Worthwhile for its insights into the post-‘60s hippie movement where spiritual concerns had successfully muscled their way to prominence over the more political struggle of the pre-’68 years.
Hippie is a mostly nonfictional retelling of the famed Brazilian author Paulo Coelho’s trip on the so-called “Magic Bus” from Amsterdam to Kathmandu in the autumn of 1970. Where the book works best is as a detailed exploration of cosmopolitan Western Europe hippies, as it offers an unparalleled view of the thoughts, concerns and lexicon of this specific subculture. Coelho, however, wants the book to be more than just a haphazard ethnography; namely, he wrote it as a love story between himself and the co-protagonist, a Dutch woman named Karla, but that particular aspect of the plot cannot really hold the reader’s attention.
For the most part, Hippie tracks the travels, thoughts and emotions of its two leads, Paulo and Karla. In the narrative of the book, Paulo came to Amsterdam having already traipsed over most of South America: from his native Brazil, he had gone by train to Bolivia and then made his way to Machu Picchu before visiting Socialist Chile and coming home via Argentina. Once returned to Brazil, he was abducted, along with his Yugoslav girlfriend, by the government—Brazil was among the first Latin American countries to suffer a Vietnam-era military coup that then established what historians refer to as the National Security State—on suspicion of subversion and was tortured. Through sheer dumb luck, he was released and then understandably fled to Europe.
In Amsterdam, he meets up with Karla, whose backstory comes together more slowly and more piecemeal throughout the book than Paulo’s, whose South American adventures are laid in a single tidy chapter. Karla, the book tells us repeatedly, is a very attractive woman, and she uses her stunning physical charms to bounce from suitor to suitor, but never really commits to any relationship. She suffers from depression and an identity crisis. To solve her issues, she has decided she will go to Nepal, a spiritual haven in the Himalayas. All she needs is a travel companion, because a beautiful single woman travelling the length of Eurasia alone will attract all sorts of unwelcome advances.
So, with these elaborate backstories, both protagonists find themselves among the other Euro-hippies in Dam Square one sunny day, desperate to flee the past and journey towards any future that might be promising. They meet and Karla convinces Paulo to ride the “Magic Bus” with her across most of the known world.
Once the bus ride is actually underway, Hippie really picks us, the propulsive forces pushing the busload of travelers eastward pushing the plot as well. The reader is introduced to other hippies riding with Karla and Paulo, such as an Irish couple from Limerick or a French father-daughter fleeing the trauma of post-May ’68 Paris (and secretly hoping to link up with the Nepalese Maoist revolutionaries). There are a few cliché moments, to be sure, such as an Easy Rider-redux run-in between the hippies and some brutish motorcyclists at a tavern in Austria, but for the most part this is the most energetic part of the book, as the new characters broaden the dialogue and the ever-changing setting keeps things fresh.
The bus and the book both grind to a halt again in Istanbul, where the journey is delayed because of trouble between Palestine and Jordan (what today is known as the Black September events). After a few chapters where the characters have yet to leave Turkey, it becomes clear that the Magic Bus may be headed for Kathmandu, but the book is not going to leave the shores of the Bosphorus. At least Paulo and Karla complete their character arcs and get a few touching moments in Istanbul before the book ends.
Hippie is a quick read and worthwhile for its insights into the post-‘60s hippie movement where spiritual concerns had successfully muscled their way to prominence over the more political struggle of the pre-’68 years. The reaction to ’68 established much of the popular and counterculture of the subsequent three decades around the world, and the trauma of the failures to change the world are plain to see on the pages of Hippie, even if Coelho is only really trying to tell a love story.