait, and Maria feels he sees straight into her soul. She has yet to discover her renunciation in the town square freed her from expectations, making her ripe for true love. Maria’s adventures, framed in a profession which could only damage and dull her, result, incredibly, in her ultimate triumph—an embrace of the many uncertainties surrounding love, and a resolution to her quest.

Maria comes to appreciate her “inner light” as an expression of her willpower. She discovers the difference between a passive acceptance of the haphazard “will of fate” lies in belief in her ability to affect change. In life, she realizes, one is presented with many choices. The risk and responsibility of choosing rest ultimately with her.

Jennifer Restak is a writer in New York.

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