15 June 2007

Book Review: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

New Year’s Reading Resolution #15

The Alchemist> In Andalusia, a shepherd dreams of a hidden treasure to be found at the Pyramids. Shortly thereafter he meets an old man claiming to be a king, who encourages the boy to head to Egypt in pursuit of his calling - his Personal Legend. He also tells him of the value of omens, and gives him two stones, one black for yes, one white for no, of which to ask questions. Inspired, the boy sells his sheep and crosses the sea to Tangiers, where a reversal of fortune sees him working in a crystal shop instead of crossing the desert. Finally he saves enough money to leave, and joins a caravan where he meets an Englishman obsessed with alchemy. He is crossing the desert in search of a 200-year-old alchemist in the hope of gaining the knowledge he has failed to acquire from books. The Englishman’s determined pursuit of his Personal Legend further inspires the boy to follow his, as does the alchemist himself when the boy meets him at a desert oasis. As close as he is to his goal, there are dangers still ahead, as well as the greatest temptation to give up and return to being a shepherd: a girl by the name of Fatima. And even when the boy has reached the Pyramids and seen into the Soul of the World, there is one last twist of fate in store to keep him travelling.

This story - or more accurately, fable - has a timeless feel to it that was both fitting and frustrating. The former because it was eminently suitable for a timeless message, the latter because I could not work out what sort of setting I should be visualising - modern? vintage? At first, when it was just a wandering shepherd and no mention of any mod cons, I thought it was the nineteenth century; a kind of Andalusian version of Far from the Madding Crowd. Then the shepherd began reading a book with an unpronounceable title, characters with unpronounceable names, and an opening scene featuring a funeral in the snow. My unshakeable first thought was Dr Zhivago, which put the date some 75-100 years later than I had initially imagined, and this was later confirmed in my mind by someone’s memories of German soldiers in Tangiers.

But quibbles over temporal setting aren’t really relevant with a book that is all about the message: that everyone has a calling, a Personal Legend; and when they discover what this is, and set out to achieve it, the whole universe conspires to help them and provides plenty of helpful omens to show them the way. Millions love it, but I only got as far as page 22 before thinking ‘What a load of crap’. And by page 45, I was starting to see the morass of contradictions at the heart of the tale. The old king, Melchizedek, (a Biblical name, right?) criticises the boy’s book for perpetuating the lie that one can lose control of one’s life to fate; yet the same king advocates ceding control to fate by following omens and the answers provided by the stones. Later, at the oasis, a camel driver relates how he asked a seer to tell him the future that he might change it, to which the seer replied that if it could be changed it wouldn’t be in his future, now would it? In other words, it doesn’t matter whether you find your Legend or not, or whether you go after it, because all your decisions and their outcomes are already written. So why bother trying? - and yet the message of the book is that you should try. As well as making the book a chore to read, it made it impossible to suspend disbelief later when the boy began chatting to his heart, the desert, the wind, the sun ... or when the alchemist started talking of the Personal Legends of inanimate objects and the evolution of gold. All I could think about was high school chemistry and how diametrically opposed this nonsense was to sound science.

It does have a few redeeming features: when it’s not preaching it’s an easy and even mildly interesting read. If inspiration is your thing, you’ll love it. But if like me you’re a cynic who’s realised that the universe is as likely to kick you in the guts as not, give this piece of simplistic wishful thinking a miss.

Rating: D+

9 comments:

Dewey said...

Your last paragraph before the D+ made me laugh. I think I am indeed exactly that sort of cynic, so I'll be skipping this book.

Siew Cooper said...

I wrote about this a while back too, and I agree wholeheartedly; not for the cynic-at-heart. Good review!

sage said...

I too am a cynic, but I enjoyed the book. Perhaps because it was the third book by Coelho that I've read, I was able to approach it as a fable. Yes, Melchizedek is a Biblical character and plays a role in Abraham's search and journey.

To show my cynically side, I was introduced to Jane Austen through Pride and Prejudice in the 10th grade and decided I was prejudiced against Jane and have never been able to force myself to read another of her novels.

Arukiyomi said...

If millions do love this book, I've yet to meet one of them. I've read one Coelho - Veronica Decides to Die and, after appearing in one of his novels, I'm not surprised she did ;-)

Framed said...

I've debated putting this on my TBR list for quite some time. Thanks to your review, I am not going to bother. It doesn't sound appealing at all.

Imani said...

I've read one Coelho - Veronica Decides to Die and, after appearing in one of his novels, I'm not surprised she did ;-)

Hahaha! Good one John.

Coversgirl I've avoided the Coelho book like the plage for just such reasons. One has to be an excellent, excellent writer for me even to consider trying one of those messagey woo woo books.

Bookfool said...

I see Sage already told you that Melchizadek is, in fact, a Bible character.

This book is a favorite with so many people, but when I picked it up and flipped through it, it failed my flip test miserably. Not a single passage interested me. I kept going back to it (because I found a copy at a very good price) but it was the same every time. Guess it's a skipster, eh?

heidijane said...

Been meaning to read this book for a while, but on that (un)recommendation I'm not sure I'll bother now. Thanks for the great review - it made me laugh!

aloi said...

i usually steer clear of books that i see so many other clamoring to buy. but the alchemist has a mixed bag of reviews. maybe i need to evaluate whether i'm a cynic ... ;)

great review!

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776