18 August 2009

Book Review: The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist
, by Paulo Coelho, translated by Alan R Clarke, Harper, London, 2002

Coelho's slender novel is the simple fable of a shepherd boy who learns that it is his destiny to find a treasure chest under the pyramids of Egypt. This simple fable contains a simple message, which is that every one has a destiny, and contains a few simple steps on how to achieve this destiny. First you have to recognise it, then you have to keep trying for it. You will be considerably aided by the fact that the entire universe is conspiring to help you.

Of course, it helps if you have been a shepherd boy who has already begun his training towards reaching that spiritual maturity which will enable you to recognise the signals that the world is sending you.

Millions of people love this book. I am not one of them.

Here is a quote that encapsulates my problem with it. This converstaion takes place when the boy meets an ancient alchemist from the days of Abraham.

"What's the world's greatest lie?" the boy asked, completely surprised.
"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."
"That's never happened to me," the boy said. "They wanted me to be a priest, but I decided to become a shepherd."
"Much better," said the old man. "Because you like to travel." (pp18-19)

My problem with this is that millions of people the world over have no power of their own lives. They are dying because of events over which they have no control. Drought. Famine. Plague. Starvation. War. Floods. A tide of natural events that sweep them away. According to the alchemist's words, it's their own fault for giving into the lie of the world.

What makes it even worse is that it follows that anyone in pursuit of their destiny should not turn aside in order to help anyone, for if they let themselves be prevented from finding their treasure they, too, are giving in to what Coelho calls 'the world's greatest lie'.

So I didn't like the book, even finding the prose itself a bit too simple at times (I imagine Coelho was trying for a Hemingway effect but didn't quite pull off the sense of underlying poetry that Hemingway has. Maybe next time.) If you want to read The Alchemist as a fantasy, I suggest you do so in just one sitting. That way you won't be bothered by questions buzzing like gnats around your brain going "But .. but ... but."

Morva Shepley

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