The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho

No man, when he hath lighted a candle, putteth it in a secret place, neither under a bushel, but on a candlestick, that they which come in may see the light. -- Luke 11:33

Love is not a habit, a commitment, or a debt. It isn't what romantic songs tell us it is - love simply is. -- Paulo Coelho

How do we find the courage to always be true to ourselves - even if we are unsure of who we are? -- Paulo Coelho

Let us read and let us dance - two amusements that will never do any harm to the world. -- Voltaire

All my life has been governed by feminine energy, by women. -- Paulo Coelho

Before coming to know the feminine I didn't know the meaning of compassion. -- Paulo Coelho

Sherine Khalil, or Athena as she is known, believed to be of gypsy descent, was rescued by her adoptive parents from an orphanage in Transylvania in Romania. Her early childhood was in Lebanon, then in London.

As a child, Athena had spiritual powers, and as she grows into adulthood, these she develops through dance and calligraphy, she then meets her teacher and learns to develop her powers further.

The format of The Witch of Portobello is similar to that used by Orhan Pamuk in My Name is Red, ie each chapter gives voice to a different character.

The similarities are not only in the format. In My Name is Red, we learn in the opening chapter that one of the characters has been brutally murdered and it is through the other other characters we learn something of their life. In the opening chapter of The Witch of Portobello we learn that Athena has been brutally murdered and we learn something of her life through the voices of the other characters.

We sometimes need a jolt to break the mould, to get us out of the rut we have made for ourselves. The teachings of Christ did this, made people think differently. This is more apparent in the Gospel of Thomas than in the officially sanctioned gospels. The Church has become a church of Christians rather than the followers of Christ.

Many Coelho fans do not like The Witch of Portobello, and this was initially true of myself and it made me wonder why. At first I did not like the dialogue, it seemed too simplistic, to lack reality, though after the first 50 or so pages I began to like what I was reading and I found I was reading a very powerful novel.

It is more though than the dialogue. The Alchemist, Like the Flowing River, are more like a fairy tale. This is not true of The Witch of Portobello. It is harder, harsher, it lacks the sentimentality of The Alchemist. Maybe like Athena, forcing us to dance outside the rhythm, that is what we do not like. Being forced out of the Coelho norm, but ultimately we are all the better for it.

At first, compared with other books by Paulo Coelho, such as The Alchemist, Veronika Decides to Dies, Like the Flowing River, The Valkyries, The Witch of Portobello is something of a disappointment. The Coelho ingredients are there, love, destiny, being true to oneself, but it seems to lack the Coelho magic. Maybe that is the intention. It is worth though persevering, as past the first 50 or so pages, The Witch of Portobello does start to develop into a very powerful novel.

In that sense, it is not representative of the work of Paulo Coelho, but maybe that is what is the power of The Witch of Portobello.

The Witch of Portobello is different in another way. Paulo Coelho, taking advantage of YouTube, has asked filmmakers to each select a character, then produce a short film based on the character's view of Athena. Depending upon the quality of the submitted works, the chosen finalists may be asked to collaborate to produce a feature length film. Musicians have been asked the same to produce a film score. [see The Experimental Witch]

Paulo Coelho is a devout Roman Catholic. In raising the issues he does in The Witch of Portobello, challenging the very bedrock of an authoritarian Church, does he at the very least not risk excommunication? In earlier times he would have in all probability been tortured, forced to recant and burnt at the stake.

These very issues of feminism, prejudice, religious intolerance and dogma and the possible consequences were put to Paulo Coelho.

I'm not afraid of that. I go every year to a Benedictine retreat in Austria, called Melk. There I spoke to Abbot Buckhard about Catholic tradition and, during our talks, the issue of women’s exclusion came up. He told me that the Benedictine have prayers dedicated to the Goddess-Mother. In 200 years I believe that feminine divinity will no longer be a taboo.

Paulo Coelho was inspired to write The Witch of Portobello after reading Muhammad by Karen Armstrong (HarperCollins, 2006). He wished to explore the feminine side of religion, to question why society had tried to lock away the feminine side. The character of Athena, with her freedom and courage, was his way to tackle the subject and to unveil the shackles of dogma. [see Today’s Question by Aart Hila]

The view Karen Armstrong takes on religion can be seen to be closely allied to that of Paulo Coelho. [see C-Span interview]

I usually describe myself, perhaps flippantly, as a freelance monotheist. I draw sustenance from all three of the faiths of Abraham. I can't see any one of them as having the monopoly of truth, any one of them as superior to any of the others. Each has its own particular genius and each its own particular pitfalls and Achilles' heels. But recently, I've just written a short life [story] of the Buddha, and I've been enthralled by what he has to say about spirituality, about the ultimate, about compassion and about the necessary loss of ego before you can encounter the divine. And all the great traditions are, in my view, saying the same thing in much the same way, despite their surface differences.

They are though both in good company. It was Jesus who said 'In my Father's house, there are many mansions.'

A copy of The Witch of Portobello has been registered as a BookCrossing book. [see BCID 5528715]

BookCrossing books are released into the wild and their progress checked on the Internet via a unique BookCrossing ID (BCID).

For my lovely friends Iva and Alissa who I am sure would enjoy The Witch of Portobello as much as I have.
Books Worth Reading ~ Paulo Coelho
(c) Keith Parkins 2008 -- March 2008 rev 1