Some Thoughts About Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist

So. Much. Hype.

Written by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, and published in 1988, this short novel exploded as an international bestseller roughly around 2009, when it was translated into sixty-seven languages. It has sold over sixty-five million copies and set the Guinness World Record for the most translated book by a living author (I guess it loses this title after the poor guy bites the dust?).

This novel has been recommended to me by friends and sits glimmering with hope and promise from the front shelves of every Barnes and Noble in town. The novel’s ambiguous title and spooky cover art beckon curious readers. Flip it over and read the long list of glowing reviews from those for whom the book has been life-changing. It feels sincere… sort of. Many years ago, I bought this colon-cleansing system off the internet. After reading a novel’s worth of reviews from people who claimed that their innards had been transformed after the big purge, I was sold. Many of them described the horrors of what was living inside their intestines and how this product had evicted those nasty little buggars into the abyss of countless sewer systems, leaving their unwilling patrons free and happy to move on with their lives. I couldn’t not buy the product after reading those testimonials. What was living inside of me? How would I ever know if I didn’t spend $200 on this miracle product? Spoiler Alert: I wasted $200 on an overpriced diuretic, and I never met the nonexistent parasite I’d decided had set up camp inside my intestines, spending his day snacking on my half-digested string beans.

Now, I’m not saying this book is an overpriced diuretic, but I was a little disappointed considering all the hype. I expected my life to change. I chose to read it during a time when I was feeling a little lost. I needed this book – or so I thought. For those of you who have not yet read The Alchemist (although, at this point that seems a little unlikely), I’ll give you a quick recap.

A young Andalusian shepherd named Santiago meets an old man who claims to be a mysterious king. The old man convinces Santiago that his recurring dream about finding treasure in the Pyramids of Egypt can be realized, should the young man choose to accept and follow his “Personal Legend”. Santiago goes for it. He sells his sheep, travels to Africa, and after a series of unfortunate events ends up getting robbed and is forced to find a job working for a crystal merchant in Tangier. Eventually, he saves up enough money to join a caravan headed towards Egypt but gets stuck at an oasis for an extended period of time due to some ongoing desert wars. He falls in love. He becomes friends with an Englishman. And, finally, he sets off on the last leg of his journey with an alchemist, who teaches him how to communicate with the elements of nature. The two fall into many dangerous situations, but always seem to find a way out. Eventually, Santiago does get to the Pyramids, only to realize that the treasure he was seeking all along wasn’t really a tangible treasure – think wisdom and personal growth, instead.

It is a lovely story. It is even a creative story. In fact, it would be untrue if I were to say that I did not enjoy it because I did. It is sweet. Santiago finds himself during his journey. He falls in love (albeit in a storybook, not-realistic kind of way). He makes friends. He discovers value in himself that he had not previously come to terms with. My problem is not with the storytelling. Rather, I found myself becoming irritated by the painful overtness of the message. There was no nuance. Dear Coelho does not waste any time before he accosts his readers with the sentiment of a poorly-written, albeit inspirational self-help book (yes, that is possible). He does not even try to be sneaky about it. He calls Santiago’s trek for fulfillment his “Personal Legend”, which brings me to my next point.

Coelho brands this concept a “Personal Legend” in an attempt to showcase the value behind locating personal happiness in a noisy world filled with competing ideologies and distractions – all there to derail us fragile humans from the track towards happiness. And, while I can’t hate Coelho for bringing attention to this very real need for humans to find happiness, I disagree with his method. For one thing, the name “Personal Legend” is just a little too precious – but I cannot base an entire essay on that single annoyance. So, instead, I will focus on Coelho’s argument that Santiago needs to reject everything that is not his “Personal Legend” so as to find peace in the world first. For Santiago, he must reject love. So, while Coelho is trying to battle regret by sending Santiago on this very specific journey, he seems to have forgotten about one of the most painful forms of regret. What about the regret of a lost love? Santiago is sure to gain wisdom and to become more in-tune with his sense of self from this voyage, and in doing so he appears to eliminate the regret of not going for it. But, he also loses out on true love. It is possible that his lover will wait for him, but reality suggests that she also might not. In essence, he trades one regret for another.

I agree with Coelho’s suggestion that as humans on the quest for a fulfilled and happy life, we should make serious efforts to follow our hearts and make meaning in as many ways as possible. However, I disagree with the argument that the path is as narrow and limiting as his book suggests. Sure, everyone has to set boundaries and define some kind of structure by which to live. But, what about spontaneity? There has to be flexibility within this pursuit of happiness that allows us to discover unexpected pleasures along the way. To make it too restrictive is to deny ourselves the satisfaction of flying by the seat of our pants once in a while. This is part of what makes us humans. It is a necessary element of the happy life that I believe Coelho values.

Coelho makes a very valiant attempt with this book. And, his efforts pay off. He wins over millions of readers and even makes a name for himself that will last for a very long time. Although, I wish that he had considered that fact that ideals like his are not accessible to a large part of the population. That is, not everyone has the freedom to drop their careers and families and then set out on a hunt for their “Personal Legend”. It’s a nice idea, sure, but not very realistic. And, normally I would not suggest that a book called The Alchemist needs to consider reality, but I think it is necessary in this case due to the obvious reaction that Coelho intends to inspire within his readers.

Read the book. You may love it. I sure wouldn’t judge you. And in fact, I truly believe that there is a lot of good that can come out of reading the novel. Surely, my lukewarm response is subjective and very opinionated. Read it yourself and develop an opinion of your own, and then let me know what you think.

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2 comments on “Some Thoughts About Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist

  1. I completely agree that it’s unrealistic. It’s more like an adult fairy tale perhaps? I did enjoy this book when I read it years ago, but I confess I was in an unrealistic state of mind at the time. So, I loved it. I read a more recent release of his a couple years ago and didn’t like it at all. Thank you for making me feel less alone in my feelings about it!

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