And just as the alleged behavior was a spiritual exercise for Gandhi, so it is for Paulo. Though 21-year old Hilal opens up to the man beside her and pleads with him to receive her romantic love, he refuses. This is the central struggle of their relationship. His love for her is platonic and otherworldly, and in any case, he is happily married. But she loves him “like a woman loves a man.”
Still, none of this detracts from the fact that he is sexually drawn to her – or that detailed, narrative-length, sexual fantasies about her pervade his thoughts during every moment spent without her. His fantasies evoke neither romantic love nor what theologians call “sacred sex.” Instead, Paulo’s fantasies are violent, unrestrained, animalistic, and loud.
What emerges is, frankly, a predatory relationship. Paulo provides reasons for hope – including light kisses and declarations of love – before retracting them again. He manipulates Hilal into reliving painful elements of her past for his sake. In one minute, the two commune over the intensity of their relationship in past lives. In the next, he callously tells a stranger, “I’ve been in love with her for at least five hundred years, but ... she’s as free as a bird.”
At its core, this is a book about punishing women for sexuality. In it, Paulo hopes to earn atonement for past centuries of violence against women. In this life, though, he continues punishing Hilal for her desires, and his. As in past lives, she is both a lurid fantasy and a chance at redemption. The dynamic of their relationship never changes; she is Paulo’s eternal salvation and damnation, but never a real person.
Coelho is the all-time bestselling Portuguese language author in the world and – with sales of more than 100 million books translated into 67 languages in over 150 countries – one of the most popular authors on the planet. But I suspect this book will not find much of an audience outside of Coelho’s admittedly impressive legion of hardcore fans. The relationship between Paulo and Hilal is, at best, derivative. Often it is also abusive, obsessive, and outright destructive.