The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Paulo Coelho, on the monuments that immortalise cities

2010-26In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh talks with Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian best-selling author of The Alchemist, The Devil and Miss Prym, and The Witch of Portobello, among many others.

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When I asked Paulo Coelho to take part in the “Location, Locution” concept, he was happy to oblige.

But he wanted to do it his way. So in a change to our usual format, here’s Paulo Coelho on place.

The moving monument

I have visited many monuments in this world that try to immortalize the cities that erect them in prominent places. Imposing men whose names have already been forgotten but who still pose mounted on their beautiful horses. Women who hold crowns or swords to the sky, symbols of victories that no longer even appear in school books. Solitary, nameless children engraved in stone, their innocence for ever lost during the hours and days they were obliged to pose for some sculptor that history has also forgotten.

And when all is said and done, with very rare exceptions (Rio de Janeiro is one of them with its statue of Christ the Redeemer), it is not the statues that mark the city, but the least expected things. When Eiffel built a steel tower for an exposition, he could not have dreamed that this would end up being the symbol of Paris, despite the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and the impressive gardens. An apple represents New York. A not much visited bridge is the symbol of San Francisco. A bridge over the Tagus is also on the postcards of Lisbon. Barcelona, a city full of unresolved things, has an unfinished cathedral (The Holy Family) as its most emblematic monument. In Moscow, a square surrounded by buildings and a name that no longer represents the present (Red Square, in memory of communism) is the main reference. And so on and so forth.

Perhaps thinking about this, a city decided to create a monument that would never remain the same, one that could disappear every night and re-appear the next morning and would change at each and every moment of the day, depending on the strength of the wind and the rays of the sun. Legend has it that a child had the idea just as he was … taking a pee. When he finished his business, he told his father that the place where they lived would be protected from invaders if it had a sculpture capable of vanishing before they drew near. His father went to talk to the town councilors, who, even though they had adopted Protestantism as the official religion and considered everything that escaped logic as superstition, decided to follow the advice.

Another story tells us that, because a river pouring into a lake produced a very strong current, a hydroelectric dam was built there, but when the workers returned home and closed the valves, the pressure was very strong and the turbines eventually burst. Until an engineer had the idea of putting a fountain on the spot where the excess water could escape.

With the passing of time, engineering solved the problem and the fountain became unnecessary. But perhaps reminded of the legend of the little boy, the inhabitants decided to keep it. The city already had many fountains, and this one would be in the middle of a lake, so what could be done to make it visible?

And that is how the moving monument came to be. Powerful pumps were installed, and today a very strong jet of water spouts 500 liters per second vertically at 200 km per hour. They say, and I have confirmed it, that it can even be seen from a plane flying at 10,000 meters. It has no special name, just “Water Fountain” (Jet d’Eau), the symbol of the city of Geneva (where there is no lack of statues of men on horses, heroic women and solitary children).

Once I asked Denise, a Swiss scientist, what she thought of the Water Fountain.

“Our body is almost completely made of water through which electric discharges pass to convey information. One such piece of information is called Love, and this can interfere in the entire organism. Love changes all the time. I think that the symbol of Geneva is the most beautiful monument to Love yet conceived by any artist.”

I don’t know how the little boy in the legend would feel about it, but I think that Denise is absolutely right.

© Translated by James Mulholland

Read JJ Marsh’s 2011 interview with Paulo Coelho for Words with JAM magazine

Next on Location, Locution: Janet Skeslien Charles, author of Moonlight in Odessa

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JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

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Image: Paulo Coelho, 2010 –, used with permission.

2 responses to “LOCATION, LOCUTION: Paulo Coelho, on the monuments that immortalise cities

  1. Sezin October 17, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    I used to live in Geneva and when we moved across the border to France I could see the Jet D’Eau (“Water Fountain”) from my window seat. I would sit, writing poetry, reading books, smoking American Spirit hand-rolled cigarettes and stare at the spout of water so grand against the backdrop of the Alps. I did some great healing on that window seat with only the company of my dog, the French countryside, and the Jet D’Eau to remind me that not too far away was a bustling world waiting for me to be healthy and make my contribution. Thank you for these wonderful memories today. And also for reminding me of the time I met Sr. Coelho in Davos, Switzerland. I haven’t thought about what he said to me for ages, and now it’s forefront in my mind: “Always keep your heart open. It will bleed, but it will heal, and it will be stronger to love in those broken places.” Obrigado.

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