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Over/Under-rated Books: The Alchemist

This week, in your guide to popular reading (as defined by the New York Times’ and Amazon’s Bestsellers lists), we review an extraordinarily well-known, resilient work, which has maintained astronomical book sales for over 20 years. Naturally, we don’t like it very much.

The Alchemist ““ Paulo Coehlo (#10 in Paperback Trade Fiction at NYT)

When I was in college studying English, I knew a lot of Coehlo fan-boys and fan-girls, who alternately described his fiction as poetic and philosophical. Having never read anything by Coehlo, that should have encouraged me to abstain, because I like my books narrative-heavy, heady, adventurous, freaky, and, above all, wildly imaginative.

I’ll just out with it: I was supremely disappointed by this book and that makes me feel like a huge asshole, namely because it’s won tons of awards, it’s the most-translated book of all time, and even Russell Crowe and Will Smith are like, “The Alchemist changed my life! Before I read it I was a successful, world-famous actor and now I’m a successful, world-famous actor who can name-drop a famous book! Woooo!”

Let me break down the plot: The Alchemist is a parable about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who has a dream that his Personal Legendâ„¢ is to find a treasure buried at the foot of a pyramid in Egypt. He goes in search of the treasure, alternately experiencing devastating setbacks and miraculous recoveries. For example, he is robbed of his life’s savings directly upon arriving in Tangier, Morocco (en route to Egypt), but goes to work for a crystal merchant and makes a fortune within a year. I’m a fan of capitalism (sort of) and back-breaking labor (for other people), but come on. One year?

Santiago leaves Tangier to pursue his Personal Legendâ„¢ in Egypt (but not before he rolls around in his piles of money and yells, “It’s all haaaappeniiiing!” Ok, not really). To get there, he must cross the desert (metaphor alert!), so he joins a caravan, where he falls in love with a woman named Fatima.

Fatima is the only female character to appear for more than a page, and her Personal Legendâ„¢ seems to consist of being beautiful and loving Santiago. Pfffft. And it’s not like this book was written before Women’s Suffrage; it was published in 1988.

An English scholar (who should be played by Brendan Fraser in the film version, because when is Fraser not good as the English dude living it up in desert climes?) is also part of the caravan, and it is his Personal Legendâ„¢ to become a great alchemist. To this end, he is journeying to meet The Alchemist (note the caps), a mystical wizard-type who lives in Egypt. Santiago decides this is quite enviable, and co-opts the Englishman’s Personal Legendâ„¢ to add to his own, rapidly swelling Legend. What a punk.

So Santiago ultimately meets The Alchemist and experiences a grave “test” wherein he realizes, apropos of nothing, that he can harness the power of God/Allah. This is all very “Look, Ma! No hands!,” and rings false, because if Hermione Granger taught me anything, it’s that even the most brilliant witches and wizards need to study for their O.W.L.s.

And then we reach the very end of the book, which I won’t spoil here except to say it rivals the ending of Signs in unbelievable gimmickry.

I do think that the rave reviews of my friends and fellow students, plus my unawareness that it was more of an extended allegory than a fleshed-out story, heavily influenced my dislike of The Alchemist. And I did enjoy another Coehlo book I read at a later date, titled The Witch of Portobello. So, as The Alchemist is considered a modern classic and is quite short, I would recommend giving it a shot if it’s something that’s been on your to-read list for awhile and you are prepared to deal with lots of intriguing references to things like “The Emerald Tablet” and “The Elixir of Life,” which are then glossed over and signify very little.

Word to the wise: If you are unemployed and/or struggling to decide what to do with your life, reading the somewhat-smug observations about every individual’s Personal Legendâ„¢ will be really grating.

Final take-away: only Jesus is allowed to write parables. Sorry, Paulo Coehlo.

3 replies on “Over/Under-rated Books: The Alchemist”

I like a majority of Coehlo’s books. Eleven Minutes was my least favorite and The Alchemist was a close second in that category.

My two favorites were By the River Peidro I Sat and Wept and The Fifth Mountain. As an atheist, reading books that are based on spirituality or religion can be a tough endeavor. But these two books were written in such a way that I didn’t feel I was being preached at and they seemed more philosophical than “religious”.

Runners up included Veronika Decides to Die and the Devil & Miss Prynn…both were a bit of a departure from his more spiritual work, but still a good reflection on the human condition.

I think I should probably give another Coehlo book a try and see whether or not I like it more than the Alchemist. Admittedly, what bothered me most about that book was that I felt it was sexist (the only female character is rather minor and doesn’t get a quest of her own).

I can appreciate that these are good reads for atheists–when I read the Alchemist I was still in an actively-seeking-to-be-a-good-Christian phase and now I’m in more of an I-don’t-know-what-I-am-and-don’t-care phase. So ideas about destiny/fate and things that don’t require the hand of God to set them in motion would probably be more appealing now, you know?

I never did manage to get into the Alchemist — the parableness didn’t help. I didn’t like the Witch of Portobello, either, even though I wanted to — it just felt like the main character was everyone’s muse but her own experience (involving being herself and her own struggles as opposed to musedom) was kind of ignored. Then again, I may be wrong, since I never got to the end of the book due to flinging it away in irritation.
I did like Zahir and Veronica Decides to Die, though. Granted, I haven’t read the latter since I was 13 or 14, so maybe my opinion will have changed…

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