"The Alchemist"

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

I've heard a lot of good things about this book and went into it with high expectations, but I was disappointed. Far from changing my life as many reviewers said it would, it left me feeling, well, nothing. It wasn't the plot or the writing, or even the moral of the story. It's simply that the truth in this story is tangled up with so much that is false, it lost all meaning for me.

The book does make some good points. We should have goals in life and work hard to achieve them. Obstacles will arise and we shouldn't quit just because it gets hard. Our choices will have a profound effect on our lives. Indeed parts of the book are very inspiring. When the author tells us to follow our dreams, we recognize there's some truth in the words and feel encouraged.

There is a problem though with some of the 'wisdom' here. For example: "When you want something, all the universe conspires to help you achieve it." He cannot be serious. It's a nice thought, but let's be realistic. Around the age of two most of us learn that the universe is not always going to help us get what we want. And it's a good thing because most of us at times want things that are not at all good for us. There are good people with great dreams worth fighting for, but there are also people like Hitler. He had a dream and I'm very, very glad the universe did not conspire to help him achieve it.

I found the author's view of God confusing. He seems to speak from a mix of different religious beliefs, with some new age blind optimism thrown in. His is a God that aligns His wants with yours instead of the other way around. Not the "God living within you" of Christianity but the "I am god" of today's spiritual wishful thinking. 

The main character, Santiago, has a dream (an actual nighttime dream) of finding riches and takes that to be his destiny. Hmmm. If we all chose our destinies from our dreams...yikes! (Just imagine all the people who actually would end up naked at work.). Not all our dreams can be trusted. I know God can and does speak through dreams. I'm just saying let's not assume a dream is God  pointing us to our destiny when it might be just some convoluted part of our own consciousness speaking.   

On behalf of females everywhere, I'm less than impressed that the destiny of Santiago's girlfriend seems to be sitting in the desert waiting for him to return. Why wasn't she given a dream to follow? Are we being told that it's the destiny of women to fall in line with a man's dream and just wait, hoping he will one day include her in his journey? Seriously?

I found the book full of thoughtless platitudes like "the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself". I suppose that's true if your fears are small, like going to the dentist or asking your boss for a raise, but don't tell a parent that fear of losing a child is worse than losing one. Don't tell a dying man that fear of disease is worse than having it. Trite statements like this one are not helpful and only insult those who are actually suffering.

And then there's this: "no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of it's dreams"? Think about it. Think about the thousands of children who grow up with a dream of winning Olympic gold. Do we dare promise them their hearts will never suffer trying to fulfill those dreams, when the hard truth is that very few will make it and those who don't will have their hearts broken for a time? Of course we should encourage anyone who sets out to follow their dreams, and hopefully when they are heartsick over setbacks or failure they will recover and move on, but let's face it, there will be suffering.

The author must think his readers naive if he expects them to believe "every search begins with beginner's luck". It's like those saccharine tv movies we watch at Christmas, you know, the ones that end with a peek at Santa making his way across the sky in his sleigh, reassuring us that, yes, there really is a Santa Clause. That's nice if you're five years old and you still believe, but the truth eventually does have to be faced. You can't count on Santa Clause, and you can't count on beginner's luck.

I found a lot to disagree with in this book, but I'm not sorry I read it, even though by the end I felt almost buried under all the slightly smug profundity. I probably won't read any more from this author, because I think he's selling false hope and leading people to believe what will only bring them disappointment in the long run. His message is a popular one; we are being bombarded these days with the idea that we are all so special we should expect to be catered to, that our wonderful selves should be our first priority. I know how tempting that is to believe, but there is no wisdom in believing what is not true. We are not gods, and our wanting something will never mean the whole universe is going to conspire to help us achieve it. That doesn't mean we are on our own though. There is a God who will help us, but that's when we make Him our first priority and not ourselves. He is God; we are not.


Anonymous said...

Excellent review! I read this book a few weeks ago and was unable to articulate my thoughts on it.


Kathy said...

I felt exactly the same way about this book. I think I'm paraphrasing author Christopher Moore when I say "you can roll crap in rhinestones until it shines, but inside it's still crap." (He was referring to Las Vegas, but I think it applies here too). Coelho's writing may not really be comparable to rhinestones, but it's even worse--we are supposed to believe it's some kind of priceless treasure. I just had to wonder how many people who read The Alchemist only see the treasure and don't notice it's just a thin layer over the crap.

Eclectic Indulgence said...

I've read a few books by Coelho, and I have liked some (Veronika decides to die) and hated others (By the river pedra I sat down and wept), but this one left a lasting impression on me.

Once you get by all 'the secret' stuff and the God stuff there are still some good messages there. At the end of the day, what you desire may have been right next to you but the experience in getting there is the real treasure. How often do people travel all over the world searching for something only to find out that where they grew up is where they wanted to be all along. It's not unlike 'Candide' by Voltaire.

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