My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Eleven Minutes (2003) by Paulo Coelho is much more than a story about a prostitute trying to find love. From the interior of Brazil to the beaches of Rio de Janeiro to Geneva, Switzerland Maria goes in search for her dreams without losing the best parts of her soul or her faith. Some might argue that the book is about good and evil and that internal-everlasting struggle inside each one of us. Another might disagree and say that the true essence of Maria’s plight can be found between innocence and experience. A few might further claim that Paulo takes the reader into a dark and seedy underworld to explore the workings of international exploitation and sex trafficking. Whatever the story’s true intent, it all begins as a fairy tale:
“Once upon a time, there was a prostitute called Maria. Wait a minute. ‘Once upon a time’ is how all the best children’s stories begin and ‘prostitute’ is a word for adults. How can I start a book with this apparent contradiction? But since, at every moment of our lives, we all have one foot in a fairy tale and the other in the abyss, let’s keep that beginning.
“Once upon a time, there was a prostitute called Maria” (1).
And it is no coincidence that Maria is named after the Holy Mother, Mary, to whom Maria often prays to for protection and guidance. But Paulo throughout his clever narrative keeps the reader inside a fairy tale meant for adults, because we all know that we do straddle between the hope and dreams within or the dark abyss that tempts us from without.
As Maria’s first love as a child moves away, she finds there is pain and loss in loving someone so deeply, even as we often do as children.
“At that moment, Maria learned that certain things are lost forever. She learned too that there was a place called ‘somewhere far away,’ that the world was vast and her own town very small, and that, in the end, the most interesting people always leave…
“It began to seem to Maria that the world was too large, that love was something very dangerous and that the Virgin was a saint who inhabited a distant heaven and didn’t listen to the prayers of children” (4-5).
Little by little we begin to recognize that ‘somewhere far away’ doesn’t have to be some foreign land but it can also be someplace far from the person we thought we one would day grow up to be, and perhaps that is why most people stop praying or believing in the good things life has to offer. Some stop praying and believing because they think heaven doesn’t hear ‘the prayers of children.’ And with such violence and mayhem and absurdity in the world, these broken people just might have a point.
But Maria decides she will not be broken. She knows exactly what she wants. She wants to go far, far away and find her prince charming that will rescue her and give her all her heart’s desire: true love. For some prostitutes that is all they ever really want.
Paulo, throughout his third person narrative, adds Maria’s own first person voice in bits of diary excerpts at the end of some chapters, making this book—much like the Holy Bible—a kind of epistolary novel.
“If I’m looking for true love, I first have to get the mediocre loves out of my system. The little experience of life I’ve had has taught me that no one owns anything, that everything is an illusion—and that applies to material as well as spiritual things. Anyone who has lost something they thought was theirs forever (as happened often enough to me already) finally comes to realize that nothing really belongs to them.
“And if nothing belongs to me, then there’s no point wasting my time looking after things that aren’t mine; it’s best to live as if today were the first (or last) day of my life” (26).
And there on the beach in Rio Maria decides to take a chance and leave Brazil with a strange man who says he can make her a star. But first she introduces Roger to her mother and her mother responds as often as Asian women do:
“My dear, it’s better to be unhappy with a rich man than happy with a poor man, and over there you’ll have far more chance of becoming an unhappy rich woman. Besides, if it doesn’t work out, you can just get on the bus and come home” (32).
But Maria wants more than that and she doesn’t stop or quit even when her dream becomes a nightmare. When Roger begins to try and exploit her over in Switzerland as a Samba dancer, she breaks free from that small hell. Maria grows and becomes aware of an inner power she possesses, knowing that people have power over you only when you give them that power and she recalls a book (The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho perhaps?) she had read before:
“In Brazil she had read a book about a shepherd who, in searching for his treasure, encounters various difficulties, and these difficulties help him to get what he wants; she was in exactly the same position. She was aware now that the reason she had been dismissed was so that she could find her true destiny, as a model” (45).
