The Alchemist is a story of faith, one which incorporates many different belief systems with one unifying theme: the follow-through. Author Paulo Coelho has his many different characters charging through life in pursuit, some seemingly ruled by fear but others who have taken the time to incorporate communication with nature into their lives. The seeker is one with whom Coelho seems fascinated.
It is convenient that the book begins its Prologue describing the Alchemist amidst a caravan reading a book, perhaps the best way to learn and engage in the thought processes of strangers. This is where the best translations occur: through elaboration. “Leafing through the pages, he found a story about Narcissus.” The Alchemist loves the story because of its uplifting twist, something which Coelho beautifully executes himself by the end of his story entitled The Alchemist. The reader should approach The Alchemist with his mind wide open and expect an even further expansion by the book’s end. For this reason, the book is a fantastic read. Surely the material will be scoffed at by some but even those who scoff at such texts and that text’s ideas are addressed so wonderfully by Coelho in The Alchemist.
Coelho has the protagonist meet up with a king on a street at which point the king inspires the wandering boy to follow his dreams and fulfill his destiny. The king tells the boy to observe and obey all of the omens which will present themselves to the boy along his journey and that if he does this, he can’t go wrong. The boy must be intuitive though. Upon hearing of the omens, the boy notices a butterfly which serves as a good omen. The boy then thinks of other good omens, “Like crickets, and like grasshoppers; like lizards and four-leaf clovers.” The boy, at this point, seems as though he has the proper background and education in order to fulfill his destiny and that he just needed someone and some other things, the omens, to bring that knowledge out of him. He had been wandering as a Shepard and needed a little more direction in his life, so life, as we’re told in this story, conspired to bring him all the people and resources he’d need in order to fulfill his destiny, which was to arrive at the Egyptian pyramids where his treasure was thought to be waiting for him. The boy, in other words, operates on faith handed down from the wise and the fearless, but who are fearless from experience and who are not necessarily naturally fearless. This is a story of coming into wisdom and not natural wisdom. And thus, it is a story.
Along his path to the pyramids of Africa, the boy encounters a tea merchant who is down on his luck and whose business is floundering where it was once flourishing. The boy lends this man a hand and in exchange is paid. The boy proves to be an omen for the merchant himself because business would increase dramatically because of the boy’s presence coupled with the boy’s ideas. “Eventually, the merchant had to hire two more employees,” Coelho writes.
The boy is simply playing his part in life, listening to his heart and taking chances, like Coelho encourages us to do in this small but great book (207 pgs.). Coelho is very convincing in his story and his writing, translated here by Alan R. Clarke, is concise and to the point. He writes with a strong intelligence and wisdom which he passes along to his characters. The boy’s journey is meant to be general enough to the point that we, as readers, can liken it to our own paths. Though the characters are obviously speaking to each other, they often times use very general language which makes it easy to follow as readers. It also makes the story a quicker read because we’re not forced to look for hidden meanings, though if one wanted to, I’m sure one could find some. But there’s nothing that really has to be forced in this book. Coelho challenges the reader in a very modest way, requiring the reader to only think of the story in terms of his own life and, thus, Coelho doesn’t write selfishly, but incredibly generously.
The book doesn’t encourage reckless abandon in pursuit; instead, the novel asks us to listen, to listen to the Language of the World and only out of necessity should we observe the words and symbols of men. The necessity is born out of man’s way of distorting/complicating the Language of the World. We’ve forgotten, the boy concludes at one point in the story, to listen to what the world is saying and if we could only revert back to what the world is saying, then people would probably say much less. “I don’t know why these things have to be transmitted by word of mouth, he thought.”
The boy is so wise in this book and he becomes increasingly wiser as the story moves along, but not without the guiding hand of those who’ve gone before him. Many mentors make his acquaintance in this novel, but even with the mentors, the boy was still required to believe and trust in them enough to, first of all, listen, and second, observe their lectures by acting them out. The boy is necessarily trusting in The Alchemist because he figured he could always “fall back on” his sheep. As I’ve said, he was a Shepard prior to his journey to the pyramids. Having that cushion definitely made this boy’s journey that much easier to take, as it would for most. So many people will pursue something only if there is a failsafe and the question remains: would the boy have pursued this journey if he didn’t have the cushioning? I believe the answer is “yes” and I think Coelho would be happy with that answer.
The Alchemist character essentially scares the boy into continuing on his journey to the pyramids. The boy considers staying in the village which he’s inhabited because his love, Fatima, is there. The Alchemist, too wise to hear the boy speak that way, encourages him to move on lest he regrets it. The boy wants to stay back and be a counselor to the chieftains in the village, but the Alchemist warns him that his omens will eventually abandon him should he not listen to them and follow them. “The tribal chieftains will see that, and you’ll be dismissed from your position as counselor,” the Alchemist wisely tells the boy. The boy, in awe of the Alchemist and always deeply respectful, puts his faith once again in the people who’ve gone before him. We find, as we journey along with the boy, that his faith is ever-increasing, though he still has periods of fear and doubt.
The boy reaches a point in the story where he must become the wind in order to advance to his destination, the pyramids. At this point, he converses with the wind and the sun in order to better understand them so that he can accomplish his goal. The conversation is worthwhile and interesting. “From where I am – and I’m a long way from the earth – I learned how to love.” The sun says that to the boy and the boy questions the sun, feeling that the sun can learn from him in the same way that he is learning from the sun. The sun has a very sensitive side and is dependent in the same way the boy is dependent on it. So the two learn from each other and the boy is eventually allowed to advance to his destination but in order to do so he had to endure yet another experience, this time from the sun, which is more human than the boy thought, and probably more human than the reader thought.
The Alchemist is a great book and most people will take something from it, though some – those inclined to contemplation – will take more.