An intellectual face-off in the land of soccer

He may have sold 37 million books and been given audiences by the pope and Bill Clinton, but Brazilian author Paulo Coelho has never won the respect of his peers. Now, he is asking his country's intellectual elites for acceptance.

Mr. Coelho, the New Age writer who won phenomenal success with his novel, "The Alchemist," is running for election to the Brazilian Academy of Letters, the 40-chair exclusive club of literary and intellectual greats. Chairs on the academy become vacant with the passing of a member.

Wednesday's election is the battle of two opposites: the outsider Coelho against the establishment's Helio Jaguaribe, a social scientist and political intellectual who taught at Harvard University and counts Brazil's president among his best friends.

In a nation where soccer and suntans have always played a more prominent role than literature, this literary face-off opens an unusual window on Brazilian society and the tremendous degree of respect given to academy members. In spite of statistics that show Brazilians have far fewer libraries than neighbors such as Argentina, and buy one-third of the number of books bought in France, the election is a hotly anticipated event.

Membership of the academy confers instant celebrity status, with academicians appearing on television chat shows and in magazines such as People. Even those Brazilians who have never read a book in their lives know and respect those deemed to be "immortal."

"Someone who is elected becomes known across the country," says Ivan Junqueira, a poet and translator, and the academy's secretary general. "People point to you and say, 'He is immortal.' I took a taxi to come [to the academy] once, and I got talking with the taxi driver about the academy, and when he found out I was a member he refused to take my money. There is a magic to the academy."

The election is also about whether an institution that prizes intellectuals, diplomats, and politicians as much as novelists (anyone who has published a book is eligible) is ready to embrace Coelho, an author many in the academy see as inferior.

"This election is very important because we are dealing with two very different candidates," says Mr. Junqueira. "Jaguaribe is one of the foremost intellectuals in the country. Paulo Coelho has sold [millions of books]. We have to choose between a political thinker and a professional writer. The challenge for the academy is the following: Can we continue to ignore one of the best-known writers in the world."

A former hippy, journalist, and theater director who penned lyrics for some of Brazil's best-known singers, Coelho is different from the typical academician, many of whom are septuagenarians.

He started writing novels full time in the 1980s, but only hit the big time with the publication of his fourth book, "The Alchemist" in 1988. The novel has since sold 11 million copies, making it the biggest-selling Brazilian book of all time. It turned Coelho into a New Age guru.

The acclaim, however, has not been accompanied by respect, at least not in Brazil. Some members of the academy feel that Coelho's work is best classed as "literature light" and not worthy of a place in the pantheon of the country's intellectual and literary heavyweights.

"A lot of people don't like it," says one member, Murilo Melo. "It's esoteric, it appeals to sentiment."

Coelho, who turned down an interview request saying it might jeopardize his chance of election, has always rejected such assessments and is pushing hard for recognition.

After registering their candidacy, authors usually contact members to lobby for their vote. The globe-trotting Coelho has done exactly that, even canceling travel plans to ensure he is in Brazil during the crucial weeks leading up to the ballot.

However, the process is complicated by such obscure factors as the candidate's profession and personal history – election is for life, and members like to choose someone they know they can get along with. Even the previous occupant of the chair can affect who sits there next.

Some seats, for example, confer more status than others. The most notable is Chair No. 23, the one first occupied by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis – widely acknowledged as Brazil's greatest writer – and more recently by Jorge Amado.

When Mr. Amado died in 2001, Coelho thought about trying for the vacant position, but he withdrew when it became clear that there was little chance the members would allow such an esteemed position to fall to someone whose work they consider intellectually inferior. Amado's position was eventually filled by his wife, Zelia Gattai, herself a respected author.

The recent death of Roberto Campos, a senator and intellectual who occupied Chair No. 25, created another opening, however, and it now looks as if the academy's 39 members may grudgingly be ready to accept Coelho into the fold. Of the 28 who have already registered their votes, 15 have marked an "X" next to his name.

Even those members who are not fans of Coelho's work admit the pressure may sway them into supporting the man they call "the magician."

"I read one of his books and it was poorly written," says Junqueira. "[But] we can't ignore the biggest-selling author Brazil has ever had. We'll have to elect him one day so it's better to resolve the problem now and get it over with. I am going to vote for him."

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