Friday, August 22, 2008

The Alchemist

Summary (Mild Spoilers)
Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd, has recurring dreams of finding a treasure in Egypt. He embarks on a journey to seek that treasure that takes him over the moors and the desert sands and he meets many spiritual advisers on the way. A fortune teller, an old man in disguise, an Englishman who is interested in Alchemy, a shop keeper who sells crystal, desert tribes’ men and warriors. And of course the alchemist. Even the sands and the camel acts as his spiritual path finders on his journey to Egypt to find his treasure a.k.a his Personal Legend. Through his adventures, Santiago makes discoveries about himself and the world and finds about the Language Of The World and the Soul Of The World.

What worked for me
The title. The title is intriguing, as is the location. Spain and North Africa conjure up mystery and certain inscrutability. Descriptions of the landscape. I enjoyed them and dreamt of jumping on a plane to see Andalusia and Algiers and even traveling in a caravan across the desert.

What did not work for me
Whatever else remains. I think the book is a bit heavy-handed. For a fable it is very long and not surprisingly redundant. I am a big fan of “show-not-tell” style of writing. This book shows very little, but tries to tell a lot. Which gives a feeling that the author is trying to dumb down the book for his readers. Also, where allegories go, there is a certain thrill in “discovering” the allegory which is completely lost here. He lays down the symbols, decodes them for you and then gives his own interpretation all nicely bundled up and tied with a pink ribbon. In my opinion, spiritual themes never go redundant. But when a book like this comes along, it gives a feeling that it is nothing more than recycled spiritual material. The thrill is in finding out the message. If it is laid out plainly, it becomes a sermon, which is what this book boils down to. Also, a good allegory, I think, is a mirror. You see yourself in the symbolism, here I saw only Santiago.

I also had problems with how Coelho defines “Personal Legend”. Is it what you are destined to do? Or deserve to do? Or eventually end up doing? What about responsibility? This book had so much potential. But the seed never quite germinated here. Coelho lays it on thick. On every page. Syrupy Spirituality. I cringed when he described in detail the meeting between a mysterious warrior on the horse in the Oasis and Santiago and ended the narration with this – “He had met the Alchemist?” I, a novice writer could have done a better job of that.

Hot Or Drop
If you like pop spirituality, then this is for you. If you think you can enjoy Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, at this point in your life, read this book. I read Jonathan Livingston when I was 13 and was enamored by it. I think I will pass that book now. If you have read the Little Prince by Antione St.Exupery, definitely drop this book. The Little Prince is in a whole different league. And if you haven’t read the Little Prince and don’t think you will enjoy Jonathan Livingston Seagull at this point in your life, I would recommend heading out to the library and reading The Little Prince instead of the Alchemist. Or pick up Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. That’s a good read too.


rayshma said...

i read the alchemist before the little prince and after seagull... both when i was quite young.
and yeah, at that point of time, i was enamored by it. totally. so i do maintain that i liked the book. but today, i'll pass both. maybe i've grown up.. maybe i've passed that stage. i somehow, can't appreciate these books today.
but the little prince was and will remain a fave. along with alice in wonderland! :)

rayshma said...

p.s.: i think dumbing down this book was a good idea. i would never have understood it when i read it first otherwise :D
it's a good book to inculcate the habit of reading amongst those who don't read. :D

Suki said...

The Little Prince is beautiful. But well... I haven't outgrown Seagull yet, I think. It still mesmerized me last time I read it. For me, it's the book I'll go back to when I'm completely down and out and can't bring myself to read a word. That's when I want straight stuff, that I don't have to think about too much to get the moral out of. And the illustrations are sheer poetry.
I read The Alchemist once.. again in one of my down and out phases. Rather liked it. But then I tried another Coelho - The Zahir - and it really annoyed me. I just couldn't agree with its philosophy. But I guess there are a lot of people who would like it.

eve's lungs said...

Dot ! No I still could not read the book - however I did enjoy your write up. BTW The Little Prince with its quaint illustrations has been a long time favourite with me as have the Anna books . Bach 's Seagull was a cult favourite when I was very young - the concept is lovely ..

PG said...

I wanted to read the alchemist, but now after reading this I might think twice. I just love The Little Price, which was actually given to me by my French friend. And it is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read.
I have read very few books on the whole. If there was something I was greedy about when I was young was books, but somehow never got to read so many. I am thinking of finally getting a library membership and start reading more regularly.

Mira's mom said...

Hey, read this long back so don't have very clear recollection about it. But, have to agree....I always felt that the book was a bit too over-rated. Will definitely read the little Prince.

karmickids said...

Award for you on karmickids.

Orchid said...

for almost the same reasons u mention, the alchemist did not work for me either!little that's different :)

Mama - Mia said...


i think dumbing down is new way of selling your bookings and we hope that it might turn some into readers!

lot like Chetan Bhagat's crap that passes off as novel these days! people who have never read a book cabn say maine ek puri novel padhi hai! :p

i anywayz gave this a skip!



Mystic Margarita said...

Love your review. :) Yes, the question of responsibility is a dicey one..

DotThoughts said...

rayshma: lol @ dumbing down perspective. Never thought of it that way!

suki: haven't read the seagull in a long time.

eve's lungs: Anna books? what are those?

pg: I just don't have the time to read the books I want to read. So many books, so lil time!

mira's mom: do read the lil prince. its an unforgettable book!

karmic kids: thanks!

orchie: Another fan, here :)

mama-mia: I ahevt to read this chetan bhagat. heard lotsa people dissing him :)

mystic: do a post on it, pliss

Ankita said...

I've read The Alchemist, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and The Prince. Loved the Alchemist and Jonathan.. Didn't quite get the Prince, read it years ago! Maybe will try it out again sometime..
But there's definitely this one Hindi book, Kashi Marnanmukti that I'd like to share.. Discussing all these books reminded me of this one..

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