Thursday, 17 June 2010

The Fifth Mountain - Paulo Coelho

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:Resilience in the face of suffering
Advantages: Inspiring story, great plot, good pace, packed with wisdom.
Disadvantages: A hint didactic, but that's what makes for all the memorable quotes.

Paulo Coelho is a master story-teller and each of his stories carries a message rich in wisdom. This is an unashamedly moral tale. Coelho tells us in his introductory note, recalling an episode in his own life, how sometimes even discipline and attentiveness cannot prevent suffering. Even the blessed go through a dark night of the soul. Suffering is unavoidable, but it is temporary. And what is lasting are "the lessons of the unavoidable". Difficult moments have a purpose. They are there to teach us. We must fight, we must struggle and we must face them with resilience. In so doing, we find a way to overcome them, and remembering our true purpose, we fulfill our destiny.

The book is set in the Middle East at the beginning of the first millenium before the birth of Christ. It is a time of peace that has been kept for over three hundred years by alliance and negotiation that is about to cruelly come to an end. The preface tells us how the Assyrians are amassing their armies, their sights on the wealthy trading towns of Phoenicia, in modern-day Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the main protagonist is the 23-year old Elijah who begins the book hiding for dear life in a barn in Israel with a Levite companion. He is a reluctant prophet, who had received a vision to convey to his king Ahab that there will be a drought in his land, and that the drought will not end until the worship of the Phoenician gods is put to an end. The king is indifferent. But his wife Jezebel finds such prophecies intolerable. For she is the beautiful Phoenician princess with green eyes and long dark hair who seduced the king, and desires to convert his people to the worship of the Phoenician god Baal who is supposed to live at the top of Fifth Mountain. She orders Elijah to be slain, and so also all prophets in the land that refuse to convert. And so Elijah hides with the burden of guilt for those that have lost their lives because of him.

How could God have allowed this to happen?, Elijah asks himself in the first line of the book. "God is God," his Levite companion muses in response. He does not promise to be good or bad. "I am" is all he said to Moses. "He is everything that exists under the sun - the lightning bolt that destroys a house and the hand of man that rebuilds it... If He limited himself to doing only that which we call good, we could not call Him the Almighty; He would command only one part of the universe, and there would exist someone more powerful than He watching and judging His acts. In that case, I would worship that more powerful someone."

Elijah decides to face his certain death and comes out of hiding, but it is denied him. He finds himself alone at the edge of the desert with nothing to eat, nowhere to go and worst of all, without hope or faith or a reason to live, and without these three, his body can continue to live, but his soul cannot. He finds himself putting words into the mouth of a crow and conversing with it. "You have discovered how everything is simple," the crow tells him. "Having courage is enough." And later, "No-one can lose sight of what he desires. Even if there are moments when he believes the world and the others are stronger. The secret is this: do not surrender." The crow begins to teach him to fend for himself, feeding him scraps of food as well as wisdom: about asking what God expects of him, finding joy in everything he does and seeing it as an apprenticeship, how his time as a carpenter taught him to place the soul outside himself and see the sacred in all things, and finally to get to know who he really is. Once he does get to know this, that his destiny is to be a prophet, something he had been hiding from since childhood, Elijah receives another vision. He is instructed to go to the Phoenician town of Zarephath, whose inhabitants call it Akbar, and to seek refuge there with a widow who will look after him. And it is here in the land of Akbar under the growing threat from the Assyrians that events unfold in the company of the unnamed widow and her son.

I leave you with some nuggets of Coelho wisdom, and I highly recommend the book for you to find many more, and to enjoy this inspiring story of resilience in the face of suffering.

"Then learn something. At this moment, many people have stopped living. They do not become angry, nor cry out; they merely wait for time to pass. They did not accept the challenges of life, so life no longer challenges them. You are running that same risk; react, face life, but do not stop living."

"The best [warrior] is the one who's most like a rock. Without drawing a blade, it proves that no-one can defeat it."

"Everything in life demands training..."

"Even to understand angels...we so want to talk with them that we don't listen to what they're our prayers we always try to say... but the Lord already knows all of this."

"The Lord heareth the prayers of those who ask to put aside hatred. But He is deaf to those who would flee from love."

