BOOK REVIEW #9: The Alchemist by Paul Coelho (1988)

the-alchemist.jpgThe Alchemist. Everyone has heard at least one about this book in his life. I was part of those people who knew the title, but I haven’t read it until I found it by chance in the pile of books the guy living in my room before me left me. So famous, very short (compared to what I usually read) and with a lot of time on my hands, the moment was perfect to start reading it.

Even though I knew the title, I have to confess that I did not know anything about the story. I kind of jumped into it without any preparation. I was surprised at first : simple sentences, story-telling and structure ; a very naive and simple protagonist, Santiago ; a weird  eerie atmosphere. I had the impression to be in a cotton bubble, in a dream while reading the Alchemist. This is probably part of its magic.

“Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.”

Past the surprise, I discovered a touching story. In fact, I was really astonished after I finished the book to see how many negative critiques there were on it even though the book was sold at 150 millions of copies, in 80 languages, and received 115 prizes ! Undeniable success.

“- Everyone believes the world’s greatest lie… says the mysterious old man.
– What is the world’s greatest lie? the little boy asks.
– It’s this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.”

Maybe the title is not appealing to you. It is true that “The Alchemist” might not attract you at first. For me, it was the opposite : it brings me to a mysterious time full of enigmas, where lead can turn into gold and where magic is part of every day life. Besides, the mystery can be felt from the very first pages, through Santiago’s dream where he sees himself at the bottom of the Egyptian pyramids.

Most of the negative criticisms about Coelho’s book talk about the simplicity of the writing style, the gullibility of the characters and the “easy” philosophy that is exposed. In reality, it is important to remind ourselves that it is a philosophical initiation tale. Like St Exupéry’s Little Prince of Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Santiago is a man-child who faces life’s obstacles.

“Every blessing ignored becomes a curse.”

The writing style is not simplistic, it is more refined as a way to pay tribute to the purity of the protagonist, of his personal quest, and of Coelho’s message. The naivety of the characters is more a proof of their innocence. Again, we find the importance of childhood as a thematic at the core of the story since The Alchemist is a book that makes its character grow, but also its reader.

The gentleness of the story carries us through the arid Spanish winds until the bottom of the Egyptian pyramids. We quickly forget daily trivialities and soon become ourselves immersed and engaged in our own personal quest. Because this is one of the main strength of this book : the plurality of reading levels.

“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.”

Full of aphorisms and poetic images, The Alchemist starts with a prologue from The Disciple by Oscar Wilde. In it, Wilde turns around Narcissus’ myth by giving the water pond in which Narcissus contemplates himself the same role. The water ends up being captivated by its own beauty it is able to see in Narcissus’ eyes.

This choice of prologue is a proof of the ability of this text to manifest what Coelho calls our “personal legend”. We see between the lines our own thoughts, our own story unraveling through Santiago’s treasure hunt. Maybe this is an allusion to the title: an alchemical transformation from a made-up story to a real personal quest.

Let us not forget for all that the message behind the work which essentially revolves around the will and the thematic of destiny, around coincidences and abandoned dreams. The Alchemist is a frame of reference, an interpretative framework inviting us to renew our vision of the world with new codes and beliefs. Let us dream, let us believe, let us observe and above all, let us act.

Now that I have convinced you to read The Alchemist, I am leaving you with one last quotation which, for me, perfectly sums up the beauty and the quality of this book :

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

Maktub.

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7 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW #9: The Alchemist by Paul Coelho (1988)

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