The Witch of Portobello
Paulo Coelho, 2006 (trans., Margaret Jull Costa, 2007)
How do we find the courage to always be true to ourselves—even if we are unsure of whom we are?
That is the central question of international bestselling author Paulo Coelho's profound new work, The Witch of Portobello. It is the story of a mysterious woman named Athena, told by the many who knew her well—or hardly at all. Among them:
Like The Alchemist, The Witch of Portobello is the kind of story that will transform the way readers think about love, passion, joy, and sacrifice. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—August 24, 1947
• Where—Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
• Education—Left law school in second year
• Awards—Crystal Award (Switzerland), 1999; Rio Branco
Order (Brazil), 2000; Legion d’Honneur (France), 2001;
Brazilian Academy of Letters (Brazil), 2002
• Currently—lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Paulo Coelho's books have been translated into 56 languages, topped bestseller lists throughout the world, and scored him such celebrity fans as Julia Roberts, Bill Clinton, and Madonna; yet for Brazilian publishing phenom Paulo Colho, the road to success has been strewn with a number of obstacles, many of them rooted in his troubled past.
As a youth, Coelho was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father, a professional engineer. When he rebelled, expressing his intentions to become a writer, his parents had him committed to a psychiatric hospital where he was subjected to electro-shock therapy. He left home to join the 1970s countercultural revolution, experimenting with drugs, dabbling in black magic, and getting involved in Brazil's bohemian art and music scene. He teamed with rock musician Raul Seixas for an extremely successful songwriting partnership that changed the face of Brazilian pop—and put a lot of money in Coelho's pockets. He also joined an anti-capitalist organization called the Alternative Society which attracted the attention of Brazil's military dictatorship. Marked down as a subversive, he was imprisoned and tortured.
Amazingly, Coelho survived these horrific experiences. He left the hippie lifestyle behind, went to work in the record industry, and began to write, but without much success. Then, in the mid-1980s, during a trip to Europe, he met a man, an unnamed mentor he refers to only as "J," who inducted him into Regnum Agnus Mundi, a secret society that blends Catholicism with a sort of New Age mysticism. At J's urging, Coelho journeyed across el Camino de Santiago, the legendary Spanish road traversed by pilgrims since the Middle Ages. He chronicled this life-changing, 500-mile journey—the culmination of decades of soul-searching—in The Pilgrimage, published in 1987.
The following year, Coelho wrote The Alchemist, the inspirational fable for which he is best known. The first edition sold so poorly the publisher decided not to reprint it. Undaunted, Coelho moved to a larger publishing house that seemed more interested in his work. When his third novel, 1990's Brida, proved successful, the resulting media buzz carried The Alchemist all the way to the top of the charts. Released in the U.S. by HarperCollins in 1993, The Alchemist became a word-of-mouth sensation, turning Coelho into a cult hero.
Since then, he has gone on to create his own distinct literary brand—an amalgam of allegory and self-help filled with spiritual themes and symbols. In his novels, memoirs, and aphoristic nonfiction, he returns time and again to the concepts of quest and transformation and has often said that writing has helped connect him to his soul.
While his books have not always been reviewed favorably and have often become the subject of strong cultural and philosophical debate, there is no doubt that this self-described "pilgrim writer" has struck a chord in readers everywhere. In the 2009 edition of the Guiness Book of World Records, Coelho was named the most translated living author—with William Shakespeare the most translated of all time!
From a 2003 Barnes & Noble interview:
• Few writers are able to accomplish what Coelho can in just two to four weeks—which is how long it takes for him to write an entire novel.
• Before become a bestselling novelist, Coelho was a writer of a different sort. He co-wrote more than 60 songs with Brazilian musician Raul Seixas.
• Coelho is the founder of the Paulo Coelho Institute, a non-profit organization funded by his royalties that raises money for underprivileged children and the elderly in his homeland of Brazil.
• Coelho has practiced archery for a long time; a bow and arrow helps him to unwind.
• In writing, Coelho says "I apply my feminine side and respect the mystery involved in creation."
• Coelho loves almost everything about his work, except conferences. "I am too shy in front of an audience. But I love signings and having eye contact with a reader who already knows my soul."