However the dream of working as a model—which in all honesty, most modelling agencies act in part as assistants for wealthy men to have access to extremely beautiful but desperate women—quickly takes a turn when an Arab offers her 1,000 francs for sex. Now jobless and seeing the truth behind the “modelling agency” Maria takes the money believing there would be more opportunities to score such extravagant wages.
But at the table with the Arab she cries. She asks him to pour some more wine and to let her cry, and she thinks:
“And Maria thought about the little boy who had asked to borrow a pencil, about the young man who had kissed her and how she had kept her mouth closed, about her excitement at seeing Rio for the first time, about the men who had used her and given nothing back, about the passions and loves lost along the way. Despite her apparent freedom, her life consisted of endless hours spent waiting for a miracle, for true love, for an adventure with the same romantic ending she had seen in films and read about in books. A writer once said that it is not time that changes man, nor knowledge; the only thing that can change someone’s mind is love. What nonsense! The person who wrote that clearly knew only one side of the coin… Yes, perhaps love really could transform someone, but despair did the job more quickly” (53).
And the reader soon finds herself unable to judge this prostitute because, in fact, Maria is like each and every one of us out there in the world today faced with failures and despair along the road to our great success, much like that little shepherd boy in The Alchemist who constantly is losing his most valuable possessions in search of finding his great treasure. But at the end of the road, great fame and fortune, or not, we hope we are indeed lucky enough to find that greatest reward of them all: a life filled with true love.
And through her despair, Maria becomes empowered, learning her sex trade, her body and, above all, how to please her clients. And she learns why a man would pay for a woman in the first place:
“I have discovered the reason why a man pays for a woman: he wants to be happy.
“He wouldn’t pay a thousand francs just to have an orgasm. He wants to be happy. I do too, everyone does, and no one is…what have I got to lose if I decide to become a prostitute for a while?
“Honor. Dignity. Self-respect. Although, when I think about it, I’ve never had any of those things.
I didn’t ask to be born, I’ve never found anyone to love me, I’ve always made the wrong decisions—now I’m letting life decide for me” (62).
And isn’t that what most people do: allow life to decide for them?
Maria, in her lonely turmoil, reflects:
“They all dream of someone who will come along and see in them a real woman—companion, lover, friend. But they all know, from the very first moment of each new encounter, that this simply isn’t going to happen.
“I need to write about love. I need to think and think and write and write about love—otherwise my soul won’t survive” (74).
And each day I see it just as Maria is faced with it in her story. And what is it exactly? It is a person sitting next to you with death already on their face and death already in their soul. It is a woman who has given up all hope of finding true love and allows life and, worst of all, others to decide for her, and in the end she takes her own life out of extreme despair. It is a child who grows up not believing in the power of prayer and dreams. It is the face of an innocent babe who strives for one thing and one thing only: love. Without it, the baby would die, and most often do before they are ever born.
And if we assume prostitutes are simply whores without a soul, well we might be wrong.
“Most prostitutes had some kind of religious faith, and attended their respective churches and masses, said their prayers and had encounters with God” (80).
What is interesting to see develop with this story is Maria’s profession mixing with her faith. Religion and prostitution were once closely connected and sacred, and once some special women were considered Divine Consorts and these were married to the gods.
From James Frazer’s The Golden Bough:
“In Cyprus [among many other lands and nations] it appears that before marriage all women were formerly obliged by custom to prostitute themselves to strangers at the sanctuary of the goddess, whether she went by the name Aphrodite, Astarte, or what not. Similar customs prevailed in many parts of Western Asia. Whatever its motive, the practice was clearly regarded, not as an orgy of lust, but as a solemn religious duty performed in the service of that great Mother Goddess of Western Asia whose name varied, while her type remained constant, from place to place” (398).
“In Phoenician temples women prostituted themselves for hire in the service of religion, believing that by this conduct they propitiated the goddess and won her favor. ‘It was a law of the Amorites, that she who was about to marry should sit in fornication seven days by the gate’” (398-399).
