The magic and metafiction of “The Witch of Portobello”

In order to fully discuss this novel, I’ve revealed certain things about the ending that you may not want to know if you’re planning on reading The Witch of Portobello—if so, I suggest you skip this entry.

As a modern Pagan, it’s absolutely wonderful to see a writer treating magic and the “supernatural” in such a…natural way.  Paulo Coelho’s The Witch of Portobello speaks frankly about magic and its place in the world, and more importantly, accepts it.

The Witch Athena may be a troubled character, but her struggles and her art resonated deeply with me.  To find a character that I could relate to on a spiritual level, well, that doesn’t happen very often, and this is a book I’ll come back to because of that.

One line in particular hit me right in the gut, both because like the character speaking, I am a Witch, and because I am a writer as well, and it applies to both crafts.

“I’ve always forged my path with blood, tears and willpower, but last night, I realized I was going about it the wrong way. My dream doesn’t require that of me. I have only to surrender myself to it, and if I find I’m suffering, grit my teeth, because the suffering will pass” (210).

Sometimes writing is the hardest thing in the world, and sometimes being a Witch in a Christian country is the hardest thing in the world, but this will always remind me that without suffering, we cannot appreciate joy.

Aside from the very spiritual experience reading the book brings, Coelho (recognized as a master) does some interesting things with craft that interest me as a writer and as a lover of metafiction.

The structure of Witch naturally lends itself to metafiction, and is rather Don Quixote-esque.  In the first paragraph of the novel, the speaker (who remains un-introduced until the end) draws attention to the structure. He says, “I soon abandoned the idea of writing a straight biography and decided the best approach would be simply to transcribe what people had told me” (1).

From that point on, the narrative dances back and forth between many different speakers, each speaker separated by a sub-head with his or her name.  The side effect of such an obvious structure that calls attention to itself with each change in speaker is that the reader has to think about it—why is this person speaking here? What is the point of this section here?

That sort of thinking does add to the story, because readers enjoy putting puzzles together, and the disparate voices of the narrative create a puzzle that slowly comes together as the book progresses.

But the real reason the metafictional aspects of this novel are a side effect of the structure is that I don’t believe Coelho set out to write a novel that comments on its structure the way The Witch of Portobello does.

I do, however, believe that Witch could not have been written with a traditional narrative structure.  In order to tell the story the way it needed to be told, Coelho needed all those different voices, and the reader needs to know who’s speaking immediately.

Athena is a character who inspires love and hate in equal measures among those who know her.  Many of the characters that surround her state their relationship to her outright, which colors the reading of that character’s sections.

Perspective is integral to the narrative, because all are speaking to the narrator (although the effect is that they are speaking directly to the reader, as the narrator is present only in the beginning and end) after the death of Athena—another thing that colors the text.

Because of those two things, a traditional third person narrative with an omniscient third-person narrator simply would not work to tell the story as Coelho tells it.

Another reason the metafiction is incidental is that the narrator, which turns out to be Athena’s boyfriend in Scotland Yard, pops up to explain the structure, and then pops up at the end to give the reader closure—he isn’t present anywhere else in the story, except as a sort of mythic figure that we aren’t even sure exists.  He’s kind of there, and not important at all to the story.

I wish Coelho could have come up with a better frame for this novel, because the “murder” of Athena (which the boyfriend reveals is a farce so that Athena can disappear quietly) falls flat for me.  I felt tricked by this revelation (as we’re told in the beginning Athena is murdered), and I don’t like to be tricked, not unless the reveal is damn good.

This one isn’t, in my opinion.  It cheapens the emotional experiences of all the characters—and worse, the reader.  After the novel’s epic events, we find out that our heroine winds up living a peaceful life.  She’s essentially been put out to pasture.  I say better for her to actually be brutally murdered, because then she becomes a sort of martyr, which in this case would have been incredibly powerful.

Regardless, The Witch of Portobello is an incredible work, and one I recommend to all, especially Pagans.

This post originally appeared on my now-defunct metafiction blog, The Narrative in the Blog, on February 22, 2010.

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May the Fourth Be With You! 2015

May the Fourth is my favorite holiday. Duh. The following are things I may or may not be doing today to celebrate.

  • Lightsaber duel with dogs
  • Stand in front of automatic doors and wave hand like a Jedi
  • Read a Star Wars book or comic
  • Watch Rebels
  • Watch one+ Star Wars films
  • Talk like Yoda all day
  • Talk like Chewbacca all day
  • Talk like Jar Jar all day (psych!)
  • Wear sweater with embroidered X-Wings on it
  • Purchase this awesome Mara Jade t-shirt
  • Make dinner from the Star Wars Cookbook

…I could go on, but you get the idea. How do you celebrate May the Fourth?

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#FridayReads: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

All My Puny Sorrows coverSuicide is not the kind of thing you discuss at the dinner table.

Even when we do talk about it, we tend to take one point of view: Prevent it at all costs.

But who are we to decide what course someone else should take?

Miriam Toews’ novel All My Puny Sorrows raises that question and then thoroughly explores it.

The narrator, Yolandi, fiercely tries to prevent her sister Elfrieda from committing suicide like their father did. Elfrieda is a successful pianist with a wonderful husband and good friends. Yolandi, by contrast, is divorced, feels she’s botched parenting her two teenagers, and can’t get her love life straight.

Even with all her troubles, Yolandi wants to live. So why does Elfrieda, with her charmed life, want to kill herself? And by extension, why does anyone want to kill themselves?

The writing style is semi-stream-of-consciousness, and it’s done well. Each sentence drips with tension and raw emotion; this book is a literary page-turner. Frequent white space gives the reader some breathing room between Yolandi’s breathless musings.

I’m halfway through the book, and I have no idea if Elfrieda will succeed in killing herself or not. I find myself torn between wanting her to embrace life and wanting her to be happy—which would mean suicide.

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