Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)

I am always on a Quest to Read Great Literature, and back when I first decided to embark on this quest (in 2009), I found a list from The Guardian of books you absolutely must read as compiled by British librarians (article here). One of the books was The Alchemist, by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. Finally, three years later, I got around to reading it, and I was incredibly disappointed. I confess, part of it was my fault. I didn't know going into it that the book was written as an undercover schmucky self-help book disguised as a fable/parable.

We're introduced to a teenage shepherd who wanders around Spain with his flock of sheep. He has a strange dream about finding treasure at the Pyramids in Egypt and then meets a mysterious man who tells him that the only way to be truly happy in life is to realize his "Personal Legend" (one of the things that irritated me more than it should have was the constant capitalization of "Personal Legend", like it's some big important proper noun), and his legend is to seek this treasure he dreamed about.

What ensues is the said journey, full of discovery and wisdom and knowledge, and the whole thing is just aggravating. Several times on the journey things happen that force the shepherd to stop; he gets robbed, there's a war in the desert, etc. Every time an excuse comes up for him to avoid fulfilling his Personal Legend, he tries to take it. Which is perhaps the point, but most infuriating is that his Personal Legend isn't one that's necessarily difficult to achieve: show up to the Pyramids, get treasure, be rich. I'd understand if he kept quitting because his PL is difficult, like climbing a big mountain or building a home for every homeless person on Earth. But it's not particularly challenging, so our shepherd hero just comes out looking wimpy and whiny.

But he isn't the only annoying character. The girl that the shepherd meets and falls in love with at the oasis camp is agonizing to read. He tries to use their relationship as an excuse not to leave for the Pyramids, but she says something about how she's a "woman of the desert" and women of the desert must wait for their men. Why doesn't this girl (I think her name is Fatimah?) have her own Personal Legend where she breaks the mold of the anti-feminist society she lives in and go with her lover? There's also the Englishman (that's what he's called: "the Englishman"), the Alchemist, and the mysterious man I mentioned earlier who may or may not have been king of the angels or something similarly ludicrous.

The Alchemist fails as an interesting novel and simultaneously doesn't even manage to be a good self-help book. There's a lot of talk about omens and the "language of the universe", and how the universe conspires to allow all of us to reach our Personal Legends if only we pay attention to the signs all around us and learn to speak the unspoken language of the world. It's stupid. The message I took away? You should pursue your dreams and your destiny but should also rely on arbitrarily-determined signs in nature (there's a part where the shepherd sees birds flying above him and mysteriously knows that it's a sign that the oasis camp where he's staying is going to be attacked the next day...yeah right). I thought the point of self-help books was to motivate you to make an effort in your life, but I felt like Coelho wanted us to rely more on chance than ourselves.

This was a very disappointing book, and I rolled my eyes too many times to count.

Rating: 1/5
The Alchemist on Goodreads
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  1. you are wrong.

    The alchemist is a great book.

    wrong, wrong you are.

  2. Yes! Finally someone who agrees with me that the Alchemist is total crap!