Pros: Coelho makes profound mysticism easily accessable, and that is no mean trick.
Cons: The Death of Athena is a little too...faery tale.
The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho
As the book opens, the focus of the story, Athena, Witch of Portobello, is dead. The book is told not as in investigation of the events surrounding her death, but the interviews of the people around her. Instead of distilling their stories into one, the author instead chose to let them tell the story, in their own words, and his only input is the art of the movie editor; he controls who speaks next, the sequence of tales, and how they play off against one another. It is a remarkably effective technique.
Athena is not the hero of the story; the hero of each part of the story is the person speaking, whether that be a journalist trying to capture the story of Athena, a woman he loved, an actress, Athena’s disciple, despite her intense and mutual dislike of the woman, Athena’s teacher, a Scottish medical doctor who studied Gypsy mysticism, Athena’s mothers, her ‘real’ mother, a Lebanese woman who adopted her, and raised her and loved her, and fled Lebanon for England when civil war broke out, her birth mother, a gypsy woman in Romania, who out of love for the child, knowing the ostracizing she would receive for being only half a gypsy, gave her up with a prayer to St. Sarah for a better life for her daughter. Each tells about their interactions with Athena, and the story builds not only from the historical actions…first she took a job in Abu Dhabi selling real estate, then she met the Bedouin who taught her to do with calligraphy what she had only been able to do with dance…but also, the effect that Athena had on them…that is as much the story of Athena’s life as the actions she took; she was a catalyst, and it was as a catalyst for change that she found her power.
Nor was her path easy; you don’t learn from easy paths. The book has its share of conflicts and setbacks and plot twists. It makes it interesting reading. More fascinating is seeing the lessons each person learned from each problem; Athena, and the person telling that particular part of the story.
The story is an exploration of the Divine Feminine, the female face of G*d. It is an exploration of transcendence, and the various ways we achieve it; for Athena, it was dance, and calligraphy. For others, it is other things.
It is also the story of how transformation and transcendence tend to collapse under their own weight. Part of Athena’s journey was to teach others, so that she might continue to learn. But as more were exposed to her teachings more came to her seeking answers, because that is one of the fundamental failings of human beings; we don’t want to seek to know the universe so that we may understand her, we just want to know “how do I make him love me?” and no amount of explanation of why that is the wrong question will make the person asking give it up.
It was this weight of demand that eventually killed the Witch of Portobello, and it is in this one passage alone that I feel the author was disingenuous with us. Still, a story likes a happy ending, and this one comes to one, rather remarkable, since it started as a post mortem interview.
Coelho is no stranger to mystical writings, his The Alchemist is a must read for those on a path of self discovery. I would say that this book is as well, particularly for women, and for very masculine men; it is disconcerting to remember that G*d the Father is often G*d the Great Mother. But as our culture moves towards being more and more egalitarian, we must set aside that strongest of the pillars of Male Privilege, and recognize we cannot force G*d into a single gender role, nor can we disenfranchise a entire gender for the benefit of another.
But more important that the subtle (or not so subtle) dig at the gender wars is the message that each of us, if we so choose, has the power to open our lives up and live on a much deeper, more fulfilling level. And that makes the message timeless, and worthwhile.
Books by Paulo Coelho:
The Witch of Portobello