Book Review: ‘The Alchemist’ by Paul Coelho

The attractive cover of The Alchemist, perfect for a rainy day ☔️

Please note that the opinions stated here are all my own. 

This is another book that began life on my to To Read shelf for a very long time, and I have read mixed reviews about it so left it on its designated shelf. However, a recent trip to Beijing brought me within reach of an English language bookstore and I couldn’t resist buying a nice pile of paperbacks! The Alchemist was among them and so finally, on a rainy day in Qinhuangdao, after a full day of reading, I moved it to the Read shelf.

There are several intriguing things about this novel. The first is that the author, Paul Coelho, wrote it in Spanish, and it was published in Brazil nearly thirty years ago in 1988. At first, nobody noticed the book, according to the Foreword at the beginning of the novel. It sold badly and was eventually cut off by the publisher. However, less than a year later an American randomly picked up the book in an old bookstore, and decided he wanted to take it to America, have it translated and published again. HarperCollins picked it up and it became a success. A modern classic. Which is why I wanted to read it.

The second is that the author describes his book as a fable rather than a novel. A fable is a genre in literature which features anthropomorphic animals or inanimate objects – animals or inanimate objects that are given human-like qualities. These, by the end of the fable, lead the reader to a moral lesson. This is interesting to me because initially I thought it was a novel rather than a fable, and also because it’s very different from what I usually read.

So what did I think of it?

My mind is mixed up about The Alchemist, I have to admit.

The plot is intriguing. An Andalusian shepherd boy sets out on a journey in search of a treasure that he has dreamt about, hidden at the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Selling his flock of sheep and crossing the Mediterranean, he arrives in Tangier, Morocco. Something unexpected happens, and he ends up having to stay in Tangier working at a crystal shop to make money for his journey. Finally a year later the boy has enough to buy a camel and cross the desert with a caravan. There he meets an Englishman in search of a great Alchemist. At an oasis in the desert, they are forced to stop for a while, and the boy meets the Alchemist and learns the so-called Language of the World. Finally he gets to the pyramids with the help of the Alchemist… Does he find his worldly treasure? You’ll have to read it to find out!

Now, I liked the plot. I thought the story was an interesting one, and I read on to see if he would find his treasure or not. There are tense moments that intrigue you and I read this book in a day because I liked the story so much. I think it is well written and though no names are given for the main characters (though according to the blurb, the boy is named Santiago. He goes by “the boy” in the story however), they are well developed and largely likeable.

However. There is a LOT of whiffle-waffle to get through too. A lot of people love it for that reason. But for me, it was something I had to kind of slog through to get back to the plot. Some of it is great advice for the reader, about following your dreams and achieving your personal challenges (Personal Legend) as the book states, but wow does he go overboard with it. He talks a lot about the “Language of the World”, and how even if we don’t speak the same English or Spanish or Arabic, we can still learn to understand each other. More than that though, it’s about learning to converse with everything around us – animals, the landscape, the elements. In the book the boy talks with his sheep, the desert, the wind…  

Generally I am fine with these ideas. I have read some books containing these ideas and I like them. I am pretty open to reading the ideas displayed here. Yet, for me, there was too much of it in this short book. I would have liked more plot and less talk about the spiritual elements.

Having said this, I like the idea of going on a journey to find your personal treasure. Everybody’s treasure is different though, and the idea of journeying to find yours, and to find a more spiritual side of yourself, appeals to me greatly. I think we are all on this kind of journey in some form or another, or at least we are searching for it.

In conclusion, I did ultimately enjoy this book. I know many that wouldn’t, but there was something quite special about this little book. Once I get past the poetic talk about the speaking to the desert and wind, I enjoyed the plot, and the ideas of spirituality and that each one of us has a treasure to discover, we just need to have the courage to go out and find it.

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