I didn’t like #94 The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. If you did, I’d recommend Jonathan Livingston Seagull as I have similar problems with both books, and people who find one enjoyable or inspiring seem to enjoy the other.
The Alchemist is a fable, which is to say a story designed to impart a lesson. It follows the adventures of a man called Santiago. At the start of the novel, he is a shepherd in Spain when he hears a call that leads him to cross the sea and travel far from home, searching for a treasure he’s been promised. The story is the least important element of the book – more on the rest below.
Short book, long read
My Kindle estimates how long it’ll take me to finish a book. For The Alchemist, the initial estimate was just one or two hours, and yet it’s taken me over a week to finish it – long enough t that I’m writing this post Sunday night instead of Thursday. I think this might be a first, in the Big Read challenge, and I mention it because I think it says something about the strength of my reaction to the book.
I dislike the book strongly, because I believe it provides a false view of the world, and encourages readers to treat this view as reality. Also, the novel wasn’t magical enough for a good magical realism (I’m looking forward to rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude, which does this well) or realistic enough to be self-help.
A story of miracles, an age of charlatans
Santiago’s path in The Alchemist is guided throughout by miracles and magic. I don’t have a problem with magic in stories, even stories that are supposedly set in the real world. I do, however, have a problem with preaching based on those miracles. For example, early in the book, Santiago has a dream in which his Personal Legend is revealed to him. He is then visited by a magical personage who advises him to follow his dream, and the book bases it’s advice on this starting point.
While I do think that people should be brave, take some risks, have adventures, seize the day, and other proactive sound bites, I hate this beginning. Either the advice is (1) that you should treat your dreams as literal truth, if you have them twice (in which case, dinosaurs will be making a come back any day now, you heard it here first) or (2) you should only believe in your dreams when a miraculous mind-reader appears and tells you to. If you’re going to try this at home, kids, go for option 2.
You might argue that I’m being too literal. That the book is primarily about following your heart’s desire, about reaching for the stars, and it’s designed to be inspirational, rather than pragmatic. I do not begrudge anyone the enjoyment they get out of this. (Well, maybe only a little, because I’ve now had to read it a second time, thanks to people enjoying it enough to vote for it.) However, the truth is that in the world we live in, if someone claims to be an ancient king who can read your dreams or an alchemist who can turn lead into gold, they are lying and you will get conned. It’s like buying a book titled: Wishing On Stars As A Profitable Career.
I do not believe
- That everyone has one true heart’s desire or life quest that never changes. Hell, that isn’t even true in The Sims 3, where you can set such things in ones and zeros
- That fulfilling such a quest or attaining fulfillment is time limited
- That ‘Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is.’
- That if men have quests, heart’s desires or grand projects, women don’t. Neither of the two women in this book travel more than a hundred steps from their door, and all they express a wish for is that Our Hero will come back and marry them.
- That ‘there is a force that wants you to realize your Personal Legend’ or that when someone went on such a quest, ”the entire universe made an effort to help him succeed’
- That ‘When you play cards the first time you are almost sure to win.’ (This is apparently the force mentioned above. It ‘whets your appetite with a taste of success’.)
- That ‘Everything in life is an omen’
- That ‘There’s no such thing as coincidence’
- That trying to read and follow omens, whether in the movement of birds, the rolling of dice or stones, or some other method is a reliable method for decision making, never mind route planning.
- That ‘intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where…we are able to know everything’
- That intuition is a good or reliable way of making complex decisions
- That everything on the Earth has a soul
- That the natural world is an imitation or copy of a paradise
I am an atheist. I don’t believe in God (guiding hand or otherwise) or souls (human, animal or otherwise). Perhaps this means I was bound to have problems with this book. However, there’s strong evidence that simply longing, wishing, praying or hoping for something does not cause magical kings to appear or populate your dreams with accurate treasure maps. If someone can give me evidence to the contrary, I’ll listen. But it needs to be good, because the Wishing Doesn’t Work team has come up with sterling work, and many experiments you can try yourself at home, to produce the same results.
Because the premises the quest is based on don’t ring true, I found both the story and the message unsatisfying. It’s very clearly written as a fable, by which I mean a story instructing the reader on how to live. Part of the reason I find it frustrating and distasteful, I think, is that there’s some good stuff in there. Yes, strive. Yes, adventure. Yes, hold out for love that loves you as you are, adventures and all. But no to the rest of it.
Santiago is about 20 when the story opens. He has no responsibilities, he has cast off his ties, and is free to wander the world. So wander he does. I think choosing such an example weakens the story considerably. If you believe that people should take care of each other, of their children, for example, then having him be young and free doesn’t show how we deal with the complex social ties that bind us to other human beings. Or if you believe that these should all be severed, brutally, in favour of living the dream, then show that. Show us the extreme form of your thesis, so that we can understand fully.
Worse – in terms of the story – pretty much every time Santiago faces a big problem, he’s rescued by something magical. It’s rather like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in that sense. Santiago has long conversations with things that don’t really talk, which tell him things that aren’t possible, which turn out to be true. It’s like watching someone in a video tell you how to climb a mountain, starting with ‘step one, get on this clearly blue screened magic carpet.’
Perhaps I’ve missed the point of the book entirely, but mostly, as I read it, it pissed me off. Even – or particularly – the phrase ‘Personal Legend’. It’s almost nonsense in English. A legend is usually an ancient, untrue, story, sometimes it’s a motto. Neither is the use Coelho (or his translator, perhaps) is putting it to, but explanation is not given, only example.
The thing is, I’ve gone wandering. Like Santiago, I’ve longed to wander, cast off expectations and material things (including a yarn stash that must be worth at least half a sheep) and gone to look at the world and see what’s in it. That’s good. But it’s not the only possible form of fulfillment, something the book doesn’t show. Oh, and I’m a woman, and I’m not a prize in someone else’s quest, another thing the book doesn’t show (and that I’m angry about).
I can picture at least 13 fabulous lives I could have had, and having chosen or chanced into this one doesn’t make the other dozen less brilliant, less fulfilling. Moreover, I’m not the same person I was at 20, which to me suggests that we should, at least, have a new Personal Legend for each age, a proposition which, if you have to sell all your belongings and spend three years travelling thousands of miles, would rapidly lead to the breakdown of society.
Oh, I’m just cross about this book. I think it’s quackery. I think it’s trading on the malaise everyone gets sometimes, the feeling that life could be better or that adventure is over the horizon, and peddling a cure that won’t work. Romance novels are criticized for offering an unrealistic portrait of love and relationships, particularly marriage. Well, this book is the equivalent of the worst of that genre, offering, to my mind, an unrealistic portrait of travel, of striving for something valuable, and of fulfillment.
I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.