Review of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist
While staying at a ruined church one night, a young shepherd named Santiago has a dream of discovering treasure at the Pyramids in Egypt, and prepares to follow his dream from southern Spain. He meets a gypsy fortune-teller and a man professing to be a king, and both encourage him to sell his flock and travel to North Africa to pursue his dream. Once there, Santiago is tricked out of his money, which necessitates him taking a job with an Arab crystal merchant, where he proves to be a boon to the business.
Taking his share of the wealth, Santiago joins a caravan heading to Egypt, teaming up with an Englishman scholar—who explains alchemy in an academic sense—and the caravan leader—who teaches him to listen to the ways of the desert. Tribal infighting forces the caravan to stop at an oasis, and by reading the signs of the desert, Santiago is able to save the encampment from at attack. This action draws the notice of a master Alchemist, who convinces Santiago to continue with him toward the Pyramids, leaving behind a comfortable life at the oasis and a lovely young lady named Fatima.
Santiago and the alchemist end up in a military camp where their lives are threatened until the alchemist boasts that the boy can turn himself into the wind and destroy them all. The chief demands a demonstration, and, surprising even himself, Santiago uses his ability to read the signs of the desert and what the alchemist has told him to enter into communication with all creation and transcend himself, becoming the wind and demolishing the military camp in the process. He and the alchemist are set free, and after a rest at a monastery, the alchemist sends Santiago alone to find his treasure.
Coming to the Pyramids, Santiago is beset by bandits who beat him when they find him digging for treasure. One of the thieves berates Santiago telling him it is a fool’s errand to follow dreams because he once had a dream there was great treasure waiting for him in a ruined church in Spain. Santiago recovers at the monastery before returning to the church in Spain where he first had his dream and finding fantastic wealth buried there.
Road to Nowhere
In spite of the summary, not much seems to happen in the book. This illusion is produced from the lack of real tension. Every time an obstacle confronts Santiago he simply makes a decision and it turns out to be the correct one. Even on occasions where he looses money or his life may be at risk, it turns out to be of benefit to him. A character early on explains to universe conspires to help people who follow their dreams, but that undercuts any sense of dramatic tension or conflict, which forms the basis of any story. What remains to the reader is a story where nothing is a risk because there is no real fear that Santiago will fail.
In place of a story of adventure and overcoming obstacles, Coelho provides a series of didactic speeches from characters all using the same vocabulary of “Personal Legend,” “language of the world,” and “soul of the world.” A major problem with this, aside from the utter lack of dramatic action, is that repeating these phrases over and over doesn’t make them true. Additionally, these ideas are never thoroughly explored so much as they’re told to Santiago, and he believes them to be true without question or they confirm something he already believed but didn’t have a name for it.
The haziness of these central ideas feeds into another concern, which is the low-grade anti-intellectualism of the story. Santiago is educated, but his education is noting compared to having been a shepherd out in the world. He is a better crystal salesman then the man who has been doing it his whole life. The Englishman scholar is only truly following his personal legend when he quits studying alchemy and simply sets up shop in the oasis. While there is truth to the idea that experience has value, there is no counter-example where a person of intelligence and learning overcomes obstacles. Paired with the constant talk of omens and concepts that cannot be explained only experienced, the effect is to suggest learning and rational inquiry are lesser methods of acquiring knowledge and wisdom.
The Alchemist is a short and easy-going novel that does play around with a few interesting concepts, and though it takes a while, there is some actual alchemy in the story. If, however, a reader is searching for a novel of real philosophical inquiry or even a traditional novel where the protagonist has to work to overcome the challenges he or she faces, then those elements are better sought elsewhere.
Coelho, Paulo. The Alchemist. Trans. Clarke, Alan. New York: Harper One, 1993.
© 2014 Seth Tomko