“The Witch of Portobello” by Paulo Coelho
Halloween. A cackling woman in a pointed hat rides through a Kansas tornado on a broomstick, watched by young Judy Garland – fearful, fascinated. Black magic; white magic; black cats with glowing eyes; potions and brews; macabre mediaeval paintings of women burning at the stake.
Our heroine, Athena resembles none of these, though her life story is interesting enough. She is very human: born in Romania of gypsy descent, the adopted daughter of Lebanese parents, with a privileged upbringing in Beirut. She is divorced, and has a young son. She lives in London and works in a bank. Her real name is Sherine Khalil; she is still young.
Yet she comes to exercise an extraordinary influence over those who are close to her – those who love, care for, guide and protect her. We see Athena only through the eyes of these lovers, protectors, caregivers and guides: in short chapters, each headed by the name of the narrator, his/her age and occupation. We don’t know who transcribed these words until the end.
A journalist whom she meets at a Bucharest café begins her story – a man who sees himself, wistfully, as only a “temporary inhabitant” of her world. Other voices chime in. Her ex-husband speaks; so does her priest, Roman Catholic – a religion she abruptly rejects; her Polish landlord; her employer in London; a Bedouin calligrapher; her Romanian birth-mother; a successful stage actress, who becomes Athena’s somewhat unlikely successor, continuing the journey.
A French historian interjects a note on the growing popularity of pagan traditions: “Why? Because God the Father is associated with the rigor and discipline of worship, whereas the Mother Goddess shows the importance of love above and beyond all the usual prohibitions and taboos.”
Essentially, the book is about the power of the feminine; about the limitless sweep of love – a recurring theme – without boundaries; about teachers and followers, willing and unwilling. There are rituals – dancing to percussion music, staring at candles, long silences, nakedness. There is a lot of New Age symbolism: phrases like “channeling the Unity” and “I can see your aura,” and quotes from Jung and Gibran.
Athena inevitably becomes a cult figure; she cannot “hide her light under a bushel” (the Biblical quote on the flyleaf of the book). She gains a certain notoriety as “The Witch of Portobello,” sparking protests from a reverend gentleman and his congregation. She suffers, acquiesces, learns, teaches, struggles, at times manipulates, does the best she can – and in the end departs the scene.
Yet, do we struggle with her? Hardly. She remains as distant and cool as a Greek statue of Athena herself, a vessel for the philosophy that the author explores. Although she evokes love in several (male) characters, it is hard to understand. And, after pushing the boundaries of our imagination so far and deep, the sharp twist at the end somehow seems contrived and banal.
Yet there are many passages and observations that turn in one’s mind. “Human beings are still asking the same questions as their ancestors. In short, they haven’t evolved at all,” says one character. Athena simply advises her disciple: “Try to be different. That’s all.”
This book is eloquent in its complexity and challenging in its simplicity. It stretches you; and yes, at times it is magical – without any tricks.
Paulo Coelho is Brazil’s best known novelist. Born in Rio in 1947, he attended a Jesuit school, where his literary aspirations began. Because of his rebellious behavior, he was wrongly committed to a mental institution during his youth. Coelho became deeply involved in the hippy movement of the 1960s and dropped out of law school in 1970. He wrote lyrics for over 60 songs by rock musician/composer Raul Seixas, reaping great success. In 1973 they formed the Alternative Society and both were imprisoned briefly by the military regime for alleged subversive activities. Coelho traveled in Europe, where he dreamed of returning to the Catholic faith; his pilgrimage to Santiago, Spaininspired his 1987 novel “The Pilgrimage (The Diary of a Magus).” The next year his most famous novel “The Alchemist” was published – a story of achieving one’s “Personal Legend.” It was hugely influential, became one of the best-selling books of all time and was translated into 56 languages. In September 2007, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon designated Coelho as a UN Messenger of Peace. Note: the book reviewed above can be downloaded online from Coelho’s Facebook profile; Coelho has also launched a collaborative online film project, “The Experimental Witch,” based on the book.