Favourite Books #1: Coelho, Paulo: The Alchemist (1993)

So…does anyone remember how I announced the start of a Favourite Books series…two effing months ago? Well, I do, and I’m hereby finally keeping my word.

I started reading The Alchemist yesterday while I was having my morning coffee, and I finished it over a cup of hot milk and honey in the evening just before going to sleep.

At 167 pages, The Alchemist isn’t exactly War and Peace, and I did have a lot more time on my hands than I usually do, as I’m currently recovering from an ear infection, which means that I spend most of my time on the sofa drinking tea and reading. However, I doubt I would have finished the book in one day if it’d been downright horrible. 😉

It isn’t. In fact, the first two thirds of the novel were so enjoyable that I was 100% certain that The Alchemist would be receiving a glowing five star review once I finished reading.

The Alchemist tells the story of Santiago, a poor shepherd, who leaves comforts of the life he’s used to behind to pursue his personal destiny. As such, this is a story that has been told time and again. What makes this story special is the voice that tells it. The Alchemist is a very wise book that feels more like a fable than a novel because of all the metaphors and allegories it employs. It is certainly a very quotable book, and if I had your friendship book lying around on one of my shelves, you could probably look forward to finding one of those quotes in it once I’m finished with it.

Hypothetically of course 😉

I liked that The Alchemist is a very spiritual book, but that it doesn’t insist on ramming any one religion down the reader’s throat. It is true that the word ‘God’ is definitely used far more often than I’d prefer*, but the clarification that anybody’s God is just as valid reconciled me with that. It also becomes clear that the notion of ‘God’ that Paulo Coelho tries to communicate in The Alchemist is more spiritual than religious, since the concept at the core of the novel is what is in the book called ‘Personal Legend’, meaning a personal destiny that needs to be fulfilled for a person to truly find happiness and fulfilment.

*I haven’t spoken about my views on religion on the blog, because I feel that either way it’s just going to offend people. I’m not a religious person. Not.At.All. I don’t pray, I don’t go to church (unless someone makes me), and I don’t believe in any of the Gods that people like going to war over. Frankly, I think anyone who’d start a war in defence of a being whose existence can’t even be proven qualifies as a lunatic and should probably be treated accordingly. However, I do believe in religious freedom. As long as you don’t criticise me for choosing not to believe in your God, you can go on praying to him. If that helps you to feel like someone is listening to your sorrow, go on. I’d rather call a friend, but that’s just my personal preference. If Jesus helps you to be a better person, then GO JESUS! …I hope you get the picture.

I said The Alchemist would’ve deserved a five star review after the first two thirds. After finishing the book, I’m on the fence as to what I think of it. On the one hand, it is a beautiful book: beautifully written, beautiful story, beautiful language, etc.

However, on the other hand, there were two aspects that really bothered me about this book.

One is the religious turn it takes towards the end. As I said: the book is very spiritual, but mostly in a good way. Until on page 144 Santiago starts talking to the wind, then the sun, and then the creator himself. Up to that point spirituality had been introduced as a belief in personal destiny, in the ability to find something positive in any situation, and in hope. I don’t know what inspired this sudden switch to a more tangible – and in a way dogmatic – portrayal of divinity, but I do know that I didn’t like it. It took away from the magic that surrounded the story up to that point, and it made it harder for me to take a positive message away from the book. Also, the whole scene I mentioned with the wind and the sun etc just felt downright trippy to me, as if Santiago had found some funny mushrooms somewhere in the desert. Maybe he did.

The second – and more lamentable – aspect that I really don’t agree with is Coelho’s archaic views on gender roles that make him sound like an absolute misogynist in places.

The book starts out so hopeful: Santiago is just a shepherd boy with a dream that he wishes to fulfil, so he takes a massive leap of faith to find his Personal Legend.

“I’m an adventurer, looking for treasure,” he said to himself. (p.42)

…and I could identify with him, I was rooting for him! The book kept going on about adventure, possibilities and opportunities, and about how everyone can make their dreams come true if they just believe in themselves. Aside from the fact that this can’t always true, it is still a lovely message, and one that I was willing to take away from this book until…

…Santiago meets a girl.

sherlock eyeroll.gif

Aside from the fact that this novel didn’t need a love story, and that it also just doesn’t tell a love story, this is the point at which it becomes clear that the take-away message isn’t that everybody can fulfil their dreams, it is that everyone with a penis can.

Don’t believe me? Read this:

“Fatima is a woman of the desert,” said the alchemist. “She knows that men have to go away in order to return. And she already has her treasure: it’s you. Now she expects that you will find what it is you’re looking for.” (p. 118)

[…] a woman of the desert knows that she must await her man. (p. 119)

“I’m a woman of the desert,” she said, averting her face. “But above all, I’m a woman.” (p. 122)

[…] she was waiting for him, a woman awaiting a courageous man in search of his treasure. From that day on, the desert would represent only one thing to her: the hope of his return. (p. 123)

jessicajones eyeroll.gif

So instead of saying “everybody can achieve their dream if they just try hard enough and don’t give up”, the ultimate message this book is sending is that even poor shepherd boys get to be little adventurers who can make their dreams come true, while women are destined to stay at home and patiently await the return of their heroic men.

…and in case you don’t know me: I’m not OK with that message.

However, since the first two thirds of the book are very brilliant, and because the book as a whole is – as I said – very quotable, I want to end this post on a more positive note:

“What’s the world’s greatest lie,” the boy asked, completely surprised.

“It’s this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.” (p. 18)

Next up in the Favourite Books series: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. (But maybe don’t hold your breath for that – it’s over 1000 pages thick and I do have a master’s thesis to write…)

What is something that you find hard to tolerate in a book?

Do a book’s flaws tend to ruin a book for you?  




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