Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho (1993)

The Alchemist is one of the world's best selling novels and has been translated into more languages than any other book by a living author, according to Wikipedia. I think I understand why. The novel is full of hope and also acts as a spiritual self-help book. Paulo Coelho, born in Brazil, has led an interesting life. He was locked away in a mental institution by his parents because he wanted to be a writer; he dropped out of law school, became a hippie, experimented with drugs, became a songwriter, and went on a pilgrimage that changed his life. This pilgrimage, which led to his realization that though he wasn't yet living his dream, no doubt inspired him to write The Alchemist. It is an inspiring read, reminiscent in ways of the Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights. There is magical realism, fun adventure, and the conviction that if you really want to, you can achieve your dream. At the same time, Coelho's story seems more a vehicle for preaching his philosophy and sometimes grows tiring. In modern American culture, we are skeptical of what it means to live and achieve one's dreams, especially in the days of post-9/11. American novels like Steinbeck's The Pearl warns us of the possible consequences of achieving the American Dream, and in the daily scandals of young celebrities shown in gossip magazines and television, we find one such consequence. I admire Coelho for his conviction, but I also believe he treats the idea of chasing and achieving dreams too simplistically.

In Spain, a shepherd boy, not unlike Coelho, wanders the plains with his many sheep. He was destined to be a preacher, but told his father that he wanted to see the world. His father lets him go, believing he will realize that his home is the best place in the world, but the shepherd boy falls in love with his nomadic life. However, something begins to nag at his paradise. He has a recurring dream that he finds a treasure at the Pyramids of Egypt. So he visits a gypsy woman and she tells him the obvious: a treasure awaits him at the Pyramids of Egypt. This costs him ten percent of his treasure. At first he is skeptical about chasing this dream, and there's a girl in the next town, anyway, he's thinking about marrying. Making things easy for him is the appearance of a a magical king, who tells him about Personal Legends and the Soul of the World. Everyone has a Personal Legend, but very few live it out. Most people find excuses not to chase after it, preferring not to take the risks, and so they lead the safe, easy, but dull, life of a career man (and it does seem to apply only to men). The Soul of the World is like God. It connects everyone to everything. If one learns to read the omens and to speak with the Soul of the World, one can achieve anything.

The boy's journey eventually lands him in an oasis in the Sahara desert, where he is able to read an omen that armed men are going to attack the oasis. He warns the tribesmen there, and they fend off the attack. This ability to read the omens attracts the attention of an alchemist. He is much like the king, all powerful, able to transform into the wind and turn lead into gold. He takes the boy as his pupil in order to help him seek out his Personal Legend and the treasure of the Pyramids. I will say no more about the story, except that it ends with a pleasing twist.

Coelho's spirituality is very apparent through his language of Personal Legends and the Soul of the World. The boy will learn to speak through God, like the great prophets, and perhaps Coehlo is also serving as a prophet, instructing his readers how to lead their lives. I think Coelho is trying to say that anybody, through hard work and merit, has the ability to speak directly with God, and not just the chosen few, the prophets. This, perhaps, is what adds to its popularity. It is what made Christianity such a powerful religion. Rather than being for the elite few, Christianity spoke to the impoverished many. The problem, however, is that while Coelho seems to be preaching to the many, his story undermines this. Based on what the narrator says throughout the novel, it seems that only the elite few possess the ability to achieve their Personal Legend.

This is apparent in the way the story is told as well. Only those who the king and the alchemist choose to explain the rules of Personal Legends to can actually achieve their dreams. This is also lazy storytelling. Every time the boy is consumed with doubt or faces an obstacle that threatens to turn him away, some powerful characer, like a genie from the Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights, enters the scene and tells him the right way to go. The boy would have never chased his dream had it not been for the appearance of the magical king, and he would have given up had it not been for the appearance of the alchemist. Coelho seems to believe that the world conspires to make our dreams come true, which is easy enough to argue in a novel with fantastic elements. Real life isn't so simple or easy, though.

Coelho's narrator implies that those who do not achieve their dreams don't because of their own personal failings and fears. However, he fails take into account the twists and turns life takes. There's also the fact that our dreams change, and that they are not absolute convictions. Our dreams might change as we gain new perspectives on life, or they may not have been very clear to begin with, but always developing in our mind. And perhaps when we do take up that career, while our mind dreams of other things, we realize that this career fulfills us in ways we never imagined. And once you achieve your dream, you may likely face the question, is this what I really want? You may also begin to dream of something else. Dreams aren't so simple, after all.

The Alchemist is not a boring read, and at times is very entertaining. I enjoy the stories from the 1001 Arabian Nights, and the novel is at its best when its adventure plays out like them. Theft, travel, war, sandstorms and love. Coelho is very inventive in the ways he makes use of what at first appears to be an obstacle to the boy's journey. However, the novel plays out largely as a philosophical work, and Coelho's idealism seems born from another age, an age of innocence. We have become realists and pessimists today. Of course, as a spiritual work, I believe the novel will play out differently for everyone. You might become a believer, and the novel may serve as a source of inspiration for you. Just because it doesn't work for me doesn't mean it won't work for you.


  1. I loved this book when I read it, although it was several years ago now, so I can't remember much of it. However I do remember that while I really enjoyed this book, and while it's one of my mum's all time favourites, I loved Virginia decides to die even more.

    Also, I'm wondering why you don't appear to have a follower gadget?

  2. I am definitely curious to read more Coehlo. I will keep an eye out for Virginia decides to die.

    As for the widget, I'm new to this and am still figuring things out. I will add that right away though. Thanks for visiting!