The Witch of Portobello
is the first novel I have read by Paulo Coelho, and I completely understand why he has sold tens of millions of books worldwide. Additionally, I never want to read him ever again.
See, Coelho is a master in the art of pseudo-philosophy. Rather than presenting an interesting story, unique characters, or entertaining passages, he offers reams and reams of empty, abstract mumbling. Now, I like abstract thoughts when done right. The problem is that Coelho's musings are either painfully shallow, exaggerations, flat-out wrong, or mere tautologies.
Here, he follows the spiritual journey of Sherine Khalil, self-nicknamed Athena, as she goes from gypsy orphan to rich Lebanese girl to aimless university student to divorced baby mama to successful real estate maven (no details of her work ever given, of course) to spiritual deity/cult leader.
As I was reading the work, and thinking about who would buy into such simplistic, meaningless crap, an image came into my head. Back when I lived in Los Angeles County, there was a certain type of woman I kept meeting. She would be in her early twenties to late thirties, and call herself an "actress" while relying on money from her parents, boyfriend, or if she was really enterprising, waiting tables.
She was into yoga, "spirituality", liberal politics, "alternative medicine", and various diet fads. Not all of those are bad qualities, certainly, but this is precisely the type of naive, idealistic, hypocritical person this book was aimed for!
The main character also shares many similar qualities with these women, right down to a love of fashion, dancing, and make-up. (Which doesn't clash at all with her spiritual learning) And of course, a general distrust of all that complicated math and science.
There is even a failed marriage and raising a single child by herself to humanize her.
Another central character, who is revealed to be an even more powerful and charismatic spiritual medium, Andrea McCain, is a famous American actress in that same age range!
What wonderful opportunities for our reader to Mary Sue herself into the story!
Reading through The Witch of Portobello
, I can well imagine our LA ditz stumbling across such wondrous pearls as "love simply is. No definitions. Love and don't ask too many questions" and her eyes dilating from satisfaction. Nevermind that almost all of these are trite phrases that offer no real insight.
However, even with the pseudo-philosophizing and pandering, I find several aspects of this novel particularly unforgivable;
1. The text is a composition of epistolary notes written from different characters, including a 74 year-old male English priest, a 37 year-old American actress, a 57 year-old Armenian landlord, and many others.
Problem is, they all talk and think in exactly the same way.
This is an error forgivable in a first-time writer (even a classic like Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" suffers from this), but for someone who has been a professional for 15 years, and published numerous bestsellers?
It's embarrassing and lazy. Also, this is magnified by having so many narrators, and all of them diverse.
2. The editor's notes and character explanations are insulting. There are explanations for "Scotland Yard" and Athena informs a huge group of supposedly well-educated individuals that the Hagia Sofia is a really beautiful mosque she once saw. (As opposed to say, one of the most famous and important architectural marvels in history)
It makes me think that perhaps Coelho is aware that his audience isn't of a particularly scholarly bent. I'm almost surprised he didn't include an explanatory note for "Holocaust".
3. Multiple facts in the books are flat-out wrong, and often embarrassingly so.
Honestly, nothing beats the following passage on page 51;
" "What do you mean by the Vertex? In mathematics, it's the topmost angle of a triangle."
"In life too it's the culminating point..." "
When I first came across this, I did a double-take. I then went back and read the passage several more times, to make sure I was seeing right. Once I did, my first emotion was sincere pity for Paulo Coelho.
Here he is, in his mid-fifties, and no one had taught him as a child that a vertex is simply a type of point, an intersection of two lines!
I think that before teaching me about life and existence, Paulo should learn the basic knowledge I mastered as a seven year-old.
Particularly laughable is that he thinks a vertex is an angle, and uses "topmost" to refer to geometric objects possessing no orientation. What the hell is the "topmost angle" of a triangle, exactly?
Then, after pity subsided, I became further perplexed. Okay, perhaps Coelho is painfully uneducated, but couldn't he at least do a few seconds of Internet research? Especially when the "Path of the Vertex" is an important theme, and he screws up its image and basis from the start?
And what about his editors and proof-readers? None of them were smart enough to catch this egregious error?
I could go on. On page 217, Coelho uncorks an extended metaphor comparing human society to a colony of ants (how original) that demonstrates a complete ignorance of etymology. It's not like anyone forced him to use this example. He chose it himself.
And the parade of idiocy in discussing Chernobyl on page 206 could fill an entire review by itself.
Having so thoroughly trashed the book, why am I giving it two stars instead of one? Well, in his defense, Coelho can
write. He has a distinct, clear voice, and his work is fast-paced, even if the scenery it's traveling through bores. On a technical level, aside from the previously mentioned problem with narrators, he is a solid writer.
Unfortunately, the content is simply garbage.