Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, whose books have sold over 200 million copies worldwide, is extremely popular in the Czech Republic. Translations of his novels The Alchemist, The Pilgrimage, Like the Flowing River, and others immediately became best sellers.
Recently the Brazilian author visited Prague with his wife to celebrate St. Josef’s Day in the Czech capital. Although the media highlighted the fact that Mr. Coelho’s novels had just sold over one million copies in the Czech Republic, at a press conference the author denied that this was the reason for his visit and would not talk about his literary work. Instead he spoke about his ties to Prague and why St. Josef’s Day has a special significance for him.
“I was born half dead, with the umbilical cord wound around my neck. I was born in St. Josef’s Hospital and my mother made a promise that if I survived she would say a prayer every time she saw a statue or a painting of St. Josef.”
So throughout his life Paulo Coelho has given thanks to his patron saint on his name day and for thirty years now these celebrations with family and friends have taken place in different cities around the world. This year the author chose to celebrate the occasion in Prague – a city to which he has close ties. He says that a visit to Prague in 1982 turned his life around and made his dream come true. He visited the Church of Our Lady Victorious, home to the famous Infant Jesus of Prague and prayed to become a successful author.
“The devotion to Bambino Gesu di Praga in Brazil is very strong. So my wife and I went there and I made a promise. It was then my dream to be a writer, but it was only a dream. I promised Prague’s Infant Jesus that if I ever succeed I would come back and bring him a new cloak.”
Time passed and Paulo Coelho’s dream came true beyond his wildest expectations. When his books sold 200 million copies he decided it was time to make good on his promise. His mother-in-law made a beautiful cloak for the Infant Jesus made of red and gold cloth. It took her a whole year to complete and in 2005 Paolo Coelho came back to Prague for fulfil his promise.
But his 1982 trip to Prague was inspiring in other ways as well and, in his blog, the author recalls one particular incident which fuelled his determination to succeed as a writer.
“In 1982, my wife and I decided to start travelling without any specific place to go, wandering around and visiting many countries for several months. In January 1982 we ended up in Praha (it was during the communist regime). On a Sunday morning, January 24, in the Golden Street of Alchemists, we saw a lone person drawing. It was winter, freezing cold, but this man was there, following his call. My wife and I were the only ones walking in this street. I decided to buy one of his drawings. He was so grateful and happy that he decided to draw my wife for free. I was a little bit embarrassed, but while watching him doing this, I thought: “this is an example for me. Nobody is here, nobody is buying anything, but this does not stop him from doing what he wants to do. At the end, I gave him two gifts, the only things that I had in my pocket.”
“It was then my dream to be a writer, but it was only a dream. I promised Prague’s Infant Jesus that if I ever succeed I would come back and bring him a new cloak.”
Shortly before returning to Prague to celebrate St. Josef’s day on March 19th, Paulo Coelho expressed the wish to meet with the artist who made such a strong impression on him. He wanted to share the special occasion with him and let him know how the long-ago encounter had impacted his life. Although the story appeared in the Czech media well in advance of the visit, regrettably the artist failed to turn up.
At the press briefing in Prague Paulo Coelho also spoke about his own country, thanking God that the time of dictatorship was over.
“Brazil is a country with a young democracy, but I firmly believe that it will successfully overcome all the challenges and problems that come its way. Freedom is the most precious thing we have and we should be ready to fight for it and accept responsibility for preserving it.
When asked about dictators Mr. Coelho had a funny story to share with the press going back to Pinochet’s arrest in Great Britain.
“The Guardian took a picture of Pinochet and behind him was his home library. And among the books on his shelves was one of my books! I though to myself - oh no,no,no,– because of course journalists started calling me and saying Pinochet reads you. So I had to keep explaining that I really cannot select my readers.”
“The Guardian took a picture of Pinochet and behind him was his home library. And among the books on his shelves was one of my books!”
At the close of the conference Paulo Coelho said what a wonderful city Prague was – and how it too had suffered under the communist years.
“I saw on television the crushing of the Prague Spring when Alexander Dubcek was prime minister and it was tough to see the Soviet tanks invading Czechoslovakia and crushing the rebellion. They did that in Hungary in 1956. But in 1968 it was a disaster for you –so you understand the meaning of freedom.”
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