The Alchemist

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The AlchemistThe Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Published: 1988
Translated by: Alan R. Clarke (from Portuguese in 1993)
Length: 167 pages

I’ve been hearing about this one for a long time now. At first I was excited to get to it, but as the years passed I started thinking it probably wasn’t for me. My girlfriend had a copy, though, and really loves the book, so I thought I’d give it a go.

This is the story of a young Shepard who discovers that his Personal Legend is to travel to the Egyptian pyramids to find his fortune. He is met at the beginning of the book by a king who tells him that if you want something bad enough, the universe will help make it happen. The boy sells his sheep, catches a boat from his home country of Spain down to Morocco and eventually sets out to cross the Sahara on course to Egypt.

This is written very simply in the style of a fable, which is something that often puts me off, but in this novel it worked quite well. It gives it a surreal tone, and the rhythm of how the story is told is almost mesmerizing. It really made me want to keep reading.

And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.

I knew the novel was never going to live up to its outrageous hype, so I tried to go in with that attitude. Anything described as life-changing puts me a bit on edge. My life remains seemingly unaltered, but I get why the idea of believing in a Personal Legend resonates with people. When you are so focused on accomplishing something it can feel at times like the universe is helping you along. I think it’s very similar to believing that writing affirmations down each morning will magically re-align the universe in your favour. I think both beliefs can be extremely beneficial, but not because they invoke otherworldly powers.

Both ideas involve setting a tangible goal and staying focused on it. If it’s constantly at the forefront of your mind, you’ll naturally head in that direction. You’ll make small unconscious decisions towards your goal, and those will lead to opportunities you may have otherwise overlooked, which you’ll be able to take advantage of at a moment’s notice because you’ll have already put the thought in. It’s like how you’re always told to look to where you want to go when learning to snowboarding or mountain bike. If you stare at a tree you don’t want to hit instead of down the trail, you’ll end up hitting that tree. You won’t even realize why, your body will just naturally turn you in that direction, so it’s important to focus down the path.

Personal Legends, or affirmations, are the same concept in my mind – just a focal point to move towards. It always bothers me a little that some people are so eager to pass off their own accomplishments to mysterious or higher powers. Take credit for it, even if you don’t fully understand every step you took. It’s more than a little self-centered to think the universe is bending to your will.

Making a decision was only the beginning of things. When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to the places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decisions.

Despite this gripe, which really is easy to look past while reading, the core values in this book are great – believe in yourself, control your own fate, don’t let fear keep you from happiness, pursue your dreams, and enjoy the journey. I think if I had read this in my early twenties, I would probably be a lot more in love with it, but it did still provide a lot to think about. I fear I’m probably more crystal merchant than I am alchemist these days.

Even if you don’t completely connect with the philosophy behind the book, it’s still an interesting read and a fun story of a boy on an epic journey, which I can always get behind.

2 thoughts on “The Alchemist

  1. Geoff W

    Coelho has a way of doing this to you. So many of his books touch on religion and spirituality and even question them, but they don’t necessarily advocate or proselytize about them. There’s something so simple in his storytelling and the way he talks about incredibly complex topics is fascinating. I wish I could read the original Portuguese to see if the original is as simple, I’ve got two I haven’t read that are in Spanish I’m going to try at some point in the future.

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    1. Rob Post author

      He did handle that really well. Once I saw the religious connection I was worried it would turn preachy, but it really didn’t.

      That’s always the issue with translations, isn’t it? But I have a feeling the simple prose was probably part of the original. I think I’ll likely pick up another of his novels, not sure which yet, but I’m interested to see if they are similarly translated.

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