And Paulo, it seems as well, does his own research on the history of prostitution. A painter, one of Maria’s ‘special clients’ named Ralph Hart, explains to her the origins of her profession:
“The profession started to become organized in the sixth century B.C., when a Greek legislator, Solon, set up state-controlled brothels and began imposing taxes on ‘the skin trade.’ Athenian businessmen were pleased because what was once prohibited became legal. The prostitutes, on the other hand, started to be classified according to how much tax they paid.
“The cheapest were the pornai, slaves who belonged to the owners of the establishment.
Next came the peripatetica, who picked up her clients in the street.
Lastly, the most expensive and highest quality, was the hetaera, the female companion, who accompanied businessmen on their trips, dined in chic restaurants, controlled her own money, gave advice and meddled in the political life of the city. As you see, what happened then still happens now” (203).
And it does, on all three levels.
The one that no longer exists or is no longer openly practiced is sacred prostitution. “The Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote of Babylonia: ‘They have a strange custom here, by which every woman born in Sumeria is obliged, at least once in her lifetime, to go to the temple of the goddess Ishtar and give her body to a stranger, as a symbol of hospitality and for a symbolic price’” (204).
And Maria struggles with her choice: to continue with her profession and explore the darker side of her sexual interests or to choose her love, the artist. But she finds herself walking one afternoon and the consequences become very clear to her:
“And the reason was this: she didn’t want to go back.
“And the reason she didn’t want to go back wasn’t Ralf Hart, Switzerland or Adventure. The real reason couldn’t have been simpler: money.
“Money! A special piece of paper, decorated in somber colors, which everyone agreed was worth something—and she believed it, everyone believed it—until you took a pile of that paper to a bank, a respectable, traditional, highly confidential Swiss bank and asked: ‘Could I buy back a few hours of my life?’ ‘No, madam, we don’t sell, we only buy…’
“She looked around her. People were walking along, heads down, hurrying off to work, to school, to the employment agency, to Rue de Berne, telling themselves: ‘I can wait a little longer. I have a dream, but there’s no need to realize it today, besides, I need to earn some money.’ Of course, everyone spoke ill of her profession, but, basically, it was all a question of selling her time, like everyone else. Doing things she didn’t want to do, like everyone else. Putting up with horrible people, like everyone else. Handing over her precious body and her precious soul in the name of a future that never arrived, like everyone else. Saying that she still didn’t have enough, like everyone else. Waiting just a little bit longer, like everyone else. Waiting so that she could earn just a little bit more, postponing the realization of her dreams; she was too busy right now, she had a great opportunity ahead of her, loyal clients who were waiting for her, who could pay between three hundred and fifty and one thousand francs a session” (224-225).
And how often have you acted like everyone else?
How often have you postponed the realization of your dreams because you now believe prayers go unanswered, childhood dreams go unfulfilled?
How often have you secretly despised those who passionately chased after their dreams and quietly whispered failure for those brave souls?
How often have you truly been happy about your place in this world, in this life?
We all have choices to make, and that is how we are defined by this world, by this life.
And I almost forgot. What does “Eleven Minutes” even mean?
The title, Eleven Minutes, gets its name from what Maria is told on her first night working as a prostitute in the night club, Copacabana:
“For a night? Now come on, Maria, you’re exaggerating. It’s really only forty-five minutes, and if you allow time for taking off clothes, making some phony gesture of affection, having a bit of banal conversation and getting dressed again, the amount of time spent actually having sex is about eleven minutes.”
“Eleven minutes. The world revolved around something that only took eleven minutes” (86).
[And that is about as long as it took for you to read this review.]
But even Maria disagrees with the eleven-minute theory. “She thinks about the other prostitutes who work with her. She thinks about her mother and her friends. They all believe that man feels desire for only eleven minutes a day, and that they’ll pay a fortune for it. That’s not true; a man is also a woman; he wants to find someone, to give meaning to his life” (209).
And even though it would be nice for a prostitute like Maria to find her true love and heart’s content, all we ever really know is that each of us wants to find that special someone to make all the pain disappear, to have all the laughter finally make sense, to have time stand frozen between the two of you and watch at the same time how the world continues to speed by, and to ultimately know that life does have a sacred meaning for you and for everyone else.