Review by Anna Hollingsworth
Hippie is the newest addition to Coelho’s bibliography, but to say that it is something new from Coelho would be lying. Coelho’s previous autobiographical novels are all set on journeys: The Pilgrimage describes the author’s spiritual awakening on his 500-mile hike to Santiago de Compostela, The Valkyries tells the story of his and his wife’s journey across the Mojave Desert, and Aleph sets out on another pilgrimage across Asia on the Trans-Siberian railway. Hippie continues the spiritual search, this time departing on the fabled Magic Bus from Amsterdam towards Nepal, enlightenment and self-discovery.
It is a cliché, but as with so many journeys, it is not the destination but the getting there that matters. Paulo never makes it to Nepal, but before you scream ‘spoiler!’, that makes no difference, because what happens before then on the fabled hippie trail is life-changing. Paulo, a “skinny Brazilian with a goatee” – you cannot blame Coelho for vanity in describing himself – arrives in Europe to see the two centres of the hippie world of the 60s and 70s, Dam Square in Amsterdam and Piccadilly Circus in London. His plans are altered, however, and he only gets as far as the former centre, as he is spotted by Karla, a hippie beauty searching for peace, but also, and more pressingly, a reliable travel companion for her bus trip to Nepal. Barely acquainted, Karla convinces Paulo to join her, and the unlikely pair boards the Magic Bus: Paulo escaping a past of being committed to a mental institution by his parents and then surviving torture in prison at Ponta Grossa, and Karla from seducing a series of men that have fallen for her, but whom she cannot love.
The bus as a setting is an intimate one, and Coelho works his magic in fitting in a whole cast of characters beyond himself and Karla. There’s Jacques and Marie, a French father disillusioned with life who wants his daughter to teach him about the deeper meaning of things; there’s Rayan, leaving his small town Irish past to spend years in Nepal, and Mirthe, who is less convinced of her boyfriend’s idea to do so; and there’s Michael, the driver, who received a Volkswagen as a graduation present leaving medical school, went on a road trip to South Africa, ended up helping victims of violence in Congo, and has been driving ever since. It’s a bric-a-brac collection of people on a humpty-dumpty bus, bouncing its way across boarders with not much of a solid itinerary, but with all the more charm; and the novel does the same, in a way that is lovable and quirky, rather than confused and disoriented as it could be in the hands of a less skilled story teller.
Hippie goes well beyond the bus, though, as a description of an era and a movement that have come to hold something of a cult status in popular culture. The clichés of drugs, floral patterns, free love, and idealism are all there, but Coelho presents them all in a very human way, where feelings of jealousy and confusion have their place alongside the idealized, stereotypical picture. When Mirthe and Rayan meet Karla and Paulo, it is not the idea of free love but envy of another person’s beauty that takes centre stage; and Jacques carries with him life experience that brings with it a realism and critical perspective to the journey that images of hippies as naïve and blurry-eyed from marihuana lack. It’s just these stereotypes that the hippie community – both within and outside of the novel – is judged on by outsiders, but Coelho shows that while everyone is the hippie of the book’s title, they are so in different ways and for all the different reasons.
In this, Hippie echoes the climate of today, where a whole generation is accused of being ‘snowflakes’ for caring, and students are blamed for being molly-coddled as they call for safe spaces and trigger warnings. Against this backdrop, the yearning for acceptance, a greater good, and inner peace that characterizes the eclectic crowd on the bus becomes a theme that repeats itself across time. Who knows, maybe in half a century’s time ‘Generation Snowflake’ will be as fabled as the hippies, equally reviled during their heyday?
Like the Magic Bus, the magic of Hippie lies in its ideals and the stories that it carries. It journeys through a fabled past – both of the wider movement and Coelho’s own – but does so in a very honest way, which cannot but leave the reader feeling a bit more at peace and a bit happier, even if they have never even thought of boarding a bus to Nepal.
Anna is a bookworm, student linguist and journalist
Paulo Coelho, Hippie (Hutchinson, 2018) ISBN 978-1786331588, hardback, 304 pages.
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