Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Alchemist: Hokum With Hooks

Recently I came across a list of the ten most-read books in the world during the past 50 years. I don’t know about you, but when I see a list like this, I think I should read everything on it, if I haven’t already, and if not, how come? There are few surprises on the list, with The Bible at number 1 and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung a distant number 2, and no, I can’t honestly say that I’ve read either one, not cover to cover anyway. By someone’s calculation, 3.9 billion copies of The Bible have been purchased since the 1960s, with Mao at just under a billion.

To me, the biggest surprise was number 5, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, which ranks just after The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. My wife and daughter have raved about Coelho’s book, but I recently had read The Pilgrimage, his absurd New Age take on the Camino de Santiago, and I found it hard to believe that 65 million people had fallen for anything by him.

I clicked on Wiki and learned that Coelho had been inspired to write The Alchemist by his own walk to Santiago de Compostela. In fact, he names his protagonist, a shepherd, Santiago. I also learned that The Alchemist was the turning point in the Brazilian author’s writing career, and like, given 65 big ones, how could it not have been?

I find myself at a crossroads of sorts, wondering about the direction of my own life as a writer. I thought that maybe I should not be too cynical about bumping into this book at this moment in my earthly Camino. Maybe it was an “omen,” a word Coelho throws around liberally. I downloaded The Alchemist to my Kindle and read it in two days. Compared with the Bible, a feast, The Alchemist is a handful of Doritos.

It begins with a prologue about Narcissus, and who better to symbolize the contemporary seeker who looks only into himself?

Maybe I am the last literate person to read The Alchemist and you need no summary. But basically here: It’s about a young man who travels to Egypt to find the secret of life only to find that— But don’t let me spoil the acute suspense.

Coelho seeds his narrative with Catholic references: Santiago studied at a seminary until 16, when he chucked theology for sheep. When asked to swear to the God he believes in, the young man swears to Jesus Christ. A gypsy fortune teller displays the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The centurion who asked Christ to heal his servant even makes a surprise appearance.

But the author regularly undercuts Catholic tradition and teaching. Santiago left the seminary because he knew that the world was more important to him than “knowing God and learning about man's sins.” This reductive view of the priesthood is reinforced a few pages later when Santiago says, “I couldn't have found God in the seminary.”

A character named Melchizedek turns out to be the Melchizedek, who blessed Abraham, but he teaches Santiago lessons not found in the Old Testament. “The world's greatest lie,” Coelho’s Melchizedek says, is that our lives are controlled by fate, not by ourselves. He tells Santiago “the one great truth," that “when you really want something it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe.” Variants of this core message are: “When you really want something, the universe always conspires in your favor.” And “When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person realize his dream..”

“The Soul of the Universe is nourished by people's happiness . . . ,” Santiago learns. “To realize one's Personal Legend is a person's only real obligation.” And: "All people who are happy have God within them.” So much for the Ten Commandments. So much for original sin. Coelho borrows from Judeo-Christian tradition as it suits him, but he casts aside what doesn’t fit his personal religion, or anything that would ruffle the narcissistic feathers of today’s New Agers.

As he does in The Pilgrimage, his book on the Camino, Coelho creates a faux fellowship, in this case calling it “Warriors of the Light.” He borrows from traditional alchemy the notion of the Soul of the World and waxes on about the Elixir of Life, and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Meanwhile, the people Santiago meets provide New Age bromides, like “Cleanse your mind of negative thoughts.” A camel driver tells Santiago: “I don't live in either my past or my future. I’m interested only in the present. . . . Life is the moment we’re living right now.” Ah yes. I was waiting for him to add that the present is a gift, but I waited in vain.

A Muslim merchant shares the five obligations given us by the Prophet, just to make sure no religious preference is offended by The Alchemist. Another person Santiago meets along the way teaches the shepherd that the universal language is “the language of enthusiasm.”

But wait a minute! Someone else says that the most important part of the language “that all the world [speaks]” is love. But whoa! Hold on! A third character insists that “courage is the quality most essential to understanding the language of the world.”

If you dip below the surface of Coelho’s philosophy (theology?), you may not find much consistency or substance. But like today’s New Ager, Narcissus never looked below the surface. His own self-image was enough to captivate and kill him.

How could 65 million people have fallen for The Alchemist? Consider it a measure of our human need for answers, even if the answers make little sense or break no new ground. You may be hooked by The Alchemist, but don’t overlook the hokum.


  1. Really, only 65 million people have read this book?

  2. OK. I consider myself literate and never have read it. It is now a staple in hs English departments. My colleagues rave about it. I will pass.


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