After my favorable experience with Jorge Luis Borges I decided to try another South American author. I’ve seen Paulo Coelho’s work around a lot so I set about finding one of his novels for sale. “The Alchemist” is his most popular and widely available book so I determined it would be a good place to start and now, after having read it, I’ve also determined it will be an excellent place to stop. And in this context excellent is not a compliment.
The story is about a boy, presumably in his mid to late teens, who is working as a shepherd in Europe. He has a dream of a treasure at the pyramids and after a conversation with a gypsy and a godlike old man decides that it is his Personal Legend to find this treasure. Hold on. What’s this? Did I capitalize “Personal Legend?” Why would I do such a thing? I mean neither “Personal” nor “Legend” are proper nouns or in “Personal’s” case even a noun. No, I capitalized “Personal Legend” because it was capitalized throughout the text of “The Alchemist” along with “Soul of the World,” “Language of the World,” and probably a few others phrases that I don’t care enough about to look up.
A few frivolous capitalizations may seem to be an odd thing to be upset about but these obnoxiously common out of place capitals are a good representation of everything that is wrong with the book. “The Alchemist” is as heavy handed as any book I have ever read. The story is an incredibly unsubtle allegory for following one’s dreams, the characters are one dimensional devices, only the most basic of words are used, the sentences are as inelegant and infantile as something one would find in a first grade reader and the worldview is naively simplistic and unbelievable. Then, after dealing with all those shortcomings, when I see a clumsy pseudo-meaningful phrase decked out with those gluttonous capital letters I feel like chucking “The Alchemist” at a wall. That’s covered with spikes. And on fire.
Okay, perhaps I’m exaggerating my reaction, but on the whole I found “The Alchemist” to be an incredibly frustrating read. There is something to be said for simplicity and I’m a big proponent of being straightforward, but this book takes all the downsides of these qualities and weaves them into a preachy tale aimed at the lowest common denominator. I don’t like to be completely negative so (Actually who am I kidding? I love writing scathing reviews and this love is pretty much the only reason I finished the book, but I refuse to cave into my ugly desires so here is something positive) I found two upsides to this book. The first is it seems this novella has helped people and no matter my own opinions on the book that is definitely a noble result. I also have to admit I found the prologue, a re-imagining of the story of Narcissus, to be very enjoyable and thought provoking two pages.
Overall this book was not for me and as a result I would never recommend it. “The Alchemist” is, however, an “international bestselling phenomenon” as the cover so boldly proclaims therefore someone, somewhere out there must think this book is pretty great. Whoever that is I don’t think I’ll be ever be able to understand so... three cheers for diversity I suppose. Or as Paulo Coelho would put it: Three Cheers for Diversity.