"If you're a good warrior you will not blame yourself, but neither will you let your mistakes repeat themselves."

"I discovered something: the meaning of my life was whatever I wanted it to be."

"Some of them complained that they had not achieved anything in Akbar and were setting out for a new destiny. One day these people would return. They had not found what they were seeking. For they carried with them, along with their bags, the weight of their earlier failure...their past in Akbar had left them fearful and they lacked the confidence in themselves to take risks.
On the other hand, there also passed my door people full of ardor. They had profited from every moment of life in Akbar and through great effort had accumulated the money for their journey. To these people, life was a constant triumph and would go on being one. These people also returned, but with wonderful tales to tell. They had achieved everything they desired because they were not limited by the frustrations of the past."

"A child can always teach an adult three things: to be happy for no reason, to always be busy with something, and to know how to demand with all his might that which he desires."

"A warrior is always aware of what is worth fighting for. He does not go into combat over things that do not concern him, and he never wastes his time over provocations."

"A warrior accepts defeat. He does not treat it as a matter of indifference, nor does he attempt to transform it into a victory. He begins anew...Tragedies do happen...we must put aside the fear they awoke in us and begin to rebuild... transform pain into action."

"It is that struggle with the divine that blesses us and makes us grow...There are moments when God demands obedience. But there are moments in which He wishes to test our will and challenges us to understand His love."

"Only those men and women with the sacred flame in their hearts had the courage to confront Him. And they alone knew the path back to His love, for they understood that tragedy was not punishment, but challenge."

"Not the fire that kills, but the kind that tears down ancient walls and imparts to each human being his true possibilities. Cowards never allow their hearts to blaze with this fire; all they desire is for the changed situation to quickly return to what it was before, so they can go on living their lives and thinking in their customary way. The brave, however, set afire that which was old and, even at the cost of great internal suffering, abandon everything, ... and continue onward. The brave are always stubborn."

"He had fled from doubt. From defeat. From moments of indecision. But the Lord was generous and had led him to the abyss of the unavoidable to show him that man must choose - and not accept - his fate."

"Act as do men who are given a second chance: do not twice commit the same error. Never forget the reason for thy life."

"The Lord often has his prophets climb mountains to converse with Him. I always wondered why He did that, and now I know the answer: when we are on high, we can see everything else as small."

Stirring though these quotes may be, they are just words. They are a call to self-awakening, but they are as powerless in themselves as the crow that Elijah met at the beginning of his journey was powerless to tell him any more than he already knew. The answers come as if by chance, out of stillness, out of nowhere. This call to persist in life is not a call to hold on to dear life, but paradoxically to surrender to the fire of faith and love in our heart. And this persistent letting-go to uncover our true desire is not an instruction that can be followed, for the self that would hear and follow this call is itself consumed in the flames of its fire. Reading this book won't change your life. Only you can do that. But in the grander scheme, we are powerless. In realizing this, and facing emptiness without fear, and struggling to stay true despite there being no thing to stay true to, therein lies our true power. There are times in life when we need reminding of this inner wisdom which we all know subconsciously at an early age without being taught. I found this book a timely reminder. May we be always coming into remembrance!

Summary: A beautifully worked rendition of how the prophet Elijah overcame his long dark night of the soul.


  1. Thank you :), sounds like wonderful book !

  2. Paulo Coelho is what exists of worst in the modern Brazilian literature. His texts don't have any aesthetic and literary value. Paulo Coelho is a phenomenon of the propaganda and his work is destined to the decline after his death.

    At the present time we haveonly two great writers in Brazil: Nélida Piñon (Argentinean naturalized Brazilian) and Lígia Fagundes Teles.

  3. Oh, thanks, Okei!
    I am always looking for new books and this one sounds great!

  4. Thanks Betsy & Lee!

    Fabio, yes, but you are judging them by something they are not. This is the third book I've read by Coelho, and I find his books have a certain quality which you are missing if you use the literary lens. They have a certain spiritual value which seeks to awaken lessons in the reader. You could call that propaganda, were it not that dogma itself is something that Coelho seeks for us to question.

