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Sacred sex. A paradoxical, utopian impossibility or a life- sustaining, attainable goal? This is the major question that underpins Paulo Coelho's new novel, Eleven Minutes, the tale of Maria, a naive young woman from Brazil who becomes a high-class prostitute in Switzerland. (The title of the book refers to the hypothetical average duration for an act of coitus.) And while Coelho comes down firmly in the end for the reality of a holy carnality, the path he takes to that affirmation acknowledges completely the snares and labyrinths awaiting any explorer of the fusion of body and soul.
The novel opens with a rather striking sentence: "Once upon a time, there was a prostitute called Maria." Unfortunately, Coelho then feels the immediate need to break the fourth wall and address the reader about the propriety of yoking fairy-tale beginnings with the subject matter of profane love. One braces oneself for a continually intrusive authorial presence, consonant with Coelho's extra-literary reputation as a guru and New Age spokesperson, in the grand manner of Khalil Gibran. Much to Coelho's credit, however, this initial intrusion is anomalous. The rest of the narrative embeds itself firmly in Maria's perceptions and experiences, her emotions, dreams and struggles to understand life. By the end of the book, she fully owns her story, Coelho's talent and restraint having elevated her from the status of mere mouthpiece and symbol to that of uniquely individuated life force.
We meet Maria when she is still a young girl living in Brazil's unsophisticated interior. Maria's girlhood experiments with romance convince her that love is a delusion, or at least it is not for her. Attaining her majority, she becomes a shopgirl with limited prospects. But a vacation to Rio brings her into contact with a Swiss tourist looking to hire dancers for his club in Geneva. Here Coelho is delightfully ambiguous, letting us believe that Roger, the Swiss, may be a white slaver. But, no, he really does run a dance club, and Maria is soon hoofing it in Geneva. But after falling out with Roger, she drifts on her own initiative into life as a bar-girl. Quickly adapting to the coarse but not uninteresting role of prostitute, she endures nearly a year of service, until she has accumulated enough money to return to Brazil in style. At that point she meets a young artist, Ralf Hart, and begins to fall in love, disturbing her hard-won equilibrium and raising the issue of whether the two halves of her nature can be satisfied by any one man.
Coelho's prose -- at least in the fluid English translation by Margaret Jull Costa -- is limpid and unadorned, as easy to assimilate as water. (Of course, sometimes one wants wine instead, and Coelho's prose will not deliver such a kick.) This unornate language stands Coelho in good stead during the scenes of actual sex, of which there are surprisingly few, compared to the scenes of Maria thinking about sex and its mysteries. These explicit passages, especially the long-denied consummation between Ralf and Maria, are gratifyingly erotic and will not be earning Coelho any nominations for the Guardian's Bad Sex writing awards.
Coelho has spoken in interviews about producing manuscripts that are several times longer than the work ultimately published, and then stripping away everything viewed as extraneous. This practice results in books that read more as allegories than grittily mimetic renderings of life. (Contrast this book with William Vollman's similarly themed The Royal Family.) None of the characters other than Maria and, to some extent, Ralf (who, in light of his parallel worldly successes and troubles with wives, may be an avatar of Coelho himself), is any deeper than his functionality demands. For instance, Maria's best friend in Geneva is a female librarian known as "the librarian." Her main role is to deliver a lecture on clitoral orgasms. Likewise, Coelho sketches in the settings just enough to serve as backdrops to Maria's quest.
It can easily be argued that Coelho's first smash hit, The Alchemist (1993), set the template for Maria's story. The shepherd in that earlier novel is bent on living out his "Personal Legend" through a voyage of self-exploration, as is Maria. Both decry the failure to dream and the impossibility of living the dreams of others. The two characters even buck themselves up in near-identical terms. The shepherd: "He had to choose between thinking of himself as the poor victim of a thief and as an adventurer in search of his treasure." Maria: "I can choose either to be a victim of the world or an adventurer in search of treasure." Why, it turns out that Maria has even read a copy of what can only be The Alchemist! But while The Alchemist was almost asexual in its romance, this novel revels in the physicality of love and thus serves to complement the earlier book.
At times Maria's sacrifices on the altar of sex almost resemble the excruciations of the heroine of Lars von Trier's film "Breaking the Waves." But Coelho's basically optimistic and life-affirming temperament and his sense of humor (Maria's reaction to the librarian's sexually empowering lecture amounts to wishing the woman would just shut up) redeem the book from any such Nordic angst. By the time the fairy tale ending arrives, we feel that Maria has earned her rewards. And, per Coelho's mission, we are inspired to feel that so might we.
Reviewed by Paul Di Filippo
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
CONTROLLED RELEASE NOTES:
Handing over to tqd for a release challenge.
WILD RELEASE NOTES:
Left in the ladies' loos off the foyer.
CAUGHT IN PORT DOUGLAS QUEENSLAND AUSTRALIA