Paulo Coelho’s The Witch of Portobello

In a provocative gesture author Paulo Coelho lets his novel’s ten? protagonists interpret the intriguing, elusive main character, Athena or the witch of Portobello, as the principle narrator, 44-year-old journalist Henry Ryan (who is not one) provides ‘raw transcripts” from interviews he collected. I keep thinking of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Perhaps this is ten characters in search of Truth?

At the end of the novel the reader is still uncertain about her character since of course her mother, teachers, ex-husband, employers and followers all see her through their own eyes from different perspectives. Even her name changes throughout. On the last page is Athena truly alive or dead? Did she ever have a special gift that surpassed the everyday? Does she really love others or does she use them for her own ends? Is she manipulative and selfish? Is she a victim or a victimizer? Or is she both. As each protagonist “speaks” we learn as much about them as individuals with their weaknesses and strengths as we do about Athena.

In a final gesture, an innovative twist to the reader-author relationship, the author then hands the story over to his readers and invites them to reinterpret it in a video format by claiming the role of one of the protagonists.

When I set the book down after reading through it twice, I sensed that the profound descriptions of the spiritual power inherent in the pursuit of excellence in creative expression came close to describing Paulo Coelho’s own writing.

I am now working on integrating some of these to illustrate this point . . .

“[L]ife is full of infinite absurdities, which, strangely enough, do not even need to appear plausible, since they are true. [To] reverse the ordinary process may well be considered a madness: that is, to create credible situations, in order that they may appear true […] to make seem true that which isn’t true, … to give life to fantastic characters on the stage? … Are you not accustomed to see the characters created by an author spring to life in yourselves and face each other? Just because there is no “book” which contains us, you refuse to believe . . . [I]t isn’t possible to live in front of a mirror which not only freezes us with the image of ourselves, but throws our likeness back at us with a horrible grimace?” … Drama is action, sir, action and not confounded philosophy. [E]verybody argues and philosophizes when he is considering his own torments.” (Pirandello/6 characters 1921)

to be continued off to see the fireworks

‘The second kind is done with great technique, but with soul as well. For that to happen, the intention of the writer must be in harmony with the word. In this case, the saddest verses cease to be clothed in tragedy and are transformed into simple facts encountered along the way.’ (Coelho/Nabil Alaihi, age unknown, Bedouin 2007:80).”

“But then, how many of us will be saved the pain of seeing the most important things in our lives disappearing from one moment to the next? I don’t just mean people, but our ideas and dreams too: we might survive a day, a week, a few years, but we’re all condemned to lose. Our bodies remain alive, yet sooner or later our soul will receive the mortal blow. The perfect crime – for we don’t know who murdered our joy, what their motives were, or where the guilty parties are to be found. Are they aware of what they’ve done, those nameless guilty parties? I doubt it, because they too – the depressed, the arrogant, the impotent, and the powerful – are the victims of the reality they created. They don’t understand and would be incapable of understanding Athena’s world (Coelho/Heron Ryan, 44, journalist. The Witch of Portobello. 2007:5-6.)”

“On Sunday afternoon, while we were walking in the park, I asked her to pay attention to everything she was seeing and hearing: the leaves moving in the breeze, the waves on the lake, the birds singing, the dogs barking, the shouts of children as they ran back and forth, as if obeying some strange logic, incomprehensible to grown-ups. ‘Everything moves, and everything moves to a rhythm. And everything that moves to a rhythm creates a sound. At this moment, the same thing is happening here and everywhere else in the world. Our ancestors noticed the same thing when they tried to escape from the cold into caves: things moved and made noise. The first human beings may have been frightened by this at first, but that fear was soon replaced by a sense of awe: they understood that this was the way in which some Superior Being was communicating with them. In the hope of reciprocating that communication, they started imitating the sounds and movements around them – and thus dance and music were born (Coelho/Pavel Podbielski, 57, owner of the apartment. The Witch of Portobello. 2007).”


“Monologue is finalized and deaf to the other’s response, does not expect it and does not acknowledge in it any decisive force. Monologue manages without the other, and therefore to some degree materializes all reality . . . Life by its very nature is dialogic. To live means to participate in dialogue (Mikhail Bakhtin 1984:292-293).”

“. . . (Coelho 2007:50).”

“. . . (Coelho 2007:59).”

“. . . (Coelho 2007:75).”

“. . . (Coelho 2007:76).”

