The Alchemist is a modern day fable by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, published in 1988. Originally written in Portuguese, it has been translated into 80 languages around the world. While many of this blog’s regular followers have probably read this book or have at least heard of it, I thought a review of this book would be a fitting closure to 2021 as we approach the last few weeks in the year.
Many reviewers have called this book magical. But what really attracted me to multiple re-reading of this book is the profound wisdom to navigating the world around us, that is hidden underneath the adventures of the protagonist, Santiago. The fable is not just rich in allegory but also eminently practical.
The boy-hero of the story is revealed to be a wandering shepherd at the beginning of the story. The main themes of the book are centered around journeying in search of one’s true destiny and persevering in the quest inspite of the hurdles that the boy encounters. Several quotes in the tale are now legendary and regularly feature in Ted Talks and corporate motivational speeches around the world.
“When you really want something to happen, the entire universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”
“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.”
“The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.”
“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”
“I don’t live in either my past or my future. I’m interested only in the present. If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living now.”The Alchemist
The multitude of life lessons aside, the story also introduces the concept of the Soul of the World. This theory alludes to how a single person’s happiness, ideas and disappointments go towards nourishing this soul of the world. The story clearly lays out the idea that a person’s purpose in life centers on fulfilling one’s dreams culminating in achievement of one’s personal destiny. If you think all of this strikingly sounds similar to religious discourses around the world, you aren’t alone. For me, I couldn’t stop wondering how this sounded eerily similar to achievement of one’s swadharma which is superior to the commonly understood dharma as depicted in the Bhagavad Gita.
The characters in the book are by turns, realistic, fatalistic, awe-inspiring or even grandiose in their understandings of the soul of the world. The crystal merchant and the baker in the story are aware of the immense possibilities that following their dreams could inspire and are yet, painfully satisfied in trading up such possibilities for a comfortable life. Melchizedek, the king is at once immensely wise and mildly conceited. Fatima, his lady love, inspires him to follow his destiny and the titular Alchemist leads him on his destined path. The camel driver’s earthy explanation of fear and his travelling companion, the Englishman’s inability to perceive the omens around him all add to the central aura of mystique.
According to the story, the hand of god that writes a person’s life story also writes the history of the world. Every person’s life plays a part in the larger world around him, a part that the person is usually unaware of. Realizing this wouldn’t prevent a person from suffering, but would take away the fear of such suffering. This insight becomes Santiago’s driving factor in learning to stop fearing failure and to trust in the omens he sees.
What works for the book?
Everything works for the book! This book is unforgettable and it keeps you reminding of this fact with each re-reading. But below are a few nuggets that I particularly liked:
- The alchemist’s quotes! Self explanatory.
“What you still need to know is this: before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that was learned along the way. It does this not because it is evil, but so that we can, in addition to realizing our dreams, master the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve moved toward that dream. That’s the point at which, as we say in the language of the desert, one ‘dies of thirst just when the palm trees have appeared on the horizon.’
“Every search begins with beginner’s luck. And every search ends with the victor’s being severely tested.”
2. The alchemist’s explanation of why the underlying journey towards one’s destiny is as important as fulfillment of that destiny. Thus fulfilling one’s destiny consists not just in reaching the final goal, but also in learning the mysteries of the universe in that journey. He cites the example of aspiring alchemists who never fulfilled their destiny because they interfered in the destiny of an inanimate metal, lead. While Santiago, travels from Spain to Africa, and across the Sahara to the pyramids, only to learn that the treasure he seeks lies in the same spot where he began his journey, his wanderings weren’t useless. Rather they were instrumental in shaping his transformation into a boy who could perform miracles, a boy who could read omens and communicate with the elements, and even to turn himself into the wind.
The digital version of the book can be bought here.