I’m not big on fables. Between Aesop’s morality tales and the biblical parables taught in Sunday school, I’d read more than my share of fables as a kid. So it was with great hesitation that I approached Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist.
My buddy, soulhead CEO and founder Ron Worthy, insisted I read The Alchemist. It was full of eye-opening life lessons, he said, and I’d gain a better understand of “the struggle” once I reached the tale’s ending. Of course I looked at Ron askance. Was he really trying to sell a middling work of prose as something life-altering?
Mind you, The Alchemist was not my introduction to Coelho’s work. The first work I ever read by him was the stellar and sexy Eleven Minutes, a study of love, lust, and romance between a man and woman. It was a story firmly rooted in reality yet it still brimmed with a quality best described as “magical.” Despite a lack of true fantastic elements, I’d always said Eleven Minutes was a fairy tale for adults.
With The Alchemist, however, I knew I was in for a real fantasy, one replete with magic and omens and … well, and alchemy. And so, at my friend’s urging, I picked up The Alchemist and began to read. I read half of it before I put it down for a few weeks, but I picked it back up and finished it over the holiday vacation.
For those who are unfamiliar, The Alchemist tells the story of Santiago, a young Spanish shepherd who sets out to find a treasure hidden near the pyramids of Egypt. It is, he is often reminded, his “Personal Legend.” Along the way, Santiago encounters a host of characters, including a crystal salesman, a gypsy woman, an Englishman searching for the secrets of alchemy, and the titular alchemist himself, all who provide lessons and impart wisdom upon our protagonist. During a lengthy stay in a desert oasis, Santiago meets the love of his life, a woman named Fatima.
Santiago’s journey is fraught with danger—some of it is external, such as the warring desert tribes preventing him from continuing his journey; but there are internal conflicts as well, like Santiago’s struggles with doubt, insecurity, and faith. He encounters seemingly insurmountable obstacles on his quest to fulfilling his Personal Legend. In true fable fashion, what Santiago ends up learning is that the power to overcome these obstacles resides within him, and always has.
I won’t spoil the ending for you. I won’t tell what Santiago finds on his journey, or if he finds anything at all. But I will say that I understand why The Alchemist speaks to millions of people across the globe. It’s a hopeful story and, yes, it does possess little nuggets of wisdom that are easy for people to cling upon. Especially if they are in pursuit of their own “Personal Legend.”
Of course, as an author on a self-publishing track, I am, obviously, in search of my “Personal Legend.” So, yes, certain aspects of The Alchemist spoke to me. It was easy to draw parallels between Santiago’s journey and my own. And I found the ending to be truly satisfying. Only one segment of the story did not sit well with me, and it was when Santiago had to talk to the wind and the sun and some other such nonsense. I mean, I get why it was part of the story, but it stood out as particularly bizarre segment of the novel. Ultimately, however, The Alchemist worked for me on an emotional level.
But allow me to stand back and just look at The Alchemist as a work of literature. Is it a masterpiece? Eh, not really. The story is relatively simple and straight forward, yet Coelho moves along at rather languid pace, making events that should be short and sweet unnecessarily lengthy. Also, he continually hits us (and, through his other characters, Santiago) over the head with obvious platitudes about achieving one’s “Personal Legend.” They are heavy-handed, tedious, and numerous. Subtlety is not The Alchemist’s strong point.
In the end, while I liked The Alchemist, I do feel that it was a bit much in certain areas. Will I ever read it again? Not sure. It’s doubtful. But it is, without question, an inspirational tale of following your dreams, listening to your heart, and discovering the treasures that lie within each of us.