Book Review – The Alchemist

The Alchemist
by Paulo Coelho

1998 Harper Collins
(Originally published 1988 as ‘O Alquimista’ in Brazil
by Editora Rocco Ltd.)

“To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation.” — from The Alchemist

If it’s possible for a book to realize its own destiny The Alchemist has done so. Originally published in 1988, the book sold only 900 copies and seemed destined to dissolve into obscurity. But author Paulo Coelho didn’t give up. He believed his fable about a shepherd boy in search of treasure and knowledge carried a deeper meaning for those on a spiritual path. He believed his book had a destiny that would eventually influence millions worldwide. He focused on that belief, and that’s what manifested.

In spite of its weak initial sales, the book generated a small but enthusiastic readership. In 1993, HarperCollins published 50,000 copies of the book, which was the largest initial print ever run of a Brazilian book in the United States. It was then published in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, and eventually in 60 languages worldwide, finding slots in numerous international bestseller lists. In 2002, the Portuguese literary review, “Jornal de Letras”, the great authority on literature and the Portuguese literary market, declared that The Alchemist had sold more copies than any other book written in Portuguese in the entire history of the language. Now, with almost 30 million copies of the book sold worldwide, Paulo Coelho has realized something of his own destiny, and through the message of The Alchemist, has helped millions of others do the same.

Artists, musicians, actors, politicians, business leaders, doctors, scientists have all found something valuable in the pages of The Alchemist. Anthony Robbins says of The Alchemist, “I recommend it to anyone who is passionately committed to claiming the life of their dreams – today.” Madonna called the book, “a beautiful book about magic, dreams and the treasures we seek elsewhere and then find at our doorstep.” Author Gerald Jampolsky, M.D., said, “It is a rare gem of a book, and will most certainly touch the very core of every heart earnestly seeking its own destiny”

What is it about this little fable that has touched so many hearts and minds over the past 16 years?

The central theme of the book is the discovery of one’s “Personal Legend,” the set of experiences or realizations one is drawn to throughout life via the twisting, turning series of circumstances we all encounter. In Coelho’s vision, life is indeed a journey, and in The Alchemist, Santiago, the protagonist of the story, embarks on a physical, intellectual, and spiritual journey; a quest to fulfill his own Personal Legend.

As Santiago (referred to in the book almost always as “the boy”) comes to believe that his destiny is to locate a vast treasure hidden near the Great Pyramids in Egypt, he leaves behind the simplicity of his shepherding life, and sets out across the desert to find his treasure.

Along the way the boy meets a variety of characters; some are sympathetic to his venture to find his Personal Legend and his struggles to comprehend the mysteries of love, self-worth, and destiny. Others are less accommodating, and the boy is faced with learning several hard lessons about human nature, both individually and collectively. Refusing to allow himself to become hardened and cynical in spite of the challenges, the boy persists with his quest, constantly working to remain open to what the universe teaches him with each new experience along the way.

On the surface, The Alchemist reads like a fairy tale or children’s bedtime story. A few hasty readers have even criticized the book for being “too simplistic” or “not sophisticated enough.” While some people like to see profundity in the truly mundane, that is not the case with The Alchemist. Though simple in style, Coelho develops layers of the story that unfold their symbolic and allegorical meanings page by page. As with many of the most effective spiritual authors, Coelho is skilled at conveying basic truths within the context of human experience in a graceful, memorable way.

Above all, Coelho is an excellent storyteller. While the characters could not be called complex or vivid with respect to Coelho’s portrayal of them, the real characters of the story are not people at all, but rather elements of the quest, not just Santiago’s quest, but the common quest of those seeking out their own personal destinies and meanings in life. Faith, truth, self-worth, love, persistence, and the power of listening to our hearts and to the universe itself – these are the real characters of the story.

The Alchemist is an adventure of the heart, a parable of spiritual maturing and change, and Coelho is a master of blending an exotic sense of magic with an earthy, gritty depiction of life’s many challenges. The result is a mystical and poetic amalgam of human spirit, passion, and existential searching. Coelho is indeed a talented alchemist.

Much of the story takes place in the desert, a place archetypical of mystery and danger. Yet it is the relative emptiness of the desert, and other such places, that seems to force us to reflect on the landscape’s only seemingly significant feature: ourselves. Coelho allows the reader to be in constant contact with this self-reflecting process of Santiago and most readers will find themselves empathizing with the boy’s bouts of uncertainty, questions of self-worth, and fears. Though few of us will ever traverse the desert in search of treasure, we all have experienced something of Santiago’s journey none-the-less.

In spite of the daunting challenges Santiago faces – both from his external environment and from within his own heart – the book is compellingly hopeful, reminding us that the power to fulfill our dreams does not reside in some far-off land or at the end of a rainbow, but rather within us. The destination is the journey itself. Alchemy is more than a science of turning base metals into gold. It is the transformative process Santiago experiences during his remarkable journey; one we all are destined to experience if we will listen to our heart.

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