Book Review: The Alchemist
Author: Paulo Coelho
Publisher: Harper Torch (1993)
Reviewed by Stephen Keim SC
The men of the Blokes’ Book Club had only ourselves to blame. We did say that we were busy and that a short and easy book would be much appreciated.
What Brett gave us was Brazilian writer, Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist” published in its original Portuguese in 1988 and first turned out in English in 1993. Since then, it has gone on to chalk up sales of 65 million across 56 languages as of September 2012. The Guinness Book of Records credits The Alchemist as the most translated book by a living writer.
The Alchemist is a simple tale expressed in beautiful, simple prose.
The hero, Santiago, is a shepherd, travelling with his flocks through the Andalusian countryside in the south of Spain.
He has already been brave. His father had wanted him to be a priest. But he stuck to his guns in wanting to travel and see the countryside. His father, in my words not his, mouthed the truism that the tourists who come to your town are entranced by all that boring shit you cannot wait to leave behind and that the wonders over the next hill are just somebody else’s boring shit.
Having made his point, the father gave in, surprisingly easily, making Santiago suspect that his father had always had a secret ambition to be a shepherd and to travel.
The Alchemist is a book about the importance of following your dream. The odd thing is that Santiago was pretty contented. He loved his sheep. He loved the Andalusian countryside with all its variations. And he had met, albeit, a year earlier, a pretty excellent young woman, the daughter of a merchant to whom he had successfully sold some wool.
Santiago was looking forward, in a few days, to renewing and advancing his acquaintance with the merchant’s daughter and his only qualm concerned whether he could keep both his lover’s goodwill and the travelling life of a shepherd.
The Alchemist is about following your dream. Most people’s dreams are about playing cricket for Australia; writing the great novel; or getting picked up in the draft by the Vienna Philharmonic. Even if pragmatism and the OP score take hold and we end up enrolling in accountancy at QUT, we spent a good number of years with the dream in front of mind and know what it is for which we want to sacrifice everything.
For Santiago, it was an actual dream, about some place called the pyramids, that upset his equanimity. Santiago had to consult a gypsy to find out what the dream meant. A king, called Melchizedek, who turned up in the town square at Tarifa, disguised as just another old man, and started talking to Santiago, had to tell him what to do. The good king, Melchizedek, also gives Santiago plenty of encouragement telling him that the universe conspires to help us when we follow our personal dream.
We all know that following your personal dream means neglecting your school work in order to practise your batting up against a tank stand. I am not saying that the Don flunked his exams in school but most of us would be prepared to do so to be as good at cricket as the Don.
It was this idea of Santiago finding out his life’s mission from an obscure dream that was the first of the controversies that troubled the Blokes of the Book Club and led to robust discussion, late into the night.
I concede that Coelho’s Portuguese translates as Personal Legend, not personal dream. Maybe, that suggests vocation rather than personal dream. But, if that were so, further problems arise for the analogy that lies at the heart of the novel. Why should Santiago take business and personal, not to mention romantic, risks for something he was not personally passionate about? One would not, for example, spend all that time with the golf ball, the tank stand and the wicket in hand just because the universe wanted one to be something from a dream.
Maybe, we were being too literal. There were, however, other aspects of the philosophy underpinning The Alchemist that gave the blokes cause for concern.
Melchizedek is a little down on family life. The friends and family will support you pursuing your destiny, he said. If they do not, they don’t deserve you, he said, to emphasise his point.
That all depends, thought the blokes. We were all for having a crack. I, for one, had the dream of playing cricket for Australia long after I was too old to jog. I gave that dream a fair chunk of, in Kevin Johnson’s words, the best years of my life.
But talent is a factor. An opening batsman who cannot play any attacking shots and a fast medium bowler who does not know how to swing the new ball leaves a lot to be desired. And, in retrospect, I blame neither the universe for not conspiring in my favour nor my family for believing that academic pursuits might provide an adequate substitute for a personal dream that was unlikely to rise above church cricket.
And so it turned out to be.
The universe teaches Santiago some harsh lessons. He gives up a tenth of his sheep for Melchizedek. That’s fair enough. He flogs off the rest at a decent price which is also fair enough. He leaves Tarifa for Tangier in Morocco, that same day, which is reckless. And he fails to even think, until after his arrival, that he does not have a single word of Arabic. That is plain dumb.
In a local bar, he finds a new friend who speaks Spanish. The new friend also manages to steal all his money. At first, alone, penniless, friendless and not speaking a word of the local language, Santiago, understandably, is a little discouraged. However, finding that he still has two special stones, given to him by Melchizedek, which go by the names, Urim and Thummim, Santiago rediscovers his good cheer, his self-confidence and his optimism.
Soon, through his resourcefulness and optimism, he finds, in the one place, at the top of a hill, a source of food and shelter and a means of restoring his fortune.
Sometimes, the blokes thought that “simple” was not the right word to describe either the plot or the life’s lessons that The Alchemist was dishing out. “Simplistic” seemed more fitting.
But we agreed that the language used for the story telling was indeed beautiful; that Santiago was a charming creation to whom we could wish only success and goodwill; and that the book drew cleverly from a range of religious and philosophical traditions to weave its philosophy and narrative. While we questioned everything about the novel, we never wished to stop reading.
And The Alchemist does convey one powerful and important psychological truth. When we are near to grasping that thing for which we have sacrificed the best years of us and our families, said Melchizedek, we often choose failure. That was, indeed, excellent advice for Santiago and ourselves.
One only has to watch the unseeded player trying to serve out the match against the number 1 player in the world, at Wimbledon, to know that that is true. After all that hard work to get to that moment, two double faults and an over hit forehand drive, later, the comfort of honourable failure is hers.
Or watch a batsman struggle through the nineties.
There is a twist at the end of The Alchemist. And it is in that twist that Coelho finds his second great psychological truth. Santiago finds a new take on his father’s words of advice from the beginning of the novel.
And, just maybe, we find out the reason for those 65 million sales of The Alchemist.
Buy The Alchemist. Read it and enjoy it.
Then you can debate with yourself (and the blokes) what it is all about and whether it was worth it.
You won’t have time to regret it.
Stephen Keim SC