The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho is a novel that seems to answer every difficult question it asks. On balance, I’d say that probably isn’t a good thing, but there’s no doubt that Coelho writes with a fast, fluent touch, and even when his characters expostulate rather than converse, the story barrels along, challenging everyone who might be skeptical of its somewhat implausible premises.
Our heroine, a gypsy or Roma girl adopted by a Lebanese couple, is self-named Athena (last name Khalil). She is recognizably a young woman on a quest, seeking her identity through a search for her birth mother, a form of dancing that brings her into the Light, encounters with a Teacher, ruptures with her husband and society, and a variety of rituals that cut across the grain of the “normal.” For example, she alters her form of dancing so that it is out of step with the music.
So, this is a thesis book: the world comprises two paths. Path one is the conventional, economically driven, institutionally sustained path of Catholicism, business, ambition, jealousy, and, presumably, the Father. Path two is the ignored, shadowy Tradition of the Great Mother, wherein the perceptions and objects of the normal shift into the paranormal, become intangible, free flowing, interwoven, collective, nonjudgmental.
Coelho’s technique for telling this story is good. He has a number of characters in Athena’s life recount their recollections of her. There is her mother, her Teacher, an aspirant boyfriend, an Historian, and so forth. Again, Coelho is economical, quick-footed, and so wedded to the thesis of the Mother emerging in modern society that he has the patter down...well...pat.
New Age stuff? Definitely. Out of the question? I’m not sure. As I read this novel, I asked myself whether I had ever met a witch, and in fact, I believe, by Coelho’s standards, I have. One was an astrologer who played a role in Washington similar to the one Nancy Reagan’s astrologer played. She was consulted on scheduling matters, important decisions, etc., by people close to V.I.P’s or V.I.P’s themselves. She also was flown around the world by wealthy believers.
I’ve said on different occasions that I think I’ve met more weird people in Washington than anywhere else I’ve lived (and I’ve lived in many places), but I’m not sure I’d classify this astrologer as weird. She was down-to-earth in many ways, admitted to indecision and vagueness on occasion, and definitely had a calming effect on a variety of high-strung people, either directly or through emissaries and message-carriers. Now that I think of it, I probably should write about her some day although I wouldn’t want to master her interpretations of the heavens because I didn’t understand what she was doing then and certainly wouldn’t understand it better now. The only thing I know for sure is that when I told her when I thought I was born, she told me I must have been born earlier that day. So I consulted the birth registry of the hospital in Pennsylvania where I came in to the world, and lo and behold, she was right within five minutes.
The second witch I knew was very, very different. She was an extremely successful businesswoman, quite wealthy, a brilliant manager (perhaps the best I’ve ever known), and given to using her intelligence and wealth to empowering women (and some men.) She, too, was down-to-earth and yet had some kind of faith about her that made things turn out spectacularly well, even when her projects failed. I never thought of her as a witch until today; I always thought of her as some kind fairy godmother; but this was a person who could project her will through time and space and would call you one day from a raft on the Amazon, the next week from Geneva, the third week from the U.S.-Mexico border. Everywhere she went, she made friends. Everything she did was interesting. She pursued the noblest goals, worked hard at them, and made you feel the unlikely was likely, the impossible possible.
Neither of these women went about their work in typical sharp-elbows, utterly insensitive ways, i.e., Washington ways. They knew how to breathe. They had time for the moment. They picked things up, little hints, clues, sensitivities. They were masters of positioning so that heavy jobs became light. They definitely read others in ways that made people blossom, have confidence in themselves, and take risks. And the difference between them and typically successful, impressive counterparts was substantial.
Coelho pushes this kind of rumination so hard in his novel, it’s difficult to respond to it on other terms. Have you ever met a witch? Do you believe in the second path, even a little bit? What’s so bad about witches, anyway? These are the kinds of thoughts you have as he programmatically explores his thesis-based characters and narrative.
Summing things up, I wouldn’t go looking for another one of Coelho’s novels, though apparently he has many, many millions of readers, but I’d wouldn’t say I’d refuse to read one if it were the only paperback left in the English language section of a news stand on a Greek island. But I do think I’d enjoy meeting him. He’s probably less agenda-driven in person than he is in prose.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund