Book Review: The Alchemist

By Melissa Fortuin

O Alquimista
Author: Paulo Coelho
Year Published: 1988
Genre: Quest, Adventure fiction, Fantasy fiction

Lately I’ve made a promise to myself to try and expand on my geographical scope of literature treasures. My experience with South American literature is limited, not straying too far away from Gabrielle Garcia Marques and Neruda. I’ll admit it’s not exactly a walk in the park, well for me anyway considering when it comes down to reading as a personal experience, I’m always well aware of how culture and location and time can greatly affect the narrative and interpretation of the work in itself. There are two types of readers, those who read for the words and those who read for the story. Some works can have an incredible artistry for words and a lackluster story, whereas on the opposing side some have lackluster syntax but are telling a fantastical story. Then there are few works of astonishing excellence that employ both, one of my favorite authors who can command both for example is Anne Rice. For me, in terms of the wording, The Alchemist is pretty straight forward with very few embellishments. Simple landscapes give way to simple geographical changes. Simple questions impart simple answers. Simple characters who can seem a bit two dimensional serve a seemingly straight forward purpose. And yet, it is this very simplification that turns out to be the very essence in which the lesson lies. It is the premise of the adventure. On the outskirts of the pyramids we are left feet half sunken in the Earth asking ourselves,  ‘OK… But… Why do we insist on over complicating things which are so straightforward… Why do we dissect the answers when the answers are wholly, in themselves, the answers?’

This is The Alchemist. 

Fiction or self help disguised as tale? Who knows and who cares, because it’s almost guaranteed to throw you into a mild existential crisis. Opening the door on your way to your coffee date only to find a feather at your doorstep might leave you in torturous consternation of the possibility of the universe having placed it there for some reason. Whether you shy away from words such as ‘signs’  or ‘universe’ or believe in the mystical and lay lines, one thing the book addresses in what I’m going to be bold enough to call a universal conundrum is our collective pursuit of finding our place and our meaning of life, and having the strength and courage to pursue our dreams, no matter how impossible or out of touch it may seem. I don’t think there has been one human being in existence who has not considered for a second what everything is supposed to mean. It is after all called the human condition. We’ve gone to great lengths to create and tell stories, in circles around fires, on cave paintings, in gold leaf books or papyrus… Over and over again, reshaping and rewording the grand tale of man. Every ancestor, culture or empire, and every nomadic tribe. Mayans and Greeks and Romans and Mongols alike all asked and wondered the same as we do now. Sometimes for a second, when the dust of our thoughts has finally settled, through somber contemplating of our mortality, we can’t help but think if we have let go of too much, and settled for too little… 

The Alchemist in itself is quite the success story. Coelho has gone on to write many more books, but The Alchemist served as the catapult. Written in just two weeks, when it was first published obscurely and did reasonably ok the publishers in fact returned the rights to Coelho. Little did they know through dedication and believing so much in his work, as a result of pushing, it would become an international success and be translated into a plethora of languages worldwide. Born Paulo Coelho de Souza in Brazil in 1947, his parents institutionalized him in a mental hospital for wanting to pursue writing instead of a traditional path. At this strict parents behest he enrolled in law school, putting writing on hold. However, he later dropped out and traveled through South America, Europe and North Africa. Upon returning to Brazil he began working as a song writer, later being arrested and tortured under suspicion of occult activity. After working as an actor as well as journalist he went back to his pursuit of writing. Coelho himself stated that, when sighting a white feather he himself takes it as a sign to write a new book.

So what is the tale of The Alchemist? A Shepard boy from Andalusia named Santiago, but usually referred to as ‘the boy’ has a recurring dream. Convinced it must have a deeper meaning he seeks out the advice of a Romani fortune teller who tells Santiago that near the Pyramids of Giza a treasure awaits him. This sets Santiago on an adventure to Egypt with surprising twists, turns, a lesson on true love, overcoming adversity and the power of having the faith to take on the risks in order to find the biggest treasure of all – ones destiny. 

I wouldn’t necessarily say one needs to be deeply spiritual in order to enjoy the story or to take anything useful away from it. Self help aside, as I’ve mentioned before the words might be simple and tend to wax philosophically, but it is definitely an interesting story and may motivate you to add a stamp in your passport at the very least. Personally I felt deeply impacted by The Alchemist and hence have never stopped questioning if I am truly, and without fear pursuing my destiny. Hmm… 

If you’re curious to find out the questions you need the answers to, this is a read for you on a calm and dusky night.