“My way of approaching Allah – may his name be praised – has been through calligraphy, and the search for the perfect meaning of each word. A single letter requires us to distil in it all the energy it contains, as if we were carving out its meaning. When sacred texts are written, they contain the soul of the man who served as an instrument to spread them throughout the world. And that doesn’t apply only to sacred texts, but to every mark we place on paper. Because the hand that draws each line reflects the soul of the person making that line (Coelho/Nabil Alaihi, age unknown, Bedouin 2007:76).”

“Writing wasn’t just the experience of a thought but also a way of reflecting on the meaning of each word (Coelho/Nabil Alaihi, age unknown, Bedouin 2007:76).”

“‘Now you must educate only your fingers, so that they can manifest every sensation in your body. That will concentrate your body’s strength.’ (Coelho/Nabil Alaihi, age unknown, Bedouin 2007:78).”

I did not only teach her calligraphy techniques. I also tried to pass on to her the philosophy of the calligraphers. ‘The brush with which you are making these lines is just an instrument. It has no consciousness; it follows the desires of the person holding it. And in that it is very like what we call “life”. Many people in this world are merely playing a role, unaware that there is an Invisible Hand guiding them. At this moment, in your hands, in the brush tracing each letter, lie all the intentions of your soul. Try to understand the importance of this.’ (Coelho/Nabil Alaihi, age unknown, Bedouin 2007:78).”

“Naturally, if she respected the brush that she used, she would realise that in order to learn to write she must cultivate serenity and elegance. And serenity comes from the heart. ‘Elegance isn’t a superficial thing, it’s the way mankind has found to honour life and work. That’s why, when you feel uncomfortable in that position, you mustn’t think that it’s false or artificial: it’s real and true precisely because it’s difficult. That position means that both the paper and the brush feel proud of the effort you’re making. The paper ceases to be a flat, colourless surface and takes on the depth of the things placed on it. Elegance is the correct posture if the writing is to be perfect. It’s the same with life: when all superfluous things have been discarded, we discover simplicity and concentration. The simpler and more sober the posture, the more beautiful it will be, even though, at first, it may seem uncomfortable.’ (Coelho/Nabil Alaihi, age unknown, Bedouin 2007:78).”

“I can combine two things . . . (Coelho/Nabil Alaihi, age unknown, Bedouin 2007:80).”

” ‘There are two kinds of letter,’ I explained. ‘The first is precise, but lacks soul. In this case, although the calligrapher may have mastered the technique, he has focused solely on the craft, which is why it hasn’t evolved, but become repetitive; he hasn’t grown at all, and one day he’ll give up the practice of writing, because he feels it is mere routine. ‘The second kind is done with great technique, but with soul as well. For that to happen, the intention of the writer must be in harmony with the word. In this case, the saddest verses cease to be clothed in tragedy and are transformed into simple facts encountered along the way.’ (Coelho/Nabil Alaihi, age unknown, Bedouin 2007:80).”

“‘Look at a skilled blacksmith working steel. To the untrained eye, he’s merely repeating the same hammer blows, but anyone trained in the art of calligraphy knows that each time the blacksmith lifts the hammer and brings it down, the intensity of the blow is different. The hand repeats the same gesture, but as it approaches the metal, it understands that it must touch it with more or less force. It’s the same thing with repetition: it may seem the same, but it’s always different. The moment will come when you no longer need to think about what you’re doing. You become the letter, the ink, the paper, the word.’ (Coelho/Nabil Alaihi, age unknown, Bedouin 2007:80).”

Calligraphy is not a mere repetition of beauty but an individual, spontaneous, personal and creative gesture (Coelho/Nabil Alaihi, age unknown, Bedouin 2007:83).

In order for a great artist to forget the rules, first she must know them and respect them (Coelho/Nabil Alaihi, age unknown, Bedouin 2007:83).

in the blank spaces between the letters. In the moment when a note of music ends and the next one has not yet begun (Coelho/Nabil Alaihi, age unknown, Bedouin 2007:99).

Vosho Bushalo, a 65-year-old Roma restaurant owner commented about Athena, “If I speak of her now in present tense, it’s because for those who travel, time does not exist, only space (Coelho/Bushalo 2007:104).

Coelho, Paulo. 2007. The Witch of Portobello.

One Response

  1. Hello!
    I also loved this book! Do you know Paulo is launching this experiment where he is inviting his readers to adapt the book to the screen?
    Check it out :
    Have a great day

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