The Fifth Mountain
by Paulo Coelho
translated from Portuguese by Clifford E Landers
Usually disliking a book isn’t a barrier to having plenty to say about it; in fact the opposite is often true. But even though this was a book club choice and I’ve therefore spent an evening down the pub discussing it, I still don’t feel I have very much to say.
I must admit I wasn’t enthusiastic when this book was suggested. Like many avid readers, I had my Coelho phase and quickly discovered that his books can be a bit samey and preachy and that’s not really my thing. (Though I will say that I enjoyed Veronkia Decides to Die and Eleven Minutes.) But a retelling of the story of Elijah from an author who gets oh-so-spiritual and life-lesson-y didn’t get me excited.
And sadly it turns out I know myself well. I have nothing against using religion as the backdrop or even the foreground of a novel, in fact it worked very well for our previous book club read, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, but it still needs to be well written and have a storyline and engaging characters and all the rest. I think you can guess where this is going.
I didn’t know the story of Elijah well but I’m pretty sure I could tell you which bits of this book were biblical and which were added by Coelho. Elijah is a bit of a wishy washy hero who should have been so much more. At a surprisingly young age he abandons his career as a carpenter because he is called by God to be a prophet. But prophets are being slaughtered in his homeland of Israel so he flees to neighbouring Lebanon, where they don’t believe in his God and only let him live because he could be a useful bargaining tool. And there’s a little bit of a love story. And a foreign army is threatening to attack Elijah’s adopted city.
So there’s plenty going on. And yet I was frequently bored by this book. It’s not long or complex, the writing is light and simple, there aren’t too many characters, so why was it a bit of a slog? First of all, almost nothing is described – people, places, anything, nothing is visualised for you. In fact few of the characters, including main ones, even have names. Second, the majority of the narrative is Elijah whining and philosophising and whining some more. He doesn’t do anything unless God tells him to, resulting in one of the wimpiest, dullest characters I’ve ever come across. And third (though certainly not finally) Coelho injects it all (somehow) with an isn’t-this-meaningful self-help vibe.
One thing that I did enjoy and that could have been made more of, was the story of the spread of the alphabet. I have no idea how historically accurate the coverage of this was, but I was interested in how it was resisted and the reasons for that. Sadly Coelho did not dwell on this as much as I’d have liked. Maybe I’ll search out a better written book on the subject.
First published by Harper Collins 1998.