The Alchemist

by Paulo Coelho

 

The Alchemist is the story of a young Spanish shepherd, Santiago, who seems satisfied with minding his flock and reading his books. His routine is broken when he dreams of a treasure buried at the Pyramids in Egypt, which a Gypsy woman tells him he must pursue. Santiago continues to receive signs that he must follow his dream, and he sets off for Africa to fulfill what he comes to regard as his Personal Legend.

I was only introduced to this book a few days ago, and had never heard of Paulo Coelho. The person who lent it to me compared it to Le Petit Prince, a comparison I saw echoed all over the inside cover. Now, I read Prince for French class in high school, and I remember not liking it at all. That might’ve been because a) I read it in French, and b) I read it for class. Those factors have never increased the likelihood of me enjoying something, so I thought that, reading The Alchemist in English rather than Portuguese, on my own time, I’d be able to understand and enjoy it.

Aside from the Prince comparison, I was warned by the aforementioned lender that I might find it a little bit shallow. Now, I have no problem with shallowness- I liked Iron Man 3– but I can’t stand superficiality masquerading as depth and meaning, which is what The Alchemist was starting to sound like. I wish I could’ve read the book without any preconceived notions, but it’s too late. In my head the whole time I was reading was the fear that it would turn out to be fun, whimsical and meaningless.

I can’t say that any of that is true or untrue. I think anyone can read The Alchemist, and everyone takes what they will out of it. My thoughts:

The Alchemist was a relaxing, serene experience. It often reminded me of the serenity prayer, actually. Santiago’s mentors encourage him to follow his The Alchemistdreams, but remind him that he shouldn’t get discouraged by setbacks. I think that’s a good approach to life; don’t worry about things you shouldn’t worry about, and work hard at the things you want to achieve. I didn’t need the book to tell me that, but it’s nice to be reminded sometimes.

The book’s prose is easy to read, and not in a bad way. Coelho (and his translators) cut out all the unnecessary language that would just muddle the message, which is beautiful in its simplicity. He writes as if he is relaying a parable rather than a novel, and I got the impression that every word in every sentence could be meaningful, even if I did not find it so. The boy, Santiago, constantly learns and comes to realizations about life, and his lessons build on each other and result in a sense of constant climax (not in a weird way, or in a cliffhanger way).

While The Alchemist is a pretty thinly veiled religious allegory, I don’t think that the God stuff was overdone. Compared to, say, Crime and Punishment, I didn’t feel like I was being beaten over the head with the idea that life’s all about faith and redemption through Christianity. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I kind of thought the book was more about belief in oneself and one’s own dreams than about belief in God. I sometimes felt as if Dostoevsky was standing over me, yelling “CHRISTIANITY IS THE PATH”; comparatively, Coelho was sitting across from me saying, “It’s all good, dude.” God was a part of the message, but I didn’t feel like he excluded atheists/agnostics/other religions.

Partially because it’s so short, I imagine that I might find myself reading The Alchemist again someday. I don’t know whether my understanding or appreciation for it will be affected. For now, I will say that it is enjoyable and poetical. In my case, I’m glad I spent the time to read it.

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