Desert Isle Keeper
The Fifth Mountain
Paulo Coelho’s The Fifth Mountain is one of the most extraordinary works of historical fiction I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. The author fictionalizes the biblical story of Elijah, and as a very reformed Jew who welcomes the Prophet Elijah into the house every year at Passover to partake in a glass of wine, I’ve no idea of the actual biblical version beyond the sketchiest outline. Regardless, it is not the details of the story that matter as much as its message. Coelho explores issues of faith that are as meaningful in the 21st century as the were in the ninth century B.C.
Elijah’s story is essentially that of a reluctant prophet who was taught by his parents to refuse his calling. He was forced into it after his king, King Ahab, allows his wife, the Phoenician princess Jezebel, to require the people of Israel to pray to one of her pagan gods. After great suffering and under the threat of death, Elijah escapes and is commanded by God to seek out a young widow in Akbar, who takes him in even though she barely has enough food to feed her son. It is from the woman and the boy that Elijah learns to love, suffers through tremendous loss, and struggles against fanatical forces who fear the written word so much that, if the community must be destroyed in order to protect against the alphabet, than so be it.
I’m sure that it is the skeleton of the story that are told in scripture, and while they are powerful in and of themselves, it is the fictional world created around those bare bones that transform the story into a magical novel. I was also moved by how Coelho wrote this story; nobody Elijah encounters is named in the story until very late, when names take on more meaning. The fanatical priest is the priest, the army’s commander is the commander, but more importantly, the woman he comes to love is “the woman” and her son is “the boy”.
And it is out of a promise that Elijah gives the woman at a critical juncture that provides the most magic of all. The boy misunderstands the promise and demands Elijah follow through in a literal sense, something that seems an impossibility. But eventually Elijah is able to fulfill his promise in a manner that creates life from the ashes, hope for the hopeless, and the desire in people who’ve been ruled by superstition to learn anew.
Throughout this tale, Elijah battles with God – he asks Him to alter reality, he begs Him to leave him alone, he asks that God return to him – and learns much about faith in the process. My interpretation of Coelho’s writing is that God doesn’t want mindless sheep following His word. Such followers would be no different from those who are governed by superstition. The message I believe Elijah finally accepted and learned is that you must fight for what you believe, even if that means losing your faith, because beliefs based on goodness and truth eventually return you to God. God may ask much of you, but you are free to ask much of God in return.
Coelho’s only misstep for me occurs on the last half page of the book, and I imagine those who are Christain will not feel the same way. And it’s that half a page that lowers my grade from a perfect “A” to an “A-“.
I read most of this book while sitting in the waiting room at a hair salon on New Year’s Day during my daughter’s haircut. Crying like a baby for half an hour in public is no picnic. I was embarrassed but unable to stop reading; I simply had to follow along with Elijah on every agonizing step of his journey. Awarding DIK status on the very first day of a new year for a book about faith brings forth hopeful connotations, and regardless of your own religious convictions, this is a book well worth reading.