There is no frigate like a book / to take us lands away,” wrote Emily Dickinson. Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is one such frigate, blown up to the extraordinary proportions of the Titanic. And like the Titanic, it sinks.
From Coelho’s introduction to the English translation of the book, it is clear that his intention is to move his readers – and move them he does, although purely in the geographical sense of the word. Following the poor shepherd-boy, Santiago, from the hills of Andalusia around half the Mediterranean basin to Egypt and back again on his quest for treasure, this reader, at least, felt as touched as a housewife watching the latest episode of The Days of Our Lives.
Simply put, The Alchemist is a thinly-disguised self-help book, a fairy tale for all those of us who are, for whatever reason, not living the lives we once imagined for ourselves. Rather than offer some new kernel of wisdom, however, Coelho slinks back into the old clichés, encouraging us to listen to our hearts and trust Providence. “The Universe is conspiring in our favor,” he assures us, “even though we may not understand how.”
Thus the Universe continually sends “omens” to guide Santiago on his way. Sleeping under a sycamore tree with his herd one night, he dreams of treasure buried at the base of the Pyramids, and, encouraged by a king masquerading as a poor old man and a gypsy, sets off on his journey. Along the way, he learns to speak with the wind, meets the love of his life, and discovers the Soul of the Universe, thus fulfilling his Personal Legend. And, as a bonus, he eventually finds his treasure back under that sycamore tree in Spain.
But, Coelho insists, it’s not all about finding chests filled with golden coins at the end of the rainbow. Having dug up the treasure, Santiago looks up at the sky and asks why he had to endure the hardships of the desert only to end up where he started. “If I had told you,” he hears the wind answer, “you wouldn’t have seen the Pyramids. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”
This master of clothing great ‘concepts’ in literal garb thus shows Santiago’s journey as an ‘awakening’ from the quite real dream, and – drum roll, please – as a metaphor for the journey that is life. He keeps the Biblical symbols (shepherds, wandering, Egypt), coats them in New Age spirituality (listening to your heart, heeding omens, pursuing your Personal Legend), and applies the whole to the matrix of Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (the boy-redeemer who wakes the narrator – or in this case, the reader – from his spiritual stupor and the many stations of his journey filled with – surprise! – greedy merchants and strange kings).
The result is a potent brew for desperate people, but one that acts counter to the author’s professed intention. The Alchemist is not a book that gives readers “the courage to confront [their] dreams.” Instead, it soothes their pain. The watered-down concoction it offers readers is religion-lite, a way to feel good about life without facing any of those truly terrifying questions.
So what is the meaning of life, we ask shakily. To live out our Personal Legends, Coelho answers. Why do good people suffer, we go on. Because sometimes suffering is just part of the journey, Coelho reassures. (Santiago is heavily beaten by thieves right before he discovers the treasure’s true location.) And why do books like The Alchemist sometimes sell so well? The master asks himself the same question in his introduction before confessing, “I don’t know.”
I’ll venture a guess, though. Bad books like The Alchemist sell so well because they satisfy a need left behind by the ebbing away of traditional faith. They provide spirituality without the work, religion without the sacrifice. They are like a form of communion – but with cookies instead of wafers and milk instead of wine. And where communion might leave you with fear, trembling, and a pinch of indigestion, The Alchemist will leave you happily bestride your spirit animal, wiping fat crumbs from your mouth.