    But this raises an interesting question: "Is prejudice against dogma, itself a dogma?" I believe there's a spirituality in religion that is beyond dogma, and the dogma should be seen for what it is, like the raft used to cross a river which must be left behind when we get to the other side and not carried with us. So in answer to my own question, it's not prejudice against dogma, but prejudice against attachment to dogma.

    "Is prejudice against attachment to dogma, itself a dogma?"

    I don't know... I get stuck here. Because if it is, then we must detach from our prejudice against attachment, in other words detach from any concept of detachment, and at this point my brain is hurting. Can anyone help?

    As for inevitable decline, I don't think it will happen as soon as you predict. Think of Aesop's fables which are thousands of years old. Humans love a good story, with a quality of depth, and Coelho delivers.

    Edit: But thanks for the recommendations though!

  5. Literature should be judged by literary criteria.

  6. Hmmm... the problem is with objective criteria in the first place, i.e. who does the judging. On consideration, there are two ways we should judge... from the author, does it fulfill the author's inner desire, and from the reader, does it fulfill the reader's expectation.

    Many authors say, "I write for myself. The fact that others would want to read what I write is something for which I am immensely grateful." I think Coelho is one such author. Many authors say that, but don't mean it. They are quite happy to fit their work to their readers' expectations to sell more copies. But this is like a pledge of truthfulness. For the writer, faithfulness to himself is the only criteria.

    Then the book is written and published and the writer becomes almost irrelevant. All that matters is the finished product and how the reader likes it. Literary criteria for sure, but sympathetic to its intention. Aesop's Fables are no Lord of the Rings (no depth!). And Lord of the Rings is no Aesop's Fable (too long and drawn out!) See what I mean?

  7. The criterion to evaluate a literary text was always aesthetic.
    They are appraised:

    1) cohesion and coherence of the text (taking into account the author's proposal);
    2) use of stylistic resources (metaphors, alliterations, paradoxes, etc...)
    3) grammatical and linguistic innovations;
    4) aesthetic use of linguistic variations despised by the formal grammar;
    5) the form as the text dialogues with other texts of the literary tradition;
    6) innovation of the theme or innovation in the treatment of a known theme;
    7) the degree of "opening" of the work ("opening" should be understood here in the sense that gave him Umberto Eco).

    Paulo Coelho is an accountant of mystic histories, no a writer. His work doesn't have any literary value.

  8. Maybe that's why it translates so well!!!

    Yep, all he has is good stories, simplicity and a wealth of wisdom as you can see from all the lovely quotes in my review. So all in all... why complain for what he isn't? Enjoy for all that he is! :^)

  9. LOL

    His work doesn't have literary value in Portuguese. I didn't criticize your review, but Paulo Coelho work.

  10. As a huge reader of literally thousands of books over the years....the depth of a story is in the eye of the reader.

    Kinda like love is in the eye of the beholder.

    I could care less about "literary value." I care more about what touches my soul. I make my own judgments.

  11. When Coelho started writing he probably never imagined one day he would even be compared with the literary greats of his country. But isn't that a lesson of the spiritual 'warrior' that he is! He turns literary weakness to his advantage. Had he been more literary in his style, his work would have been much harder to translate and fewer might have read his message around the world. And for him, the message or soul of the story is paramount.

  12. OK but don't interpret me badly.

    I am bachelor in Brazilian Literature and I am concerned when somebody mentions Paulo Coelho, because he can be wrongly considered the
    best Brazilian writer. Paulo Coelho is just the Brazilian writer more sold now, no the best Brazilian writer.

    The book is an unique product. The book is merchandise (for the editor and for the writer) but it is also or it can be a work of art (for the readers and specialists). The time of the market is one, the time of the art is other. The criterion of the market is unjust, because the book more sold not always it is the best book of a historical moment. This always happens and in Brazil we have several examples.

    Novelist Graça Aranha was considered a literary and editorial phenomenon in the beginning of the century XX. Lima Barreto was considered a smaller author and their books sold a little. However, today the books of Graça Aranha is forgotten and the one of Lima Barreto are printed periodically and he is studied as the best representative of that literary period.

    I won't discuss any reader's taste. Each one reads what can or what likes. I just try to indicate more refined Brazilian writers for more demanding readers.

