Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Book Review: The Alchemist

The Alchemist The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

My rating: 1 of 5 stars
There are two ways to look at The Alchemist: as a work of literature and as a moral fable. Unfortunately, and despite its astonishing popularity, it doesn't score well on either count.

I won't bore you with the plot details, but in a nutshell: Santiago the Spanish shepherd boy leaves his known life behind to search for his "Personal Legend" in the deserts of north Africa. En route he encounters various characters, such as the titular Alchemist, who help him on his way, if a rambling series of cliches masquerading as philosophical wisdom can be considered helpful.

As a work of literature, it's trite, redundant and its dramatic elements are very weak. Instead of a protagonist who must grow, change, learn or overcome obstacles to achieve a goal we have one who knows, or is given, the answer to every dilemma as soon as it's posed, and who is basically led by the nose directly to his target by no less an authority than God himself, thinly disguised as "the Universe". No dramatic tension is allowed to linger for more than half a page before being forcibly resolved.

The Alchemist has been compared to The Little Prince. But whereas the latter's simplicity is charming, the former's is merely infantilizing. In Saint-Exupéry's incomparably superior novella the lessons are hard-earned. In The Alchemist, they are spoon-fed to the characters and to the reader in the manner of a church sermon, using mystical psychobabble terms like "The Soul of the World", "Master Work", and of course "Personal Legend".

This patronizingly religious aspect of The Alchemist illustrates its even more comprehensive failure, that as a moral fable. The Little Prince draws its broadly-sketched caricatures with charm and empathy: we are supposed to learn from the king, the lamplighter and so on, but we are not supposed to despise them. The Alchemist, however, can scarcely contain its disdain for those who don't drop everything to follow their so-called Personal Legend.

As an example, I give you this insidious passage:

The old man pointed to a baker standing in his shop window at one corner of the plaza. “When he was a child, that man wanted to travel, too. But he decided first to buy his bakery and put some money aside. When he’s an old man, he’s going to spend a month in Africa. He never realized that people are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.”

“He should have decided to become a shepherd,” the boy said.

“Well, he thought about that,” the old man said. “But bakers are more important people than shepherds. Bakers have homes, while shepherds sleep out in the open. Parents would rather see their children marry bakers than shepherds.” “In the long run, what people think about shepherds and bakers becomes more important for them than their own Personal Legends.”

Get it? A hardworking man who puts bread on people's plates and supports his own family with dignity, is now worthy of nothing but pity and disdain because he didn't follow a childhood dream.

And then there's this brazen claim:

"Everyone believes the world's greatest lie..." says the mysterious old man.

"What is the world's greatest lie?" the little boy asks.

The old man replies, "It's this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That's the world's greatest lie."

Coelho fails to acknowledge that this pursuit of "Personal Legend" is a plaything of the privileged few. How does a 14 year old boy living hand-to-mouth in an Indonesian sweatshop follow his dream? How does he even articulate one? In what way can a rape survivor in a Darfur refugee camp, follow her "Personal Legend"? Her "Legend" is not to travel or find treasure. It is to have her dead family back. It's to undo her terrible violation. It is, in short, tragic and impossible.

The lives of most of humanity, are to a great degree controlled by fate. Their life is a struggle to survive. The real universe does not conspire to help people achieve their legend. Rather, it throws insurmountable obstacles across their paths. Yet Coelho is telling every downtrodden person in the world that their plight is due to their own spiritual failure, and that to see the world as it is, without the rose-tinted spectacles of empty truisms, is "the world's greatest lie". The Alchemist sneers with the certainty of a true believer at those whose priorities are hardscrabble rather than mystical. It is the well-known condescension of the religious absolutist to the unbeliever: I am right, and you are unworthy.

There is much to criticize, also, in The Alchemist's blatant sexism, where men are supposed to drop everything in search of their dreams, while abandoned women are supposed to feel privileged to pine for such men. And if you're expecting the treasure that the shepherd boy eventually finds to be metaphorical, prepare for disappointment. Turns out, it was all about money.

In the end, The Alchemist is morally deficient nearly to the point of outright evil. Stripped of the mystical mumbo jumbo, The Alchemist is almost Ayn Randian in the selfishness of its absolute commandment: follow your own personal destiny, whatever it is, whatever the cost to you or to others. Although, in a way, it's actually more slavish than selfish. At least in Ayn Rand's world, you master your destiny. In Coelho's world of religious prostration, your destiny masters you.

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Yael said...

Thank you for writing that. I hated that book and can't believe how many people think its brilliant.