Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Fifth Mountain (Paulo Coelho)

--The blurb--
"The Fifth Mountain is set in the 9th century BC. Elijah is a young man struggling to maintain his sanity amidst a chaotic world of tyranny and war. Forced to flee his home, then choose between his newfound love and security and his overwhelming sense of duty, this is a moving and inspiring story about how we can transcend even the most terrible ordeals by keeping faith and love alive."

--The review--
As part of many literature courses at university - including such prestigious universities as Exeter, Cambridge and Manchester - the Bible is part of the required reading list. This should not prove surprising: as well as several works of classic literature, such as the poetry of John Keats and the work of John Steinbeck - being littered with Biblical references, the English language also owes much to phrases from the Good Book (how many times have you said that you "escaped by the skin of your teeth" or muttered under your breath about "the powers that be"?). It's also not uncommon for children to grow up knowing Bible stories, even if their families are not religious: how many have played Mary in a nativity play, grown up to see The Passion of the Christ on DVD, or gone to see Joseph And His Technicolor Dreamcoat at the theatre?
In The Fifth Mountain, Paulo Coelho continues this work of bringing the Bible to life for the masses, allowing them to at least appreciate the stories contained in this holy book, even if they themselves do not ascribe to the idea of a god playing chess with our lives. It's true that when reading the Bible, the characters can at times seem faceless - especially when featured as part of an endless line of "begats". The sheer number of other 'characters' featuring in the Bible, as well as the strength of the 'main players', means that other familiar names, such as Elijah, are often forgotten, or known little about. And it is Elijah who is the focus of attention in The Fifth Mountain, where Coelho successfully builds up a character and setting that allows us to share in this prophet's joys and sorrows.

While it is evident that a certain amount of fictionalisation would have been involved (as a minimum, in terms of Coelho's fabrication of emotions and dialogue), the writer has tried hard to base the story's quintessential framework on information we are given by the Bible, which tells us that Elijah was cast out of Israel, having stated in front of King Ahab's wife Jezebel that he did not believe in the Baal gods that she did, as well as predicting that a drought would afflict Israel. Leaving his job as a carpenter, he fled to Judah to escape death where he was first fed by ravens, followed by a widow in the town of Sarepta (today known as Sarafand in modern-day Lebanon). Even though the widow barely has enough to feed herself and her son, she takes Elijah in and shows him hospitality. Gradually Elijah builds up a role for himself within the community as a healer of the sick before returning to Israel to announce the end of the drought. Coelho successfully fleshes out this story by adding genuine relationships, atmospheric settings, and nuggets of life advice that even we non-prophet types can take something from - such as the notion that "only when we have overcome [the trials] do we understand why they were there."

Sporting a far more tautly-told plot and message than Coelho's more famous The Alchemist, the author manages to convincingly generate real empathy for Elijah, the widow and her son, while simultaneously keeping a tight rein on the control of tension and the release of vital information. As well as entertaining, inspiring and teaching, he equally provides a sobering reminder of Lebanon's conflict-ridden past and present, and engenders real interest in the Bible's historicity, which fortunately can be indulged through such excellent resources as the Oxford Biblical Studies Online website, and which is why, I suspect, the Bible proves such an integral part of so many high-quality literature courses in British and American universities (Vanderbilt also includes it, for example). Perhaps there is even a case for The Fifth Mountain to be included too.

Other works by Paulo Coelho
Manuscript Found in Accra (2012)
Aleph (2010)
The Winner Stands Alone (2008)
The Witch of Portobello (2006)
Like The Flowing River (2006)
The Zahir (2005)
The Genie and the Roses (2004)
Eleven Minutes (2003)
Fathers, Sons and Grandsons (2001)
The Devil and Miss Prym (2000)
Veronika Decides To Die (1998)
The Manual of the Warrior of Light (1997)
By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept (1994)
The Valkyries (1992)
Brida (1990)
The Alchemist (1988)
The Pilgrimage (1988) 

No comments: