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.

3 thoughts on “The magic and metafiction of “The Witch of Portobello”

  1. I am addicted to the works of Paulo Coelho. “Eleven Minutes,” “The Alchemist,” and “Veronika Decided to Die” are my favorites. “Portobello” is also an excellent read.

    I agree with you that being any other religion besides Christian in this country can be difficult. I live in a very, very conservative town in the Midwest. However, I’ve been able to find like-minded people who are either uncertain about their spirituality (like me) or are of more tolerant spiritual viewpoints than fundamentalist anything. (One of my best friends deeply identifies with paganism.)

    I have not read any other metaphysical writer other than Coehlo. Any suggestions on authors/books? Also, what might be a good introduction to paganism (book, web site, etc.)?

    • Unfortunately, I’m not sure where to direct you as far as other metaphysical writers unless you want to go back in time a bit and check out Gerald Gardner’s and Dion Fortune’s novels. Both were early occultists (Gardner founded modern Wicca) who used a lot of real-life magic and rituals in their fictional writings.

      As far as an introduction to Paganism, I would suggest Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler. It’s a tad bit out of date at this point, but it gives a pretty thorough history of modern Paganism in the United States and is a good place to start. If you’re more interested in the spirituality of Paganism, I’d suggest Pagan Spirituality by River and Joyce Higginbotham–in addition to being informative it has a workbook-like section at the end of each chapter to help you think about your own believes and spiritual needs/wants.

      I’m glad you’ve got like-minded people to keep you company, and I’ll keep your Coelho favorites in mind the next time I make a trip to the book store!

      • Thank you for the advice regarding Wicca and Pagan spirituality. I like the suggestion of the Higginbotham book, as workbook sections can be really helpful. As well, I’ll check out Gardner and Fortune, as both sound like interesting authors, even if they go back a bit in time.

        Hope you get to read more Coelho! He is my meta-soulmate. 🙂

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