The Alchemist: More Lead than Gold

THE ALCHEMIST (1998/2012)
Paulo Coelho
HarperCollins 978-0061122415

Did you know that this novel is the best-selling translated book of all-time (65 million copies in 56 languages and climbing)? I did not, but I did know that it’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for ages, and continually comes out in new editions. My curiosity was sparked, so I read it. Although it’s a book about the search for enlightenment, I can’t say that I found any philosophical or literary gold in its pages. If I might extend the alchemy metaphor, it felt pretty leaden to me.

It’s scant volume (197 pages) centered on a bright, wanderlust-stricken Andalusian shepherd named Santiago. His wanderlust leads him to sell his sheep and head off to Tangiers and beyond. This is a book about Santiago’s longings, visions, chance encounters, desires, and treasures won and abandoned. At each stopping point Santiago meets a teacher, first an old king named Melchizedek, who tells him that everyone has a “Personal Legend” that he or she must discover, and who gives him two divination stones, Urim and Thummim.  Next he encounters a shopkeeper, from whom he learns how dreams can empower or handcuff; then a dessert lass named Fatima, who awakens love and desire; an Englishman who tells him about the Philosopher’s Stone; an actual alchemist, who identifies Santiago as a true disciple; and finally a Coptic monk, who helps him identify the things that have value from those that do not. In essence, it’s an allegory about finding one’s own destiny.

If this sounds like something Kahlil Gibran might have written, you’re right. I suspect one of the book’s attractions is that it is ecumenical, drawing upon ancient, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions to make the point that the search for truth and meaning is the same across religious and cultural lines. Our multicultural portrait is completed by the fact that Coelho, the author, is a Brazilian writing in Portuguese. His heart is in the right place, but perhaps I’m too jaded–I found The Alchemist a lightweight and frivolous book. A New York Times reviewer called it more of a self-help book than a novel, and Coelho has also been accused of rewriting one of the Arabian Nights tales. Both of those critiques have merit, but my brief is with its style and message. Perhaps it loses something in translation, but to me it read like a Young Adult novel and its revelations akin to those that might gobsmack an adolescent. When read from the perspective of one who has journeyed longer, those revelations seem obvious and underdeveloped. For me, The Alchemist sparked no magic.

Rob Weir  

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