In a further attempt to get a few more posts up while I’m on vacation I went to my TBR shelf and found I had two more Paulo Coelho novels yet to go so I grabbed them to read. They’re always easily written, well translated and fascinatingly beautiful and The Witch of Portobello (Amazon Affiliates link), was no exception. I’m actually not sure when I picked up this book as I can’t find a photo of it, so I’m going to assume it was sometime in 2011 right after I read The Alchemist.
Every time I read a book by Coelho, I find myself wondering about and searching for my spirituality. Whether he is talking about the Mother or organized religion (usually not), Coelho has a way of writing incredibly complex ideas and intricate narratives that is so simple and beautiful that it’s almost breath-taking. I do wonder if it is even more beautiful in his native Portuguese, how can it be so incredibly beautiful translated into English and not be beyond beautiful originally. So that being said, some credit must, obviously, be given to Margaret Jull Costa who has translated other works by Coelho including Veronika Decides to Die and Eleven Minutes (my next read) and many works by José Saramago including Seeing.
The Witch of Portobello is no different from Coelho’s other works that I’ve read in theme and ideas, but in style it was a completely different experience. Rather than a “straight-forward” story, this novel is a series of vignettes told by different people and collected by a mysterious editor/compiler (you do find out who it is at the end. What was most interesting is that the entire story leads to the main character’s, Athena/Sherine’s, death. You know she’s dead when the book starts, but you don’t know why, how or when.
What I took away from the novel was how beautiful the every day and the mundane are, like music and “white noise,”
“As I later learned, music is as old as human beings. Our ancestors, who traveled from cave to cave, couldn’t carry many things, but modern archaeology shows that, as well as the little they might have with them in the way of food, there was always a musical instrument in their baggage, usually a drum. Music isn’t just something that comforts or distracts us, it goes beyond that—it’s an ideology. You can judge people by the kind of music they listen to.” (35)
or passages like tis about calligraphy and posture,
“Elegance isn’t a superficial thing, it’s the way mankind has found to honor life and work. That’s why, when you feel uncomfortable in that position, you mustn’t think that it’s false or artificial: it’s real and true precisely because it’s difficult. That position means that both the paper and the brush feel proud of the effort you’re making. The paper ceases to be flat, colorless surface and takes on the depth of the things placed on it. It’s the same with life: when all superfluous things have been discarded, we discover simplicity and concentration. The simpler and more sober the posture, the more beautiful it will be, even though, at first, it may seem uncomfortable.” (79)
Coelho’s focus on the space between and the small details is so moving I’m honestly surprised a cult hasn’t sprung up around him like it did Athena/Sherine. There sort of is a cult vibe around The Alchemist, but I feel like so many people only read that work and never get to see how broad and wonderful his thoughts truly are.
The other thing that really stands out to me across Coelho’s works is anti-institutionalization. He is not a fan of organized religion, regardless of the religion. His beliefs, to me at least, revolve around the freedom of spirituality and discovering what it is that makes the world what it is and what makes you who you are. It’s been far too long since I read The Alchemist, almost four years, to compare the two explicitly, but I almost feel as if I would choose this one over it. There’s something to be said about a strong female protagonist and a mother goddess story, and how they center you within the chaos of modern society.
The one “odd” thing about this book is that it wasn’t listed on the Tree of Life (my term) that I found in the back of The Devil and Miss Prym I read last year. I guess it has more to do with the fact this is a larger over-arching story about the Great Mother, rather than any one specific emotion/feeling, but I don’t know.
Recommendation: Obviously, this is a must read. Even if you are a strong believer in organized religion, Coelho doesn’t go over the top to criticize, so don’t be afraid to listen to another view-point. I might just hold on to my copy of this one to re-read and savor the beautiful passages and the challenging ideas.
Opening Line: “Before these statements left my desk and followed the fate I eventually chose for them, I considered using them as the basis for a traditional, painstakingly researched biography, recounting a true story.”
Closing Line: “Love simple is.” (Whited out, highlight to read.)