Review: Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist

img_4136

In the world of The Alchemist, following your dreams isn’t just a source of personal meaning—it’s pretty much divine mandate. A self-help book and vague philosophical tract cleverly disguised as a novel, it begins with all the charm of a fairy tale but quickly devolves into platitudes and abstract meditations on what it means to follow your dreams.

Santiago is a shepherd roaming the pastures of Andalusia with his flock. But when he finds out that that treasure awaits him at the Pyramids, he ditches the sheep and heads for Egypt. “When you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe,” says Melchizedek, a Biblical king who appears to Santiago like a jewel-encrusted self-help coach with news of the treasure. “To realize one’s Personal Legend is a person’s only real obligation. All things are one. And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

It’s lovely at first—the vague mysticism and the sense of Spain you get from the fragrant descriptions are almost enough to convince you that something magical lies in store. And it’s especially intoxicating for someone with unfulfilled artistic ambitions.[1] Coelho himself, who called the struggle to publish The Alchemist his own “Personal Legend,” isn’t subtle about what he wants us to get out of this book. “I am Santiago the shepherd boy in search of my treasure,” he writes in the Foreword,[2] “just as you are Santiago the shepherd boy in search of your own.”

But the world, shot through with the overbearing idea that everyone should follow their dreams, saps the story of any tension. Just before Santiago digs up his treasure, he thinks, “The path was written in the omens, and there was no way I could go wrong.” Well, yes—his quest has no stakes and no risk of failure. Instead, the whole thing feels like an exercise, a generic rah-rah for everyone who wants to achieve something.[3] Not even the goal is important: Santiago’s is just nebulous “treasure,” which, in the end, turns out to be a literal chest of booty.[4]

At points, the story becomes a blend of abstract philosophical statements and trite one-liners that wouldn’t look out of place in a Fortune 500 CEO’s memoir (“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure”) or a Sunday school lesson (“God has prepared a path for everyone to follow. You just have to read the omens that he left for you.”)

But Coelho has a reason for making it so wretchedly obvious that we are Santiago and Santiago is us: he believes that all people share the boy’s fundamental desires, and by focusing on this similarity, we might be able to mend cultural or political clashes. That idea is stretched to its limits in the story. Deep in the desert, Santiago learns that not only people have Personal Legends—so too do inanimate objects like lead and copper. “Everything has its Personal Legend, but one day that Personal Legend will be realized,” Santiago says. “So each thing has to transform itself into something better…until, someday, the Soul of the World becomes one thing only.” This is the way The Alchemist’s universe wants to end: to become a world where no “individual properties” exist, where purity is so complete that difference itself is eliminated.

Which, when you think about it, is actually kind of chilling—differences are fundamental to the world, and being able to handle and embrace complexity even amid strife seems more important today than ever. But Coelho pushes back against those who would pooh-pooh simplicity. Santiago rides with a wannabe alchemist from England in his caravan, who at one point grumbles that Santiago has “a mania for simplifying everything.” Stuck in his books, Coelho seems to say, the Englishman is on the right track but all his studying has complicated simple truths. But that’s what the best books do: they challenge you with nuance instead of stripping it away.

[1] I am not immune.

[2] My copy is the 25th Anniversary edition from HarperOne.

[3] That is to say, everyone.

[4] Of the gold coins and precious stones variety, not the fun kind.

Advertisements