Ben Delicious writes from Rome: I’m honestly starting to believe that a lot of people either don’t read the books they buy or don’t bother to grasp the meaning of what they read. I have a feeling that they simply glance through the book, absentmindedly, and say afterwards that yes, they’ve read it and yes, they thought it was great. Because there could be no other explanation for some of the titles becoming international bestsellers and selling millions of copies while being very average and uninspiring. Or even totally misleading and false.
I’ve been hearing a lot of rubbish about The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Although it first came out about 20 years ago, launching Coelho’s career as a writer, for some reason it is now experiencing a revival and once again occupies the shelves at the front of bookshops. People have been telling me that it is very spiritual and enlightening and that its author, supposedly a devout Roman Catholic, has managed to create a beautiful story about a shepherd boy who searches for a hidden treasure in a distant land and, along the way, learns about the true meaning of life. The book, I am told, is considered to be a modern day classic and has inspired millions of people around the world.
I have to confess that I did glance through The Alchemist some years ago, but never really got round to reading it properly. But as it is now being talked about so much, again, I simply had to find out for myself what is so special about it. So this time I read the book carefully.
In one of his latest editions, in the foreword, Coelho mentions modestly that fans of The Alchemist include former US President Bill Clinton and film actress Julia Roberts. I don’t know about you, but for me the mention of these two names was not a good sign at all. Just like it was not a good sign that on the back cover material girl Madonna was quoted as saying that it was a beautiful novel. These are not exactly the sort of people whose taste in literature you should trust. Or pretty much in anything else for that matter.
Having now read The Alchemist I have this to say: I have rarely read anything more pretentious and misleading. It turned out that Coelho has a very strange perception of what religion and faith are about, very strange indeed. At times I even had a feeling that this man has never actually opened the Bible in his whole life – so naive and confusing were his insights into the religious understanding of life and the place of a human being in it. In fact, many of the messages in the book smacked of paganism: for example, the assertion that everything in this world, even stones and grains of sand, have a soul. This is as far away from Christianity as you can get. This is bordering on black magic and the occult, I would say.
One of the central characters in the book, the mysterious alchemist, is a man who supposedly knows a lot about the true meaning of life. He has uncovered the secret of turning ordinary metals, like lead and copper, into gold and has developed the elixir of life. He encourages the main character, the boy Santiago, to search for his destiny, to listen to his heart and pay attention to the omens that appear along the way.
I do not know what Coelho knows about alchemy but he must have heard that it has nothing to do with Christianity and that in the eyes of Christians, alchemists dabble in devil worship. That’s why all the supposedly wise and deeply spiritual things that the alchemist says in the book sound very sinister. Coelho could just as well have chosen a pawnbroker or a money lender as his central character and attempted to turn him into a wise spiritual preacher.
And then of course the boy, Santiago, who is conveniently made a shepherd in the book to draw the obvious parallels, is not at all convincing as someone who strives to understand the true meaning of life. He goes to see a Gypsy woman, who tells him that he would find a great treasure. He would have probably not believed her but he then, very conveniently, bumps into a strange man, who calls himself the King of Salem and who confirms that his destiny lies in finding a treasure among the pyramids of Egypt. From that moment onwards we hear a lot about people’s destinies, about the Soul of the World, the Language of the Universe and other strange and meaningless things. At times it seems that Coelho keeps on bringing up these mystical themes simply to liven up the otherwise boring narrative.
The weakest point about the book is its primitive and unimaginative story line. In essence, there is no plot. It is just a sequence of events, tied very loosely to each other, that eventually lead the boy shepherd to his very material treasure. The characters are mostly two-dimensional and uninspiring.
I’m sorry, but The Alchemist has left me absolutely cold. It is confusing and misleading and, instead of promoting a high theme of a man’s determination to find out what his purpose in life is, it actually praises the very material basic needs of human beings. You could even say that it is a hymn to capitalism with its endless pursuit of wealth. Spiritual and enlightening it isn’t.
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