"Manuscript Found in Accra," Paulo Coelho's new novel, is set in 1099 in Jerusalem on the eve of the Crusades, where a wise man known as the Copt dispenses philosophical guidelines for living to an audience of Christians, Jews, and Muslims gathered to ask questions and listen.
"You still have the same problems right now that you had back then," Coelho told Reuters. "The book is to share my views on values that were lost, and now we need to pay attention to these values again."
People are certainly paying attention: since the book's U.S. release last week, it has rapidly climbed the best seller ranks, and is now No. 2 on the New York Times best seller list for hardcover fiction.
Critics have been less enthusiastic. Stuart Jeffries of The Guardian wrote, "the treacly narratives of such novels as 'The Alchemist' and 'Eleven Minutes' have been excised but the clichés remain."
Despite this, the Brazilian novelist continues to collect endorsements from luminaries like Bill Clinton and Madonna, and has more than 7.5 million Twitter followers.
Coelho, 65, values his readers highly - so much so that he asked them to share their questions and fears over Twitter so that he could address them in his book. The product is more a philosophical treatise than a story, with aphorisms taking precedence over plot.
Through the figure of the Copt, he sermonizes on topics such as the differences between defeat and failure, the nature of love, victimhood, beauty and elegance, and death, which he refers to as the Unwanted Visitor.
Coelho believes there are common values shared by all and that people should pay more attention to them instead of religious dogma.
"I think that everybody shares universal values," he said. "These values are not related to this or that religious system. However, some people in society, some religious groups try to say 'no, my religion is the best one.' I think every religion is heading toward the same light and that light is God."
Asked if his book is relevant for those who do not believe in God or practice religion, Coelho said that how people live their lives is paramount.
"What counts is what you do and not what you express spiritually or empirically," he said. "At the end your life it is not what God you believe in, but how did you live your life? You may not believe in God, but you believe in love, and love goes beyond everything."
Coelho is critical of hypocrisy, which he defines as presenting an image that is not consistent with one's behavior. On the other hand, he embraces contradiction, which he calls "part of our inner nature." He hopes that his book helps his readers to accept their own contradictions.
"I would not classify this book as a book about wisdom, but a book about accepting our contradictions," he said. "We live in a world where our lives are full of different reactions to different circumstances. We cannot just flatten everything and say, 'okay, I'm always going to act like this.'"