Monday, 15 August 2011

Book Review: The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho (1988)

In the vein of The Little Prince, The Alchemist is a fable by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho about destiny and the purpose of life. What it lacks in subtlety it makes up for with good intentions and a sharply drawn narrative.

Santiago is a curious and broad-minded Spanish shepherd boy (known simply as "the boy") from the Andalusia region. A recurring dream about treasure awaiting him near the pyramids in Egypt sets him off on an adventure across North Africa, from Tangier to an oasis in the middle of the desert and finally to the pyramids. Along the way he encounters a wise old king, a crystal merchant, an Englishman looking for the alchemy secrets of turning lead into gold, a desert girl who immediately becomes the love of his life, and finally the larger than life character of the Alchemist, a desert warrior of enormous strength and wisdom.

The Alchemist is all about the individual pursuit of destiny and a specific purpose in life. The story successfully highlights the personal initiative essential to fulfill life's goals, the many decision forks on the path of life, and the calculated risks required to advance. The story also links the personal with the spiritual, weaving with strong thread the unifying relationship between humans, nature, and the oneness of the world.

Coelho does not have much time for metaphors and innuendo: he spells out concepts like Personal Legend; the Language of the World, and the Soul of the World in Capital Letters to emphasize that This Is An Important Concept. As a result The Alchemist emits the heavy thud of a snorting rhinoceros rather than the intriguing thoughtfulness of a softly hooting owl. The lack of a light touch continues to a finale that befits a special-effects laden Hollywood spectacle, along with a matching joyfully happy ending just before the credits roll.

The translation by Alan R. Clarke keeps the story moving briskly, with simple language that ensures accessibility to younger readers who may benefit most from the book's message.

The Alchemist is a reminder not to surrender to a mundane life without at least checking to see if destiny offers a more intriguing option.

167 pages.
Published in paperback by HarperFlamingo.

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