Thursday, June 28, 2007
It was a conscious decision to review Paulo Coelho’s The Witch of Portobello. You review a book to introduce it to a wider audience. In that respect, this latest release does not read any reviews. And it’s already a bestseller, and since it is Coelho, readers know what to expect.
A serious reader will snigger at Coelho’s oeuvre, citing the literary shortcoming of his work. But the copies, once published, just keep disappearing from the shelves.
Coelho is a pop phenomenon, and in an increasingly globalised world, where the lines between high-brow literature and pulp fiction is fast diminishing, it’s important to understand the popularity of a writer of his stature. After all, it’s the average Joes of the world who decide the fundamentals of the popular culture, not the critics.
So, what makes The Witch of Portobello a bestseller? Like all Coelho books, this one too is filled with self-help advices, which veer towards mysticism. The book is not chicken soup for the soul, rather steroids for the mind. Such is the effect of his writing.
As you finish the book, you are faced with two popular cultural phenomenon -- first, self-help techniques, and second, pop feminism. Both are the rage of the time.
A Dale Carnegie, a Robin Sharma or a Shiv Khera never goes out of fashion. As our society is growing competitive, everyone wants to have that zing, that X-factor, and in an increasing isolated social life, every individual wants to be happy. These books are the manna of happiness.
Coelho is no different. Only that he preaches with stories. But the story is just an occasion. The basic idea is to inspire you, to make you a better human being. This is the reason he is so popular and vilified by critics as well.
The Witch of Portobello is like other Coelho bestsellers. The Alchemist, his best work so far, caught people's fancy because it took a universal theme of chasing dreams. Since then, Coelho has tried to preach other special subjects, love, death, sexuality (in novels such as, Veronika Decides to Die, Eleven Minutes, I Sat Down by the River). The Witch... also covers these themes and more, where the author tells us a very exotic, and highly mystical story of a woman called Athena, born in Romania, raised in Beirut and now living in London. Athena’s story is just an excuse to drop the nuggets of wisdom, which Coelho does in abundance.
However, what makes the book fascinating is the way Coelho tries to rationalise the Gaia myth, the myth of sacred feminine, the Universal Mother. Thanks to Dan Brown. Now, all potboilers seem to have taken a cue from him, to have his or her say on the subject. Women were called witches because they were so wise in a male-dominated society that they were perceived as a threat. The book is about how to survive this threat.
Finally, the book is about filling the void, in calligraphy after finishing one alphabet and before beginning a new, and in life, the gap between your knowledge and belief.