The Alchemist

Review: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

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Publication Date: 2006
Genre: Fantasy

The Alchemist is available here.

The Alchemist follows a young shepherd as he pursues his “Personal Legend.” The shepherd is bringing his sheep to market in southern Spain when he has a vision of treasure. He sees a gypsy and an old man who both tell him to go to the Egyptian pyramids he had seen in his dreams and to seek his treasure there. The boy crosses to North Africa where he begins to pursue his Personal Legend, seeking out the treasure from his dreams. While there he faces disheartening events and the temptation to settle.

The writing in this book is fairy-tale like. It seemed to me to be more heavily influenced by Arab tales. The writing style is clear and at times very beautiful.

Throughout the story, Coelho seemed more interested in the moral of the tale than the cohesion of the plot. This was one of the things that was a bit disappointing. I thought that the interludes where the boy is unable to go where he wants and is forced to learn and re-engergize himself towards achieving his goals were slow and didn’t always have the impact he wanted. It often led to the pursuit of the boy’s dream feeling erratic and showed the boy to be more fickle in his pursuit than I think Coelho intended. In compbination with the way the boy was magically propelled towards the treasure he dreamed of, the plot was not only secondary, but also mundane.

The main themes of the story–personal satisfaction and the connectedness of the world–aren’t normally themes I would find objectionable. What I found dissatisfying in them was the way that practicality and the desire to understand they why and how of the world were put down.

Coelho was pretty clear in the story that people who don’t pursue their dreams become sad and unfulfilled. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that people’s dreams and desires often change. He talks about how men either don’t chase after what they want because they are afraid or think themselves unworthy of success. He doesn’t talk about how at a young age we often dream many things. The pursuit of dreams takes precedence. Though it’s important to strive after fulfillment, his own main character shows how very fickle dreams can be. The shepherd boy wavers back and forth constantly between pursuing treasure, building a new and bigger flock, and settling down. Coelho’s story urges him on to the most fanciful of dreams. I think this diminishes the others and discourages the exploration of many dreams and the pursuit of the right fit by trial and error that allows a person to feel satisfied in the choices they have made.

Coelho also talks a lot about the Language of the Universe. The shepherd is in touch with nature and is, by extension, better able to understand what choices should come next. This in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. However, Coelho juxtaposes the boy with alchemists and those who pursue the knowledge of the world on a more detailed level. One conversation outlines that the powerful alchemist who lives in the desert (one who is so powerful he has lived for over two hundred years and can manipulate the elements) doesn’t know why the alchemy works, but that “the tradition is always right.” To say I balked at this would be an understatement.

The first point I’d say is that understanding that the world is connected and understanding why are not mutually exclusive nor does one detract from another. Aside from the fact that the idea of practicing something as purportedly powerful as alchemy without understanding why and how it works is a scary and dangerous thing to do, I think that this approach devalues the beauty of the way the world works. To accept that the world works without understanding why is a bit sad.

Overall, I thought this was an okay read, but I was expecting more.

Rating: 3