New Years Book Review: The Alchemist

Image from Amazon.com

I really just do my own thing, don’t I? Let’s be direct: I begin every single book I read desiring to enjoy it (and eventually review it favorably). I would like every book to blow my socks off. Alas, reality. For a little while it seemed I rated every book I read highly. But lately? I ripped The Silent Patient a new one despite reviews and any guilt I might have felt. And then I read The Alchemist after several years of meaning to. I’m not going to rip it a new one, I don’t think. We’ll see. But, as you can guess, it was not my thang.

This wildly popular book maintains reviews hovering below a four. So there are haters and quite a few of them, despite how widely published it is and how much some people really, really love it. I mean, I’ve been to weddings that quoted The Alchemist in place of Scripture. (Maybe not. I may be confusing it with The Prophet.) And since this is the kind of book that people take so personally, I ask that you don’t continue with my review if it is a book that you revere. There’s just no point. You love it and find something in it. If you are considering reading it, however, here are my two cents.

For me, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist falls into a category with The Little Prince and The Prophet. People love to love (and live life by) those books, but they all have a similar feel and point and it’s totally not what I enjoy in a book. (If you don’t know classics, then maybe think The Shack.) The Alchemist, in my opinion, is too simplistic (written as a fable, so no showing, only telling), obvious (from the first page), preachy, disjointed (even confused), and had some problems with its moral (which is the point of the whole book). And let’s not even go there with the women in this story, who exist solely as wives who either release their husbands to their dreams or are the antagonist. (You could say that Santiago is a stand-in for all people regardless of gender and that the women represent their partners, but that’s not what is actually on the page.)

If you ask me, you look at people who are near the end of their lives, even on their death beds, and you find a wisdom spoken by them pretty much across the board: relationships, people, are what matters. If that’s true, then this book is wildly misleading. The whole idea of its story is that you are supposed to intuit your Life’s Purpose (because God has written it into the fabric of the universe) and follow the omens to it, sacrificing anything and everything that might get in the way. Including relationships (which you haven’t really sacrificed because if they don’t survive then they weren’t part of your Life’s Purpose, right?). While it seems appealing on some levels (I can hear the orchestral soundtrack rising with the levanter wind), I am going to posit that this ends up being a very unsatisfactory and, in the end, regret-filled way to live one’s life (not to mention selfish and difficult to measure). Not that I’m not a big dreamer myself or that I haven’t made sacrifices in a single-minded attempt to reach my big dream, but on a good day I don’t believe this is what is going to matter in the end or what I’ll turn to in the end as a measure for my life. (Ouch! The Slytherin in me just took a slap in the face.) I will live with regret if I don’t “make it” as a writer, but more face-time, hugs, and meaningful exchanges with my people is what (I’m told) will be what I either hold dear or regret for not having done, on my death bed. This is much more in line with what my religious Scriptures tell me. Which leads me to…

Like many other books like it, this modern wisdom literature tale is a little drivel-y because it tries too hard to lump all the religions into one boat (mixed metaphor much?). I’m not saying there aren’t commonalities between religions and the ancient wisdoms of various cultures, but, let’s be honest, they don’t all jive and definitely not on all points, even major ones. Instead of transcending religion, The Alchemist is some sort of fusion of a would-be preacher with whatever mysticism comes his way. On one hand I liked that, because American (and any other) Christians can get really set in their ways and blind to the variety and possibilities of their faith. But The Alchemist can fall into that old, “If I embrace them all, they’ll all embrace me” kind of thing and I’m not thinking popularity or people-pleasing is the way to truth, success, or wisdom, as it were. I can’t actually speak to Coelho’s intentions, but it’s what if felt like to me.

But theology or spirituality aside (which I actually found occasionally inspiring despite my griping), I kinda hated this book for its writing. Like the other books I mentioned above, there’s not much of a story, here. And what story we do get is A) told to us without showing us and B) constantly interrupted by moralizing. And C) not that amazing, actually. Shove it down my throat, why don’t you? (And Coelho says, “Yes, yes I will. That’s the point of the book, dummy. It’s a fable or a morality tale or even self-help wearing a loose-fitting novel form.” (He didn’t say that. I’m just saying he would.)) Loose-fitting is correct. There is a story here of Santiago, a shepherd in Andalusia, Spain (when is this story actually taking place?! So confused) who was trained as a priest but his choosing of his own adventure seems to call to the universe to go ahead and whisper to him (in dreams and then an apparition) about his purpose, which is to go to the Pyramids (you all know there are more than three pyramids in Egypt, right?) and dig up a treasure. Strangely, we never really see Santiago embrace his calling except in wild moments of waffling, and yet he is somehow the tantamount example of doing life the right way.

