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First of all, I am reviewing this book based on the English translation of it. The language is smooth and beautiful.
Secondly, I have read Paulo Coelho's more famous work, The Alchemist, and am not a fan - it feels too heavily symbolic and spiritual to be an engaging read for me.
The Witch of Portobello chronicles the life of Athena, and is told after her death by various people who knew her. Her mother, her teacher, her employer etc each contribute passages, which are then collected by the fictional biographer and woven into a version of her life and deeds. The structure is a parallel of the Gospels: intentionally so, as Athena is a female Christ-like figure to bring back the female side of god.
And, while reading the novel, it feels like the symbolism and spiritualism, the themes and parallels within are being hammered into you.
There's the idea of self: what is a self really? All the perceptions of Athena seem to differ.
There's the idea of the female side of god, of the mother's role in spirituality.
There's the idea of the established religion smothering all alternatives.
Interesting ideas, yes, but the ideas feel more alive than the characters within.
And as for the story, part of the problem is that there is such a build-up on Athena's character in the first half of the novel (characters saying, What, what did she do?!), that the end felt too weak to justify the suspense. But anyhow, the plot doesn't feel like the main point of the book. It is just another way to express a parallel to Christ.
The Brazilian author Paulo Coelho (born in 1947) has been after me for a while, I can't enter a German bookshop without seeing piles of his books, all in the bestseller section, when browsing on the British or German Amazon, it doesn't take long until I come across one of his books, and dooyoo has listed 16 of his books for which 40 reviews have been written up to now. At last I've surrendered, I didn't buy his first and most successful novel, The Alchemist, though, but The Witch of Portobello because I've been to Portobello Road and I like books set in London.
Sherine Khalil, aka Athena, aka The Witch, was born in Transsylvania to a single Gypsy mother who left her in an orphanage from where she's been adopted by a well-to-do Lebanese couple. When war breaks out in Lebanon, they emigrate to London. Athena (as she's mostly called) starts college but drops out, marries, has a son, divorces her husband and moves to Dubai. She discovers her spiritual side and after returning to London shares her discovery with disciples which brings her into open conflict with the Church resulting in the threat to take her son away. Not yet thirty years old she's brutally murdered.
You think a reviewer should never tell the ending? Well, already on the second page her death is mentioned, the novel is a kind of retrospective biography. Kind of, an unknown narrator whose identity becomes known only in the last chapter tells us in an introductory paragraph that he's interviewed some people who knew Athena in order to write her biography but that he's given up the idea and that he's decided instead to let the transcripts of the various statements speak for themselves.
They come from a journalist, an actress, a doctor turned witch, a numerologist, Athena's adoptive mother, her ex-husband, a Catholic priest, a Polish neighbour, a bank manager, a Bedouin, a restaurant owner, Athena's birth mother, a French historian. I've listed them all to show you that they're quite a mixed lot. Naturally, the statements are all in the first person perspective which means the reader is addressed directly and thus involved more than they would be if the novel were written in the third person perspective - or at least should be.
The statements are arranged so that the reader can follow Athena's life chronologically. This is positive, I don't like jumping forward and backward through a story, but what is very, very negative is that all thirteen characters speak more or less in the same way. I'm sure that this is not the fault of the translator Margaret Jull Costa, the English texts reads fluently, in fact it doesn't seem to be translated at all, which is a great compliment for a translator. It must be entirely Coelho's fault, he isn't able to give the different characters different voices. Now that I'm at it I can also tell you that the end is a great let-down, for me it's clear that the author didn't know how to finish his yarn properly. When he reveals who the narrator is, I had to think of a magician pulling a rabbit out of his top hat shouting, "Surprise, surprise!" And, before I forget, nothing is made of London or Portobello Road.
I can also not find many different facets of Athena's character in the different statements, the same idea is rubbed in again and again, namely "How do we find the courage to always be true to ourselves - even if we are unsure of who we are?" First we must find out who we are, don't think you can get away with saying that you're content with your life, this means only that you're weak and afraid of change. Then when you've accepted that you don't live your true self, the question arises how to find it. Following Athena's example this means: Dance for hours to percussion music from Siberian shamans until you're in trance, open yourself so that The Mother can get into you. The Mother is the female side of God (in case you didn't know). Herbal potions, looking into the flame of a candle for a long time, sitting naked side by side with a kindred spirit, lying on the ground in a wood at night may also help. The last step is, of course, that you leave your old life and start a new one. You're not sure how and where? The Mother will guide you, just believe!
Try telling this to an inhabitant of a favela in Rio de Janeiro (Coelho's city) or, if you don't want to go so far, to someone in your own country who's just been made redundant and doesn't know how to make ends meet. I doubt that you'd get out of the conversation unscathed. It's typical middle-class, bourgeois dross.
I've read some reviews on other novels by Coelho and have got the impression that his gospel is always the same, it's only embellished differently with longer or shorter references to (oriental) religions, philosophy, spirituality, mysticism and moral parables, in other words: New Age Stuff. (Remember The Age of Aquarius?) In my naivety I thought that all this mumbo jumbo had petered out after the hippie heydays in the 1960s and 70s, but obviously that is not the case.
