The Alchemist, by Paul Coelho
Review by xWakawaka: Two visions described from two worlds apart
I stopped reading reviews some years ago, wanting instead to experience the subject first hand, without the cynicism and detachment of looking for its known flaws going in. I do, however, read reviews after the fact. Why? Because one of the most fascinating phenomena in the world is the human mind, and how it interprets experience. This node and writing elsewhere about The Alchemist are great examples of the wildly varying interpretations and experience that one very short book can provide. Having read the book twice, once "pure" and once with critical foreknowledge, I hope to provide some insight into the book itself and the polarized reactions to it.
The Alchemist is, with apologies to Dickens, a tale of two books.
The first book is a lovely story, a fable, about a young boy and his great adventure. On this level the book is terrific. It relies on a concept of fate that sees an invisible guiding hand pointing each character toward his or her greatest potential, but each character is possessed of total free will. Some pick up on the divine hints and reach great heights, while others falter and settle into more pedestrian lives. The Alchemist presents the story of a boy particularly strong in the force... I mean particularly attuned to the cues around him (he calls them omens) and he bravely seeks out his destiny. Bringing things back to a nicely human level author Paul Coelho never lets his heroic young boy see it all at once. One thing leads to another, and a surprise disappointment along the way turns out to be the next clue. It was this book: the one with the good story and the hopeful yet earthy passion that I enjoyed the first time through.
The other book to be found on these same pages, and the one that I think has alienated many readers, is the one endorsed by Anthony Robbins. Yeah. That Tony Robbins, the one from TV with the shouting and the big teeth and the motivational tapes. It was, luckily, after I had finished the book for the first time that I noticed his endorsement on the sleeve. Tony Robbins? You’ve got to be kidding! I never would have read that if I knew Tony Robbins endorsed it. I guess it was sort of uplifting and hopeful but perhaps there is something else going on here. Something is wrong.
"I recommend The Alchemist to anyone who is passionately committed to claiming the life of their dreams- today."
-Anthony Robbins, author of Awaken the Giant Within.
Even in print the guy sounds like an infomercial, and language- word choices- turn out to be the undoing of Paul Coelho’s book The Alchemist as well. The book is loaded, and I mean loaded, with the kind of pseudo-spiritual catch phrases and pseudo-Christian buzzwords that make a motivational speaker gleam, and drive a modern skeptic batshit insane. The spiritual structure that the book presents has it’s roots all over the place, including a god politely named both Jesus and Allah, also a "Hand the Writes All" and "The Soul of The World". It’s never terribly clear if The Soul of The World is this same person-god, or if it is a separate, more ethereal, Gaia character. In addition to these monotheistic reference points- the sun and the wind are both personified (briefly) to the point of conversing linguistically with our hero- while in a more subtle move the desert is presented as being "alive" in the not so unreasonable sense that if one observes it for long enough one learns how it functions and thus learns its "language". Oh- and the Alchemist in the book is in fact 200 years old, immune to disease and venom, and can, in fact, turn lead into gold. He is empowered to do this by his "Personal Legend" and "The Soul of The World".
"Does a man’s heart always help him?" the boy asked the alchemist.
"Mostly only the hearts of those who are trying to realize their Personal Legends. But they do help children, drunkards, and the elderly, too."
"I learned that the world has a soul, and that whoever understands that soul can also understand the language of things. I learned that many alchemists realized their Personal Legends and wound up discovering the Soul of the World, the Philosopher’s Stone, and the Elixir of Life.
"But above all, I learned that these things are all so simple that they could be written on the surface of an emerald."
Under normal circumstances, this sort of language would drive me absolutely crazy, and thus I sympathize with The Alchemist's several detractors. I maintain, however, that if you can read the book with your Personal B.S. Filter set to the appropriate threshold, the strength of the simple story will not only provide some nice entertainment, but whether you like it or not this irrepressibly hopeful fable will leave you feeling just a bit lighter on your feet than the day before.
Perhaps, perhaps I’m biased because I was given the book by a beautiful woman. Maybe this is why I made it through the first time without triggering my cynicism gland, but there you have it: an enjoyable and irrepressibly hopeful story.
A good, quick, read.