  13. I agree with you absolutely Lee. Literature is not a popularity contest on the one hand nor a literary contest on the other. What "touches you" is a very good way to judge. It *is* selective. We see what we want to see. Beauty can be found even in unlikely places.

  14. I don't have anything else to speak and I already said what think.

  15. Fabio, I agree with you also. And very grateful for your suggestions which I would never have heard of otherwise.

  16. Coelho will be remembered though, not in literary circles, but as a teller of timeless fables. By the way, half my review above was direct quotations from him! ;-)

  17. Great review! I definitely will be adding this one to my collection.

    Hope you are inspired to write more reviews, Okei :-)

  18. Thanks so much for posting this, Okei....few writers of deep spiritual truths have literary prowess of the kind Fabio references, so he makes some good points. They live in very different "worldviews."

    But, truly great works of literature - aside from their aesthetic value - impart spiritual truths, or they don't stand the test of time. And they speak to each of us differently, so no two people could possibly agree on the most valuable texts we would put in the top ten list.

    I have never read Coelho - perhaps because he is so popular I assumed there would be nothing of interest, but I certainly will read him now...

    I especially loved: "
    "Not the fire that kills, but the kind that tears down ancient walls and imparts to each human being his true possibilities. Cowards never allow their hearts to blaze with this fire; all they desire is for the changed situation to quickly return to what it was before, so they can go on living their lives and thinking in their customary way. The brave, however, set afire that which was old and, even at the cost of great internal suffering, abandon everything, ... and continue onward. The brave are always stubborn."

    Thank you for sharing your passion for his 'wisdom.'

  19. Thanks Erica! I hope to. I have two or three other reviews which I wrote about a year ago which I might post here also.

    I agree Nancy... something just occurred to me... perhaps Coelho is Castaneda for the masses. Not that Castaneda is difficult to read, but because he claimed not to be writing fiction, he's certainly difficult to swallow. Erica, I wonder if that's fair? Certainly, Castaneda was an influence on Coelho.

  20. I do see a correlation between Castaneda and Coehlo - mostly in that they both use the "warrior" terminology. But I think in the practical teachings there are huge differences. Coelho also seems to be greatly influenced bu both Buddhism and Christianity. I have a great affinity for both authors :-)))

  21. I had intended to comment on this a long time ago, so sorry about the late response. I'm intrigued by the subject of Coelho's book, and it is actually one that I have been tempted to read. But I haven't done it yet. Why? Well, the simple fact is that Coelho has been hit and miss for me so far. The Zahir turned out to be a good story and seemed to flow well, whereas the novel, Brida, seemed to wander around in a sort of 'new age' haze. So for now I'm on the fence.

    Based on what you say here, though, I'm willing to take another look at Coelho's writing.

  22. Thanks Jim! I'm just back from Spain.

    I've not read either Zahir or Brida, but from what you say the former is much more worthy of checking out than the latter.

    I'm not surprised that Coelho is hit-and-miss. I believe he writes his novels very fast, like in a few weeks, and I may be imagining it, but the rest of the year when he's not writing, it feels like he is "collecting"... and the ideas he collects he then tries to work into the novels even if they don't exactly "go". Having said that, even some of the greatest authors ever, like Victor Hugo and Balzac I believe did something similar. Every experience of life, everything read is used as "material" for the "great work"... the result being great distractions from the main plot, which may be entertaining or not depending on how well it's done.

  23. i need help with an essay assignment for my literature class..any willing to help?

    my teacher wants me to find two contrasting ideas from the bible & the fifth mountain.For each contrasting idea, i need to justify the significance of the idea in order to briefly share how the idea illuminates either one of the pieces of literature (Bible or Coelho text) or the story of Elijah.

    please help!

  24. Sounds tough...that's why I didn't continue with literature studies, but only for enjoyment and education. I have three thoughts though...look up the story of Elijah in the Bible and notice the differences, how Coelho has changed the story, then explore deeper...secondly, the fundamental question of why there's suffering in the world, compare the lessons of this book with the book of Job in the Bible...thirdly, how about asking in the Books section of Yahoo Answers. There are lots of clever people there who might be able to help you better.

  25. thank you sooo much that really helped! thanks!