At the end of my copy is an interview with the author from which I've learnt that he writes a book every two years, he needs only about a month to write it down because he's already got it in his mind when he starts writing. The rest of the time he 'lives', for example, he goes dancing at least once a week. Goody! There are worse ways for a sixty-something to pass the time. But what gives me the creeps is the success the man has: in total, he has sold more than 100 million books in over 150 countries worldwide, and his works have been translated into 67 languages. He is the all-time bestselling Portuguese author.
Whatever happened to Enlightenment?
Paul Coelho was born in Brazil in 1949. He always wanted an artistic career but his father was an engineer and thought his ideas of being a writer were a sign of mental instability. When he was only 17 his father put him in a mental institution for electroconvulsive therapy twice. He was sent there again after he became involved with a theatre group and was working as a journalist. Despite this difficult start to his career Coelho has become a worldwide best seller. His first book was written after he had walked the Santiago de Compostello pilgrimage trial in Northern Spain, the book was called 'The Pilgrimage'. His next book was 'The Alchemist' which was not an immediate success on first printing but became a best seller at its next publication.
'The witch of Portabella' is an exploration of " How can we find the courage to be true to ourselves - even if we are unsure of who we are?
It is essentially the story of a young girl who becomes a young woman and mother; she is born in Romania but abandoned by her gypsy mother. She is adopted and brought up by doting parents in Beirut and they later move to London. The story unfolds and we get to know Athena or Sherine through the many people whose life she touches.
There is a journalist who becomes infatuated by her called Heron Ryan who meets her whilst she is in Romania searching for her birth mother and he is writing an article on vampires and the legend of Dracula. After this his life and that of his girlfriend become entangled with Athena's.
There is Heron Ryan's girlfriend, the actress, Andrea McCain whose life totally changes as she becomes charged with the energy and need to pass on the Earth Mother's mysteries.
Athena's adopted mother is confused by her daughter's behaviour and feels hurt by what she feels is rejection. She continues to shower love and support and Sherine or Athena obviously loves her and her adopted father but feels this energy calling her towards another path constantly.
Deidre O'Neill or Edda also meets Athena in Romania and she becomes her initial teacher and support in her journey of discovery as to who she really is and what her role or calling is in life.
We learn about Athena's life in a random order through the people who take turns by chapter in the book. We first meet her in Romania but jump back to her adoption and growing up in Beirut. Even as a child she seemed to have a certain power of seeing what was going to happen in the future and would go off into trances.
At university she suddenly feels the need to get married and have a child so she marries a young man against his parent's wishes. She has a son but they struggle financially and things don't work out and they go their separate ways, Athena taking her son.
She is hugely successful in her job at the bank and at this time discovers she loves to dance which takes her into a trance. She teaches this to fellow employees and the whole bank branch is more efficient. This takes her to Dubai and a job training other employees to dance and improve productivity. She then moves to selling land and makes a lot of money which enables her to go out into the desert and learn calligraphy in order to try and discover more meaning to her being, to fill the holes that her dancing cannot fill.
It is a strange book which makes you ask more questions than it answers. According to the author he wrote the story in order "to explore the feminine side of divinity, I wanted to plunge into the heart of the Great Mother. I felt the need to question why society had tried to lock away the feminine side of God"
He said the novel was built on his own experiences, of people he had met and situations he had been in as well as portraying himself in the character too. He tackles the prejudices that people who are different face in our modern society. He feels that there are some things that cannot and need not be explained. It is alright to have empty spaces that cannot be explained in your life and we should respect and appreciate these mysteries.
Coelho talks of women as witches but he doesn't feel that is a bad thing. He feels that women are more perceptive than men and that feminine loving side should be cherished and developed more in our society. Throughout the book Coelho develops a tension between romantic ideas of love and the spiritual path of love. He seems to be constantly questioning our perceptions of love. As Catholic Coelho believes in the higher being of God but says he does not support the Pope if he bans Catholics using condoms. He feels that this does not stop him being a believer and a Catholic just because of this disagreement. In this way we should all question our own beliefs and not just follow the path of conformity.
On one level this is a simple story of one woman's life seen through people she meets but on another level we are invited to explore and question our own beliefs and think about what is really important to us be it religion, money, health, family or a bit of each and how do these things inter-act. It certainly made me think. It was particularly poignant as I read this in Brazil where the author was born and brought up - i always feel a lot closer to a book if it relates to the place where I am reading it, not sure if this is a peculiar thing In have or everybody has this connection.
Paulo Coelho, one of the world's best loved storytellers, is back with a riveting new novel set in London. This is the story of Athena, or Sherine, to give her the name she was baptised with. Her life is pieced together through a series of recorded interviews with those people who knew her well or hardly at all -- parents, colleagues, teachers, friends, acquaintances, her ex-husband. The novel unravels Athena's mysterious beginnings, via an orphanage in Romania, to a childhood in Beirut. When war breaks out, her adoptive family move with her to London, where a dramatic turn of events occurs! Athena, who has been dubbed 'the Witch of Portobello' for her seeming powers of prophecy, disappears dramatically, leaving those who knew her to solve the mystery of her life and abrupt departure. This gripping new novel is filled with the themes Paulo fans know and love: spirituality, relationships, destiny, freedom.