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Paulo Coelho is a master story-teller and each of his stories carries a message rich in wisdom. This is an unashamedly moral tale. Coelho tells us in his introductory note, recalling an episode in his own life, how sometimes even discipline and attentiveness cannot prevent suffering. Even the blessed go through a dark night of the soul. Suffering is unavoidable, but it is temporary. And what is lasting are "the lessons of the unavoidable". Difficult moments have a purpose. They are there to teach us. We must fight, we must struggle and we must face them with resilience. In so doing, we find a way to overcome them, and remembering our true purpose, we fulfill our destiny.
The book is set in the Middle East at the beginning of the first millenium before the birth of Christ. It is a time of peace that has been kept for over three hundred years by alliance and negotiation that is about to cruelly come to an end. The preface tells us how the Assyrians are amassing their armies, their sights on the wealthy trading towns of Phoenicia, in modern-day Lebanon.
Meanwhile, the main protagonist is the 23-year old Elijah who begins the book hiding for dear life in a barn in Israel with a Levite companion. He is a reluctant prophet, who had received a vision to convey to his king Ahab that there will be a drought in his land, and that the drought will not end until the worship of the Phoenician gods is put to an end. The king is indifferent. But his wife Jezebel finds such prophecies intolerable. For she is the beautiful Phoenician princess with green eyes and long dark hair who seduced the king, and desires to convert his people to the worship of the Phoenician god Baal who is supposed to live at the top of Fifth Mountain. She orders Elijah to be slain, and so also all prophets in the land that refuse to convert. And so Elijah hides with the burden of guilt for those that have lost their lives because of him.
How could God have allowed this to happen?, Elijah asks himself in the first line of the book. "God is God," his Levite companion muses in response. He does not promise to be good or bad. "I am" is all he said to Moses. "He is everything that exists under the sun - the lightning bolt that destroys a house and the hand of man that rebuilds it... If He limited himself to doing only that which we call good, we could not call Him the Almighty; He would command only one part of the universe, and there would exist someone more powerful than He watching and judging His acts. In that case, I would worship that more powerful someone."
Elijah decides to face his certain death and comes out of hiding, but it is denied him. He finds himself alone at the edge of the desert with nothing to eat, nowhere to go and worst of all, without hope or faith or a reason to live, and without these three, his body can continue to live, but his soul cannot. He finds himself putting words into the mouth of a crow and conversing with it. "You have discovered how everything is simple," the crow tells him. "Having courage is enough." And later, "No-one can lose sight of what he desires. Even if there are moments when he believes the world and the others are stronger. The secret is this: do not surrender." The crow begins to teach him to fend for himself, feeding him scraps of food as well as wisdom: about asking what God expects of him, finding joy in everything he does and seeing it as an apprenticeship, how his time as a carpenter taught him to place the soul outside himself and see the sacred in all things, and finally to get to know who he really is. Once he does get to know this, that his destiny is to be a prophet, something he had been hiding from since childhood, Elijah receives another vision. He is instructed to go to the Phoenician town of Zarephath, whose inhabitants call it Akbar, and to seek refuge there with a widow who will look after him. And it is here in the land of Akbar under the growing threat from the Assyrians that events unfold in the company of the unnamed widow and her son.
I leave you with some nuggets of Coelho wisdom, and I highly recommend the book for you to find many more, and to enjoy this inspiring story of resilience in the face of suffering.
"Then learn something. At this moment, many people have stopped living. They do not become angry, nor cry out; they merely wait for time to pass. They did not accept the challenges of life, so life no longer challenges them. You are running that same risk; react, face life, but do not stop living."
"The best [warrior] is the one who's most like a rock. Without drawing a blade, it proves that no-one can defeat it."
"Everything in life demands training..."
"Even to understand angels...we so want to talk with them that we don't listen to what they're saying...in our prayers we always try to say... but the Lord already knows all of this."
"The Lord heareth the prayers of those who ask to put aside hatred. But He is deaf to those who would flee from love."
"If you're a good warrior you will not blame yourself, but neither will you let your mistakes repeat themselves."
"I discovered something: the meaning of my life was whatever I wanted it to be."
"Some of them complained that they had not achieved anything in Akbar and were setting out for a new destiny. One day these people would return. They had not found what they were seeking. For they carried with them, along with their bags, the weight of their earlier failure...their past in Akbar had left them fearful and they lacked the confidence in themselves to take risks.
On the other hand, there also passed my door people full of ardor. They had profited from every moment of life in Akbar and through great effort had accumulated the money for their journey. To these people, life was a constant triumph and would go on being one. These people also returned, but with wonderful tales to tell. They had achieved everything they desired because they were not limited by the frustrations of the past."
