Book Review: The Alchemist

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Coelho, Paulo. The Alchemist, A fable about following your dream (1987).

The first time I saw a copy of the alchemist I was sitting on the bus on my way into school. During my two-hour commute out of French-dominated “upper-rubberboot,” it was rare to encounter an unfamiliar face reading a work in English. I was fascinated by the cover of The Alchemist (hereby condemning myself) and the enraptured stare of the young, male reader further supported this interest. This was in 2003.

This past Christmas I gave a copy of Coelho’s novel to my Nana in the hopes that she would lend it to me when she was done (ok, so I’m a selfish gift-giver – shoot me). I was correct that she would be willing to pass the book on and I finally got a chance to sit down and enjoy a novel I had been pining over for four years during my recent time spent on a cruise ship in the North Sea.

The Alchemist
is apparently a re-working of Jorge Luis Borges’ earlier short story “Tale of Two Dreamers” which is itself based on a tale from the Thousand and One Nights. I knew none of this before embarking on my adventure of a dreamer whom fate chooses to test before rewarding with true love, wealth and a fantastical story. The Alchemist is definitely a “feel-good” novel encouraging an appreciation of the small things that make life worth living without giving up on larger aspirations. The moral of Paulo Coelho’s 1987 novel can be summed up in one imperative phrase: Don’t settle.

Though other reviews that I have encountered usually compare The Alchemist to Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, a book I thoroughly enjoyed at the age of twelve, I found myself drawing parallels to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha instead. Such a comparison is fair game as both authors were influenced by the same Islamic legend (found below), but it does not favour Coelho’s treatment of the subject. Though The Alchemist was a page-turner that I finished reading in just under three hours, it did not affect my personality or outlook on the world for the next couple of days after reading it. Perhaps I am just more jaded since my reading of Siddhartha three years ago, but at the time my closest friends and family members actually noticed a brief “mellowing” in my character. This kind of impact is, for me, the mark of a GREAT novel. Only authors like Montaigne, Dostoevsky, Nabokov and Proust rank with Hesse in their ability to change, if only for a little while, the way I perceive the world.

Perhaps if I had encountered The Alchemist first, and not the Thousand and One Nights and Siddhartha beforehand, I would be writing a radically different evaluation of Paulo Coelho’s work. His ability to write a tight, elegant plot encourages me to read other novels by this prolific author, however, like most “covers,” The Alchemist‘s revisitation of a time-honoured theme lacks much of the punch of its forefathers. Stick to the originals.

Often-cited “spiritual” quotations from The Alchemist:

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”

Excerpt from A Thousand and One Nights (shamelessly stolen from the internet because I can’t find it in my copy and am too lazy to reread the entire thing):

There lived once in Baghdad a very wealthy man, who lost all his substance and became so poor, that he could only earn his living by excessive labour. One night, he lay down to sleep, dejected and sick at heart, and saw in a dream one who said to him, ‘Thy fortune is at Cairo; go thither and seek it.’ So he set out for Cairo; but, when he arrived there, night overtook him and he lay down to sleep in a mosque. Presently, as fate would have it, a company of thieves entered the mosque and made their way from thence into an adjoining house; but the people of the house, being aroused by the noise, awoke and cried out; whereupon the chief of the police came to their aid with his officers. The robbers made off; but the police entered the mosque and finding the man from Baghdad asleep there, laid hold of him and beat him with palm rods, till he was well-nigh dead. Then they cast him into prison, where he abode three days, after which the chief of the police sent for him and said to him, ‘From whence art thou?’ ‘From Baghdad,’ answered he. ‘And what brought thee to Cairo?’ asked the magistrate. Quoth the Baghdadi, ‘I saw in a dream one who said to me, “Thy fortune is at Cairo; go thither to it.” But when I came hither, the fortune that he promised me proved to be the beating I had of thee.’

The chief of the police laughed, till he showed his jaw-teeth, and said, ‘O man of little wit, thrice have I seen in a dream one who said to me, “There is in Baghdad a house of such a fashion and situate so-and-so, in the garden whereof is a fountain and thereunder a great sum of money buried. Go thither and take it.” Yet I went not; but thou, of thy little wit, hast journeyed from place to place, on the faith of a dream, which was but an illusion of sleep.’ Then he gave him money, saying, ‘This is to help thee back to thy native land.’ Now the house he had described was the man’s own house in Baghdad; so the latter returned thither, and digging underneath the fountain in his garden, discovered a great treasure; and thus God gave him abundant fortune.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Alchemist

  1. I never actually read this book, but I did read and thoroughly enjoyed another one of his novels “The Fifth Mountain”. It’s a romanticized and extended version of the story of the Old Testament prophet Elijah.

    It’s also a bit of a feel good novel based on a small biblical passage (I believe it was no longer than two chapters from the second book of Kings). I would definitely recommend it if you are looking for another book by this author.

  2. Manual updates have until now eaten up a great deal of time, especially when you have cross-references such as figure numbers or headings that are linked to multiple locations in a long document. ,

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