Knowing nothing about The Alchemist, I assumed this well-loved novel ran along the lines of other magician-themed stories, like The Prestige. I was certainly surprised! This modern fable is an allegorical tale wrapped up in a bildungsroman adventure about self-discovery and pursuing one’s dreams, no matter the cost.
Written by Paulo Coelho in 1988, The Alchemist is on the surface an epic quest about Santiago, a young shepherd in Andalusia, who has a dream about finding buried treasure near the Egyptian pyramids. When he has the exact same dream a second time, he asks a gypsy to interpret the meaning, and he is encouraged to pursue what emerges as his “personal legend” of finding his treasure. The boy encounters many setbacks as well as remarkable individuals along the way, such as Melchizedek — the ancient king of Salem — and of course the alchemist. While the alchemist can in fact turn lead into gold, he more importantly teaches Santiago the “Language of the World.” The ultimate result of Santiago knowing this language is to understand the “Soul of the World” and thereby learn to speak to and listen to his heart.
Magic and mysticism ripple through The Alchemist, which unites the conventions of the West with the wonders of the East. It centers thematically on the significance of fate, omens, love, spirituality, and most importantly the realization of dreams, with the desert serving as a fundamental symbol of the many trials that obstruct people seeking their “treasure.” Yet the desert illustrates that these trials also offer the necessary tools to bring dreams into fruition through their lessons.
The book contains many pithy quotes about following one’s heart and forsaking all for the prize of chasing a particular dream to achieve one’s destiny, no matter how absurd. In this story, people are always rewarded for never giving up: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
While, in the famous words of Winston Churchill, it is certainly a commendable exhortation in many respects to “never give in, never, never, never, never,” it did leave me wondering about the George Baileys of the world who again and again see their dreams thwarted through their selfless choices. In contrast to the message of The Alchemist, they sacrifice their hearts’ desires and forego the grand adventure of seeking their treasure in always choosing to do what is right for others. Listening to the heart and following its own desires is not always the same as finding one’s calling in life. Often, it is in giving up personal dreams that people fulfill their destiny.
My experience of this modern classic was greatly enhanced by the Folio Society’s recent luxurious edition, featuring the beautiful accompanying artwork of Jesús Cisneros. It utterly captures both the heart and the setting of this unusual and popular tale.