'The Alchemist' by Paulo Coelho (1988)

The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho

Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist (London: HarperCollins, 1999), 177pp. Translated by Alan R. Clarke.

 

A simplistic fable filled with hokum about listening to your heart and following your dreams. I don't have any problem with that moral, even if we have heard it a thousand times in vapid self-help books, but this story fails as a parable. Everything in it seems so literal, rather than allegorical, meaning you would have to leave your brain at the door in order to absorb any lessons. I'm sure we could all literally achieve our dreams if celestial kings actually appeared before us, and the sun/wind/desert could actually talk to us. Even the boy's treasure is a literal treasure chest filled with jewels. How can one take any lessons from that for our own lives? Do we wait for an angel to appear before us, and expect material riches at the end? This is a fantasy story, of sorcery and magic, in which one can converse with the elements and literally turn lead to gold (I thought the title would be allegorical, but unfortunately it is not). Yeah, it probably is easy to achieve your dreams if you're an actual, functioning magician who is visited by angels. You would go forward on your journey with conviction if a messenger of God comes and tells you that it is your destiny. Being an ordinary human, living in the real world and lacking a direct line to a god, we'd have a much harder time of it than the shepherd boy.

What grated me the most was that it is all too easy; there aren't really any trials that the boy must overcome. He doesn't really do anything to earn his shot at the treasure; he's just a simple shepherd who happens to have a dream one night. Then a king comes to him and sets him on his way, which was nice of him. It's all very deus ex machina. In trouble? Talk to your heart, which will literally tell you what to do next, like a satnav! Everyone the boy meets seems to accept omens at face value. "Oh, you had a dream, that's a good omen! I had a dream that blah, blah, blah. What can I do to help?" In fact, it's probably the ultimate deus ex machina story, when one remembers that the phrase means 'god from the machine'. Every step of the journey is not because the boy has struggled to overcome problems, but because God has given him signs, little nudges and hints. "When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it," as we are told throughout the book. The boy's journey is a stroll rather than a quest; even towards the end, when we are told that 'the night is darkest just before the day dawns', the most that the shepherd boy has to endure is getting knocked around a bit by an Arab refugee. We're told in the book that life is generous to those who pursue their destiny, but why can't all our destinies be this easy to claim?

I don't think I'm being too narrow-minded here; I'm open to spiritual questions and, even though I'm an atheist, I don't mind that some people like to depict God's hand in everything, shaping our destinies. I just found this story to be simplistic and infantile. There's a lot of tosh about divining meaning from one's dreams, from the position of broken twigs and the flight of birds in the sky. I half-expected someone in the book to read the future in the entrails of a goat, or in some tea leaves - it operates on that level of spiritual maturity. If they made this book into a film, it would be an after-school special at best, aimed at nine-year-olds and funded by some woolly-minded New Age self-help gurus. The narrative was pleasant enough, I guess, and the book was agreeably short. Actually, it was mercifully short, as if it was longer I would have been really annoyed at myself for wasting my time on it. As it is, I only wasted a few hours, and so I was disappointed rather than angry. If you want a short, yet genuinely inspirational and spiritual book full of life lessons, try reading Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha instead.