Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Witch of Portobello

How do we find the courage to always be true to ourselves – even if we are unsure of who we are?

These are the words that caught my attention when I visited a book fair 2 years ago. As a woman, wife and mother who’s trying to grapple with my own identity and what I wanted from life, I was naturally intrigue as to what this book had to offer. Since the book was on sale, and I was quite impressed with another book by the same author, Like the Flowing River which was a gift from a colleague, I went on to make this purchase. However, after I bought it, I just put it aside and never had the chance to touch it until recently, when I ran out of books to read.

I felt connected immediately when I read about how Athena, who always felt restless despite her having a contented life. Like her, when I was not doing anything, my mind would start wandering – worrying about little things, or thinking about future things. When I was small, I even made up stories in my mind of how I wanted my future to be. I didn’t know why I did that, and I had no way of stopping my thoughts from flowing. In other words, my mind was always on the go. I couldn't really relax or not think about anything at all. Hence, I was deeply touched when I read of how she went in search of something to fill up the blank spaces in her life, only to discover that the silences between the notes were what make the music more powerful, and the pause between the letters that’s what made the calligraphy more beautiful. When she learnt to embrace the silence, the spaces, she experienced a different aura. This, I have not learnt how to master yet :)

The whole story was told in a very unique way, with a twist at the end. Coehlo unfold the tale from a few narrators, allowing us to interpret the story by piecing up all the details gathered by different people and forming our own impression of the main character, rather than being clouded by one narrator's perspective. Some of the conversations discussed made me reflect about many things in my life. I really salute the author, Paulo Coelho, for his ability to present the story in such a way that touched about the actual reality in life. However, I do agree that some of the things being discussed were rather abstract, giving us a very new-agey kind of feeling. Maybe that’s why some said this is a story of a woman of the “twenty-second century living in the twenty-first”.

At some point, I felt that things were just too simple in the story. When Athena’s marriage didn’t quite work out, it’s so easy to just divorce, even though she’s a Catholic. Catholics forbid divorce, "But at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one.
Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." Mark 10:6-9

After her divorce, she was shunned by her church because she was not allowed to receive the Holy Communion. Having no other means to fulfil her spiritual needs, she went on to learn trance dancing, and from there moved on to calligraphy, etc. All this while, her son was tagging along with her. I was marveling at such possibility, because having children myself, I could not fathom how her child could be so obliging. And that led me to wonder if Paulo Coelho had any children of his own. I searched his biography but couldn’t find any mention of the word children. Only his wife was mentioned. Aha, maybe that’s why? Hmmm…

Anyway, I enjoyed the whole story very much as I read how Athena, or also known as the witch followed a winding path to enlightenment in the form of a female deity. She went on to find a job after her divorce and then influenced the people around her as she was searching for the 'light'. She managed to inspire her colleagues to perform above expectation, and the results attracted the upper management. That's the start of her carreer path, and she was capable of earning enough salary to support both herself and her son for 3 years without working. However, despite all that, she's still not contented with life, and that led her to continue searching for the long yearned-for satisfaction.

In her struggle to transcend society's expectations of her, this book reminded me of the power everyone had but refused to invoke in order to find their own spirituality. She even went to find her birth mother (she's an adopted child) because she thought she wouldn't have peace unless she was reunited with her origin. Despite that, she still couldn't satisfy her restless state. Finally, she took a student, following the advice from her spiritual teacher, and from there, she also learnt things from her student's perspective. Yes, even though both she and her student disliked each other.

"How can you teach me if you don't like me?" Her student asked.

In the reality of life, no man is an island. No matter how we dislike the other person, we couldn't live alone. Athena showed that it's still possible to impart her knowledge to someone she disliked, and the experience had enrich her tremendously.

How was the ending like? Read for yourself! A great aplause should be given to the author, for the way it was ended. The story started with the witch being brutally murdered in the first place, but the ending was not that gloomy. Even though I was hoping for a better ending, I could not agree more that this was the best way to end the tale of the Witch of Portobello. Yes, a happy surprise, so that’s why the twist at the end. Now, if you're wondering if I find that a worthwhile reading, what would you conclude if I tell you that right after I completed this book, I went on to purchase another one of Coelho's masterpiece, “The Alchemist”?


Swan said...

O-Che, I think I have The Alchemist la, it's in my cupboard. You can check if I have some others...

ablogaway said...

Aiya, should have told me earlier... then I can save some $$$ ;P


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