What is the nature of love, and how can it transform our lives?
Writers have tackled that question for centuries, but Paulo Coelho makes a worthy contribution to that tradition in his 2006 novel By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept. Coelho offers a relatively brief but intensely thoughtful rumination.
“Rarely do we realize we are in the midst of the extraordinary,” Coelho writes. “Miracles occur all around us, signs from God show us the way, angels plead to be heard….” In fact, he says God gives us each one “magic moment” every day to change our lives, but most people don’t notice those moments or they’re too afraid to take advantage of them.
“But that moment exists,” he says—“a moment when all the power of the stars becomes a part of us and enables us to perform miracles.”
When people recognize those moments, miracles occur. “The hand of destiny changes everything,” Coelho writes.
The first-person narrator of By the River Piedra, Pilar, chooses to take advantage of one of those magic moments when she accepts an invitation from an old friend to get together. He’s a charismatic man who leads a public life, who talks about fairy tale love and taking risks, and he shakes her out of her sheltered world and the plans she had for life.
“How could he possibly be interested in spending time with someone who feared the unknown, who preferred a secure job and a conventional marriage to the life he led?” Pilar asks.
The man, who goes unnamed throughout the novel, has his own baggage to deal with, which Pilar sees as insurmountable. “I don’t need new fears—my own are enough,” she says. “This is not the way I had pictured the man in my life.”
The man feels the weight of his own baggage, the tug of his old life, and the ensuing—and very literal—crisis of faith that ensues makes up the compelling struggle of the book. Yet Coelho gives the struggle a lyrical quality in the tradition of his fellow Latin American magic realists, so the novel reads much like a fable or even a bedtime story.
“To love is to lose control,” Pilar says, firmly resisting that loss. Like most of us, she’s been burned. “Because many time in my life I have tried to love with all my heart, and my love has been wound up being trampled or betrayed,” she says. “If God is love, he should have cared more about my feelings.”
As a defense mechanism, she says, self-discipline is key: “Anyone who can conquer her heart can conquer the world.”
“Some may try to control their emotions and develop strategies for their behavior…but this is all folly,” Coelho writes, admonishing the sillyness of trying to deny love. “The heart decides, and what it decides is all that really matters.”
Resistance and denial only lead to struggle—a struggle that drives Pilar through the first third of the book. “I admire you,” the man tells Pilar. “And I admire the battle you’re waging in your heart.” He understands the redemptive power of the struggle along with the strength that hope offers.
“In real life, love has to be possible,” Pilar admits. “Even if it is not returned right away, love can only survive when the hope exists that you will be able to win over the person you desire.”
Pilar eventually surrenders. “We simply have to accept it, because it is what nourishes our existence,” she admits. “If we reject it, we die of hunger, because we lack the courage to stretch out a hand and pluck the fruit from the branch of the tree of life.”
Even as Pilar comes to her realization about love, the man must come to realizations about what’s important in his own life. Herein lies the second great conflict of the book: the relationship between love and suffering. Coelho argues that they are two sides of the same coin. “I think that God, in Her infinite wisdom, conceals hell in the midst of paradise—so that we will always be alert, so that we won’t forget the pain as we experience the joy of compassion,” he writes.
Beyond matters of love and struggle and suffering, the book wrestles with significant matters of faith. It also explores the purpose of happiness in our lives. Ultimately, it bills itself as “a novel of forgiveness.” Really, it’s a novel about the redemptive power of love.
“Love doesn’t need to be discussed; it has its own voice and speaks for itself,” Pilar says. “Love doesn’t ask many questions, because if we stop to think we become fearful. It’s an inexplicable fear; it’s difficult even to describe it. Maybe it’s the fear of being scorned, of not being accepted, or of breaking the spell. It’s ridiculous, but that’s the way it is. That’s why you don’t ask—you act.”
“You have to take risks,” Coelho writes. “We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen.”
For a book that advocates risk and action, By the River Piedra probes deep questions and stimulates profound thought—challenging readers to think boldly and love with abandon. It’s a beautiful reflection on the most complex of human complexities, yet he makes it all seem so simple.