Monday, March 31, 2008
monday book review: the alchemist, by paulo coelho
Santiago, a shepherd boy from the Andalusian Mountains with a yearning to travel, seems perfectly content with limiting his exploration to his native Spanish countryside until a reoccurring dream - one which foretells of a great fortune that lies in wait for him near the Egyptian Pyramids - sets in motion a much larger journey, that of his Personal Legend. Accepting it as an omen, the shepherd boy makes the courageous decision to sell all of his belongings and leave home to heed the dream's call. Along the way, he encounters a mysterious King who teaches him to decipher omens, thieves who rob him blind, a European mystic who is seeking the secrets of alchemy, an Arabian woman who is to become the love of his life, dangerous nomadic tribes who wage war in the desert he must cross, and The Alchemist - the one who teaches him to control his fears, listen to his heart, and become one with the universal Language of the World so that he too can become an alchemist and fulfill his life's purpose.

On the surface, The Alchemist is a simple fable - an easily digestible fairy tale that can be polished off in a matter of a few hours. But just like any other "simple" fable, Coelho uses Santiago's personal journey to make much larger statements about life. Namely, that we all have dreams, however most of us never achieve our dreams due to obstacles of fear - fear of changing our comfortable lives, fear of leaving the people we love, fear of defeat, fear that we may not truly deserve for our dreams to come true, and fear that once we reach our dreams we will no longer have a reason to live or that the dream will ultimately disappoint. And since we are often the forces that hold ourselves back, courage becomes the most valuable trait a person can have. Coelho's message is one of supreme comfort and optimism, arguing that "fate is the world's greatest lie," that we are the ones in control of our lives, that we have the power to chose how we view the world, that the attitude we assume in difficult situations is enough to turn scary or painful moments into adventures, and that "to realize one's destiny is a person's only real obligation."

And although I have no idea whether or not any of these things are actually true, I sure do like the prospect that they just might be.

I can definitely see how more cynical readers would roll their eyes at Coelho's story, especially when he describes concepts like "The Soul of the World" and statements like "...when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it." And although it does feel awful close to the sort of overly sentimental self-help drivel that I typically hate, something about The Alchemist forced me to love it, despite the parts that struck me as hokey and sexist.* But despite these debatable turn-offs, The Alchemist is perfect for young readers whose dreams and aspirations may be newly forming, although I can't think of anyone who couldn't take something away from it.

Paulo Coelho
1993, 167 pages

*While on his journey, Santiago falls in love with a woman named Fatima, and like Odysseus' Penelope, Fatima's only destiny is to discover and wait patiently for her man to return from his adventures. Although Coelho never comes out and says as much, the implication is that these sorts of epic Personal Journeys are reserved for men. I found this terrifically irritating.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm a big fan of Paulo Coelho! You will love this! He's the first best-selling
author to be distributing for free his works on his blog:

Have a nice day!


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