• When asked what book most influenced his life, he answered:
The Bible, which contains all the stories and all the guidance humankind needs. (Bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)
Multimillion-seller Coelho returns with another uncanny fusion of philosophy, religious miracle and moral parable. The Portobello of the title is London's Portobello Road, where Sherine Khalil, aka Athena, finds the worship meeting she's leading—where she becomes an omniscient goddess named Hagia Sophia—disrupted by a Protestant protest. Framed as a set of interviews conducted with those who knew Athena, who is dead as the book opens, the story recounts her birth in Transylvania to a Gypsy mother, her adoption by wealthy Lebanese Christians; her short, early marriage to a man she meets at a London college (one of the interviewees); her son Viorel's birth; and her stint selling real estate in Dubai. Back in London in the book's second half, Athena learns to harness the powers that have been present but inchoate within her, and the story picks up as she acquires a "teacher" (Deidre O'Neill, aka Edda, another interviewee), then disciples (also interviewed), and speeds toward a spectacular end. Coelho veers between his signature criticism of modern life and the hydra-headed alternative that Athena taps into. Athena's earliest years don't end up having much plot, but the second half's intrigue sustains the book.
Narrated from multiple points of view, the portrait of Athena that emerges is as provocative and spiritually complex as one would expect from the author of The Alchemist (1993) and The Devil and Miss Prym (2006).
Coelho returns to his favored (and incredibly successful) territory of spiritual questing in this tedious account of a young woman's ascendancy as a guru. Athena is dead, and now a kind of hagiography is being pieced together to better understand this young woman of influence and mystery. A number of testimonies comprise the portrait of Athena, from her adoptive mother, to disciples, to the manager at the bank where she once worked. But instead of creating a rich and varied character study, the assorted narrators repeat the same facile analysis of the meaning of life. We learn that Athena was a Romanian orphan, adopted by a wealthy Lebanese couple. The two dote on their daughter, and turn a blind eye to her youthful visions and prophesies. When Beirut becomes uninhabitable, the family moves to London where Athena attends engineering school. Feeling unfulfilled she forces her student boyfriend into marriage so she can have a child to fill up the vast empty space in her soul; she flits from one endeavor to another to try to fill this unnamable void. She and her husband divorce and she takes up a kind of dervish-style dancing (which she shares with her coworkers at the bank, doubling all of their productivity levels), then moves to Dubai and learns calligraphy from a Bedouin, hoping the patience needed will fix her restlessness. When she goes to Romania to find her birth mother (she's sure this will help her gain a truer sense of herself), she meets a Scottish woman who becomes her teacher in the search for the universal Mother, a kind of New Age paganism that promises a healing path out of the chaos of modern living. When Athena moves back to London, her popularity (and skill in prophesy) increases, and she develops a following-as well as detractors: Christians who accuse her of Satanism and being a witch. At turns didactic and colorless, Coelho's narrative captures nothing of the wonder and potential beauty of a life devoted to the spirit-instead, Athena seems little more than a self-indulgent girl. A disappointing rehash of pretty conventional spirituality.
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:
Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Witch of Portobello:
1. Athena was certainly provocative. How do you view her—as an inspiried spiritual teacher or as a manipulative opportunist? Or something else? Do you believe her gifts of sight are genuine?
2. Discuss the world of magic versus the world of science or rationality—especially the belief held by many that, as Heron Ryan puts it, "anything science cannot explain has no right to exist." Where do you stand on this?
3. Has the idea of "witch" changed at all today from when it was used to persecute women during the medieval and up through the early modern ages?
4. What does it mean that we are victims of the realities we create?
5. To what extent did Athena seek out her death?
6. Is the world of sight, sound, and touch—the rational world —sufficient for you? Or do you seek another kind of reality, the one, perhaps, that Athena offered?
7. Of those interviewed for this book, whose voice do you trust the most? Who do you identify with the most? Dislike the most?
8. Would Athena's life have been more meaningful, more useful, if she had, as Andrea McCain suggests, joined a convent and devoted herself to a life of service to the poor?
(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution Thanks.)
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