"A child can always teach an adult three things: to be happy for no reason, to always be busy with something, and to know how to demand with all his might that which he desires."
"A warrior is always aware of what is worth fighting for. He does not go into combat over things that do not concern him, and he never wastes his time over provocations."
"A warrior accepts defeat. He does not treat it as a matter of indifference, nor does he attempt to transform it into a victory. He begins anew...Tragedies do happen...we must put aside the fear they awoke in us and begin to rebuild... transform pain into action."
"It is that struggle with the divine that blesses us and makes us grow...There are moments when God demands obedience. But there are moments in which He wishes to test our will and challenges us to understand His love."
"Only those men and women with the sacred flame in their hearts had the courage to confront Him. And they alone knew the path back to His love, for they understood that tragedy was not punishment, but challenge."
"Not the fire that kills, but the kind that tears down ancient walls and imparts to each human being his true possibilities. Cowards never allow their hearts to blaze with this fire; all they desire is for the changed situation to quickly return to what it was before, so they can go on living their lives and thinking in their customary way. The brave, however, set afire that which was old and, even at the cost of great internal suffering, abandon everything, ... and continue onward. The brave are always stubborn."
"He had fled from doubt. From defeat. From moments of indecision. But the Lord was generous and had led him to the abyss of the unavoidable to show him that man must choose - and not accept - his fate."
"Act as do men who are given a second chance: do not twice commit the same error. Never forget the reason for thy life."
"The Lord often has his prophets climb mountains to converse with Him. I always wondered why He did that, and now I know the answer: when we are on high, we can see everything else as small."
Stirring though these quotes may be, they are just words. They are a call to self-awakening, but they are as powerless in themselves as the crow that Elijah met at the beginning of his journey was powerless to tell him any more than he already knew. The answers come as if by chance, out of stillness, out of nowhere. This call to persist in life is not a call to hold on to dear life, but paradoxically to surrender to the fire of faith and love in our heart. And this persistent letting-go to uncover our true desire is not an instruction that can be followed, for the self that would hear and follow this call is itself consumed in the flames of its fire. Reading this book won't change your life. Only you can do that. But in the grander scheme, we are powerless. In realizing this, and facing emptiness without fear, and struggling to stay true despite there being no thing to stay true to, therein lies our true power. There are times in life when we need reminding of this inner wisdom which we all know subconsciously at an early age without being taught. I found this book a timely reminder. May we be always coming into remembrance!
This is the first of Paulo Coelho's books that I read. This Brazilian author was not known to me but was highly recommended by a friend who thought that I might enjoy his books as much as he did. Apparently, the author has sold over 56 million books around the world. I chose to read this particular book first as I was intrigued by the fact that the book is based upon the life, or at least, one particular part of the life, of Elijah, the fiery prophet from the Old Testament of the Bible.
Although the book is based upon the Biblical account of Elijah's life, the story is, unsurprisingly, considerably expanded to become a novel of around 240 pages. It follows Elijah as he has to run from his home town to escape the soldiers that have been sent to kill him. After many days' journey, Elijah arrives at the town of Akbar, or Zarephath as it is called in the Bible, where he meets a widow and her son who take the refugee Elijah into their home. The rest of the book then tells of the many things that befall the main characters and their town.
At the time, the book was unlike any other that I had read. Although being a translation from the author's own language, the story reads beautifully and you somehow feel that you are reading a book of some significance. Although, through the storyline, the book explores religion and would probably be considered a 'religious' book, it can be easily read as a simple tale of the lives of a few men and women living in the ancient Middle-East.
The story itself is quite enthralling and very touching and does not lack for action. Despite all the trials and tragedies that the main character has to face, the story is a heart warming tale and an enjoyable read. It's definitely worth a read and I would recommend it to anyone.
Published in over 100 countries, translated into 42 different languages, with over 21 million copies of his books sold internationally, Paulo Coelho can truly claim to be one of the most popular writers in the world. The Independent on Sunday has called him a 'publishing phenomenon'. Paulo's writing is a visionary blend of spirituality, magical realism and folklore. His stories are simple and direct, yet they have the power to change lives and inspire you with the courage to follow your dreams...His fifth novel, The Fifth Mountain, is set in the 9th century BC. Elijah is a young man struggling to maintain his sanity amidst a chaotic world of tyranny and war. Forced to flee his home, then choose between his newfound love and security and his overwhelming sense of duty, this is a moving and inspiring story about how we can transcend even the most terrible ordeals by keeping faith and love alive.