The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho - book review


Fiction; HarperCollins Publishers India; 177 pages; translated from Portuguese by Alan R. Clark

My rating - 1.5/5

The outstanding sales of the book (over 20 million, according to the publisher's blurb) made me interested in The Alchemist. Google search revealed the summary, which was not bad; and the book cover, which was impressive.

But after finishing the novel I found it to be utterly nonsensical. This is a fiction novel bordering on, and many times even crossing into, the fantasy genre which seem to be a construct of a confused and scattered mind. (In his early age, Coelho was put into a mental asylum thrice, by the way.)

Rules of reality are sometimes obeyed, sometimes bent, and sometimes broken without any explanations as to how and why that is being done.

Summary of The Alchemist


Santiago, the protagonist, is a shepherd in the Andalusian part of Spain who is a traveler presently taking shelter in a ruined church. He has a recurring dream, authenticated to be true by a gypsy, that he will find a treasure in the pyramids of Egypt.

The king of Salem (and we are not told where on earth this Salem is), offers him his help because Santiago has discovered his destiny and he was unaffected by the "mysterious force" that convinces people to not to discover it.

The king says when someone really wants something it's because the desire originated in the "soul of the universe". Perhaps the line (very absurd, by the way) which has become most famous is:

When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.

This sentence, like some others, is unnecessarily repeated again and again in the book. (The Bollywood movie Om Shanti Om used the above line several times in the movie without any reference to Coelho.)

Santiago loses his skepticism after the king proves his wisdom by telling him his private secrets and embarks on the treasure hunt after selling away all his sheep, taking careful notes of all the omens that the king said will lead his path.

But when Santiago gets robbed off of all his money in Tangier, he has to do a job in a crystal shop and gives away all aspirations of the treasure. The way he works and helps the shop owner to take his shop to new heights is the only part of the novel which rings real.

After an year, he manages to collect a good sum of money and decides to restart the treasure search not only because an omen tells him so but also because two stones transmit "to him the strength and will of the old king."

He travels along with a caravan and befriends a 200 year old alchemist on his way who helps him in his treasure hunt. But on their way they are caught by tribesmen under the suspicion of spying and are threatened with death.

But surprise, surprise.

Santiago talks to the desert and the desert informs him to address the wind and the wind commissions him to request the heaven and so he pleads to the sun and the sun directs him to the "hand that wrote all", and so he ends up praying to the "hand that wrote all" to turn him into wind! And he really turns himself into wind then back into human and in the process discovers the "language of the desert and the wind" and the "Soul of the World" and hence the tribesmen let him go.



Don't ask me what all this means. I have no idea.

Without any reason the alchemist deserts him now and he manages to reach the pyramids and an omen informs him of a place to dig. Some refugees run into him and beat him until they wring out all information about the treasure. Why doesn't he become the wind now and escapes them? No answer.

One of them says (spoiler alert):

Two years ago, right here on this spot, I had a recurrent dream too. I dreamed that I should travel to the fields of Spain and look for a ruined church where shepherds and their sheep slept. I was told that, if I dug ... I would find a hidden treasure. But I'm not so stupid as to cross an entire desert just because of a recurrent dream.

He returns to Spain and finds the treasure buried under the ruined church.

***

There is a problem in almost every part of the book. Paulo Coelho has attempted a novel to explain the great ultimate truth of this world but has ended up producing only a farce. Many things are left unexplained and many incidents serve no purpose.

For example Santiago sees a hawk attacking another in the deserts and then a vision. Then after a few days the alchemist serves him the same hawks for dinner. Why? No answer.

Coelho seems to belong to those deluded class of people who believe that the more absurdly complex incidents you narrate the more philosophically mature your writing will sound. He has touched upon some big questions of theology and philosophy, like free will vs. determinism, but has produced contradictory answers.

For example a seer tells Santiago; "God only rarely reveals the future. When he does so, it is for only one reason: it's a future that was written so as to be altered."

But later the alchemist tells him; "When something is written, there is no way to change it."

So which world view is correct? No answer.

Also I discerned a phrase which is a replica of a saying from Nahjul Balagha, an ancient Islamic text.

Santiago - "My heart is afraid that it will have to suffer." Alchemist - "Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself."

Now compare the above statements with the following:

When you feel afraid or nervous to do a thing then do it because the real harm which you may thus receive is less poignant than its expectation and fear. - Saying 174, Nahjul Balagha

The characters seem like puppets with no depth in their portrayal and the description of places like Spain, Morocco, the Sahara Desert, and the pyramids lack richness indicating poor research.

Santiago, a Christian, falling in love with Fatima, a Muslim, with no resistance from Fatima's tribesmen is too good to be true.

The overall message of the book seems to be this - watch out for omens here and omens there and omens everywhere. If someone will take this teaching seriously, I have no doubt he will deviate away from sanity.

Do yourself a favor by not reading this book. Trust me, it will be a bad omen.

In case you have already read it, let me know in the comments below how did you find it.

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