Maybe I’ve reached The Age of Diminishing Memory. I now find that when scanning the shelves that there are books I could swear I’ve read already, yet when I open them, there are no annotations. The spine is solid with no creases or cracks. The book is in pristine condition, and I am left to ponder, did I read it or was it a dream? The Alchemist (HarperOne, 2006) by Paulo Coelho, a novel with a plot ironically supported by a dream, is just such a book.
At its heart, the story is a simple one, an allegory that reads suspiciously like a number of other works only lighter and with less philosophical depth. A poor shepherd goes in search of his destiny after experiencing a recurring dream where a child tells him to go to the pyramids in Egypt where he will find hidden treasure. He seeks out a Gypsy fortune teller who assures him that “dreams are the language of God.” Once she is assured of payment, she tells the boy to go to Egypt. This, of course, he had already decided to do. The woman goes on to say that “It’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary.” If you are following all of this so far, the story is one that is easily predictable and unfortunately, not very involving. Coelho mixes in some Judeo-Christian philosophy and symbolism—the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Gypsy woman’s room, a rather strange choice of décor for a fortune teller, is but one example.
The boy embarks on his journey—quest?—to find the pyramids as well as his treasure, experiencing many different events along the way. Echoes of nearly every other epic quest story rebound off the pages of Coelho’s work. Our hero is often waylaid and forced to accept employment or interact with villagers throughout his journey. The girl he falls in love with is named Fatima, and he learns that true love should not keep one from his “Personal Legend.” Fatima proves true, but he leaves her behind to finish his quest. And of course, the quest proves circular, taking him back to where he came from so that he can find his treasure.
The story is neat and derivative, and other writers have simply done it better. I have heard that teachers assign this book for summer reading, and I guess that works. The story is free of sexual acts and overt violence, which makes it the kind of G-rated text that will not offend while offering some overworked “philosophy” and platitudes. I’m not sure it is the best book to keep students interested on those lazy summer days.
Coelho seems to want to make the case that his novel is important literature. In his introduction to the tenth anniversary edition, he talks about what stands in our way when we try to achieve our dreams. “First: we are told from childhood onward that everything we want to do is impossible,” he writes. Then we encounter the tethers of love: “We know what we want to do, but are afraid of hurting those around us by abandoning everything in order to pursue our dream.” Our third obstacle, Coelho believes, is fear, “fear of the defeats we will meet on our path.” This all begins to sound very familiar, and for adults, one would be better served to read Chuang Tzu, Pema Chodron, or Thich Nhat Hanh. Indeed, Greek philosophy, Christian mystics, and any of the retellings of the quest for the Holy Grail will offer those who are searching for their “Personal Legend” some inspiration. Literature across cultures is rife with heroes searching for their destiny or living out their fate against the choices they have made. The Alchemist is not exceptional nor unique.
In the end, Paulo Coelho offers a superficial take on the search for one’s ultimate destiny. He never puts the central character at true risk. The boy literally faces little challenge; he must sell his sheep, but he finds the funds to replace them many times over. He finds gold and is later robbed, but he manages to discover riches far more valuable. He is beaten by thugs, but recovers quickly without permanent damage. His journey eventually leads him back to where he started, and we are left to ponder what all the fuss was about in the first place, and possibly why we did not pick a better story teller to take us there. There is a reason why this book sat unmarked on my shelves if indeed I did read it once upon a time, and why the authors mentioned above, in comparison, have suffered creases, broken spines, dog-eared pages, and endless notes and highlighting. Those books never leave you; The Alchemist was long gone as soon as I closed the cover.