There are so many moments in this book when I was like, “Hold up. That’s not right” (like with the definition of love being the actual definition of either erotic love or falling-in-love but most certainly not real love which requires commitment and longevity) that I didn’t even bother to argue with Coelho in the margins. I knew right away I was going to have to just take it all lightly and hover only over those moments where I could actually appreciate it. And in the end I found it interesting that part of the moral is that you can’t teach wisdom, at all, therefore making the book, well, maybe pointless. I kinda agree, though that this book will make the most sense, be most resonant, for people who have already journeyed through much of life. The younguns can try to appreciate it and even think they do, but only snippets will sink deep. Cuz like Coelho said, you can’t teach this stuff. It has to be lived.

So then the book is trying to get me to abandon everything I know to pursue one dream? (I also found this “one thing” idea to be a little rando. In the end, the point is that this “one thing” taught Santiago some sort of deep wisdom or the meaning of the universe/life which is why it was his “one thing,” but still. Who has “one thing?” Apparently, people who believe everything can be boiled down to an engraving on the side of an emerald and if I don’t agree with that I’m just plain wrong.) I would have much preferred it if Coelho had just told me an amazing story with compelling characters, interesting settings, and big stakes and whatnot and buried the moral somewhere in there. Even God did that, for pity’s sake. (I digress to hyperbole, but there is a point there.)

I’m being a little goofy and quite a bit rabbit-trail-y. Even so, I know some people are going to just assume I don’t get it, and that’s fine. This book has that sort of if-you-don’t-like-it-then-you-don’t-get-it feel. I don’t believe that to be true at all, but there is something to—like I said earlier—it speaking to people who have already bought into the wisdom (as individual tidbits) here. And then labeling it the distilled wisdom of all time and space. Whatevs.

The Alchemist continues to be a bestseller. The story is okay. Actually, it would be better than okay (especially as it progresses) if Coelho had just let the story tell itself. Don’t bother with reading it unless you are interested in a fable/morality tale that is more telling you like it is than just about any other respected novel. Not my cup of tea. Perhaps it’s yours. Like many books that I didn’t quite jive with, I would love to see this rewritten in a different way, like as an actual novel. Maybe the movie (in the works for the past two decades) could just stick to the story. And then that ending… Sigh. Roll my eyes.

Before I go, I also forgot to mention that The Alchemist feeds into one of my pet-peeve, modern beliefs, which is “just believe” (like in yourself or positivity, your goal). This book would be laughable in many of the more trod-upon places of society. If it has inspired you even though you have had some reeeeealy crap times, sorry, but I can’t see it doing anything else but making light of real, actual problems and real, terrible situations. Just believe. To be brutally honest, the whole book felt inauthentic to me, like one might eke out a meaning or truth if they looked at it while squinting and turning their head 45 degrees. Perhaps it’s saying very little by being so forward about it all and a whole heck of a lot of people are buying into it.

QUOTES:

“‘Dreams are the language of God. When he speaks in our language, I can interpret what he has said. But if he speaks in the language of the soul, it is only you who can understand'” (p13).

“…when each day is the same as the next, it’s because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises” (p27).

“‘I’m like everyone else–I see the world in terms of what I would like to see happen, not what it actually does” (p40).

“…he realized that he had to choose between thinking of himself as the poor victim of a thief and as an adventurer in quest of his treasure” (p42).

“…he was actually two hours closer to his treasure… the fact that the two hours had stretched to an entire year didn’t matter” (p64).

“…intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it’s all written there” (p74).

“But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand” (p76),

“The boy was becoming more and more convinced that alchemy could be learned in one’s daily life” (p81).

“I’m alive …. When I’m eating, that’s all I think about. If I’m on the march, I just concentrate on marching. If I have to fight, it will be just as good a day to die as any other” (p85)

“If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man …. Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living right now” (p85).

“Maybe God created the desert so that man could appreciate date trees, he thought” (p87).

“Because people become fascinated with pictures and words, and wind up forgetting the Language of the World” (p87).

“‘If bad things are, and you know in advance, you will suffer greatly before they even occur'” (p102).

“One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving” (p122).

“‘There is only one way to learn,’ the alchemist answered. ‘It’s through action'” (p125).

“…all you have to do is comtemplate a simple grain of sand, and you will see in it all the marvels of creation” (p127).

“…the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself” (p130).

“When you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed” (p134).

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure” (p141).

“‘But don’t worry,’ the alchemist continued. ‘Usually the threat of death makes people a lot more aware of their lives'” (p142).

“‘Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time'” (p156, from an actual proverb).

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