January 17, 2014

The Alchemist: Not So Much.

In summary, I found The Alchemist slightly less earth-shattering than the epic message of Flashdance: “If you lose your dream, you die.”

I think that Paul Coehlo is a wonderful human being. In fact, I’m sure of it.

I’m equally sure that The Alchemist is, for millions of readers, a life-changing book. The introduction to the 10th edition says Bill Clinton read it, and he’s a smart guy, right? (Although it doesn’t actually say Bill liked it. Just that he was seen reading it). I also know that Brene Brown loves the book, and while I don’t agree with her on everything I respect her work and know her to be an incredibly intelligent woman.

It seemed like something I would like, being as it’s all parable/mystical/spiritual. Plus I’m really intrigued by alchemy. It’s one of those books that everyone read a few years ago, and that folks list among the books that have influenced their lives. I see quotes from it all over the place, as if it rivaled Rumi for beauty and meaning. (My opinion: it does not).

A while back I bought a used copy, and settled in to read. It was kind of like a combination of Biblical parables, The Secret and Ali Baba. (Let me say, here, that I am no slacker in the reading-of-tough-stuff department. I made it through law school, in which I had absolutely no interest, slogging through volumes of ancient property law in which people transferred land by handing each other sticks. I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the original Middle English. I read The freaking Bridges of Madison County for God’s sake).

I quit. I gave up.

I put it away after Santiago had talked a lot about his sheep and met a king with a fancy breastplate who gave him stones and told him about pursuing his “Personal Legend.” The universe, it seemed, would conspire to help anyone live their Personal Legend if they did the right stuff. Whatever that was. It was all very mystical.

A few days ago, I started it again because I had told a friend she could skip reading it. In a fit of guilt and uncertainty I considered the fact that I had not actually finished it; maybe it got better?

It is, after all, translated into fifty six languages and has sold more than thirty million copies. I might be wrong. I might be standing between my friend and a life-altering read because I’m an arch, hypercritical snob who didn’t understand the simple message of a boy and his sheep and a king and a gypsy and stuff.

I read it all, bribing myself to stay the course with cozy blankets and cups of sweet tea.

Periodically I had to remove the blanket because, somewhere in the middle of the desert and the English guy who was looking for the alchemist and maybe it was his Personal Legend but maybe it was Santiago’s, and by the way Santiago fell in love with a girl by the well who totally understood a man of the desert’s need to wander…I fell asleep. There were no characters, there was no thematic development, and no one even thought anything remotely interesting.

It is not a novel.

It is a really long-assed and confusing parable with messages that seem to me irreconcilable. The messages, I think, are as follows: everyone has a destiny, the universe will help you if you know the magic words (which are not, as it turns out, “open sesame!”), and God is also involved, dispensing favors like Santa Claus.

The message is both deterministic (we all have a Personal Legend/destiny without which our lives are incomplete) but we also can, and must do all sorts of things involving free will and personal choice in order to get to that destiny. That’s already waiting for us. And lots of the things we have to do are counter-intuitive and involve guessing games, getting answers from colored stones, and interpreting cryptic messages.

And, may I say, it really frosts me that the Personal Legend of the only important female character in the book is to hang around at the well waiting to spend fifteen minutes a day with a guy, after which she advances to hanging around the oasis waiting for him while he goes looking for his destiny, possibly never to return?

In summary, I found The Alchemist slightly less earth-shattering than the epic message of Flashdance: “If you lose your dream, you die.”

If you loved it, if it changed your life, please tell me why.

I’m being sarcastic and scathing here because I’m feeling a little swindled, but deep down inside I’m afraid that I missed something, that I just don’t get it.

You will never persuade me that The Alchemist is a novel. You probably won’t convince me that we all have a single destiny. (I’ll go as far as thinking we have callings, but no farther. I’m all about the constant change, baby). But you might tell me, in the comments, that the story really spoke to you, and why.

Of course you are also free to agree with me, validate me and reassure me that it is not, in fact, my Personal Legend to misinterpret and criticize the most meaningful self-help-book-disguised-as-a-novel in the history of time…


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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Chad M on Flickr

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