I have a couple of friends who think this book is the worst thing they’ve ever read. Of course, these same friends are also notoriously high-minded about a lot of things, over which we frequenly butt heads, but mostly I think they are missing the point with this one. It’s not meant to be high literature. It’s not even meant to be all that well-written (in the classical sense of the phrase). Capital-L Literature is meant to elevate, and to a certain extent, it’s elitist. This, on the other hand, is a story very intentionally written not for the elite, but for the masses. It’s a fable, and fables are meant to be spread and enjoyed by as many people as possible. And yes, their ‘messages’ are rather simplistic, but that’s sort of the entire point of a fable.
And I’m not ashamed to admit that it kicked me in the butt a little.
The Alchemist has a simple premise: a young Spanish shepherd sells all of his sheep at the urging of a mysterious man who calls himself a King, in order to follow his Dream. Santiago’s nominal Dream is a bit mysterious, but supposedly will end with him finding treasure at the end of his journey, which an actual sleepytime dream has told him will end at the pyramids of Giza. So Santiago sets off and has lots of adventures along the way, meeting fellow travelers, including an Englishman who is traveling to a famous oasis to study alchemy with a master Alchemist. As Santiago travels, he learns that the philosophy of alchemy is the same one as advised to him by that mysterious King fellow back in Spain. Stuff happens from there.
If that all sounds a bit bonkers to you, well, yes, you’d be right. But first, again: fable. And second, in context, it all makes sense. Like all good fables, the story is tinged with magical realism and not a little allegory, as Santiago’s Dream is a stand-in for all of our less tangible ones. This does get a little squiffy in parts, because Santiago meets people along the way who have more concrete dreams than he does, but overall I think it works.
Mostly, this story is just a vehicle to get across Coelho’s philosophy, namely that if there is something you want to do or be, you have to actually attempt to be or do that thing. Accepting excuses, putting things off for later, or worse, refusing to do them at all out of fear that either the dream or you will disappoint — all of these things shouldn’t matter. What should matter is what Santiago refers to as your Personal Legend (it’s phrases like these that make me question how much better things probably sound in the original Portuguese).
I’ve read a couple of reviews that suggested what Coelho was saying was that if you just want something enough the Universe will give it to you and you won’t have to work for it. I think that’s sort of a malicious reading of the text. Again: fable. Things are going to be simplistic. Reading a fable is like reading the Bible. You have to be able to draw your own conclusions from what it presents to you. And I think it’s pretty clear that what Coelho was saying was that if you want to achieve your dream, you have to take action in order to do so. There’s a bit of spiritual mumbo-jumbo that you can probably take or leave about when you are actively pursuing your dream, how the whole universe conspires to help you, but that’s pretty much a standard thing for religions to say. (God helps those who helps themselves, anyone?) The real core of the message is the taking action part and pushing past the fear and uncertainty to reach for what you want.
Despite any packaging flaws, I think at its core, the message of The Alchemist is a good one, and most readers will be able to overcome the ‘simplistic’ format to get what Coelho was trying to say. And besides, it was a fast read and I was entertained. If nothing else, it was a good modern day fable/fairytale.