The minivan next to us sported the “Coexist” bumper sticker—you know, the one where the “c” is a crescent, the “o” is a star of David, and the “t” is a cross. It was an appropriate companion for our drive back from Christmas vacation as I read aloud The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I enjoy a number of South American writers, and Coelho’s books have sold more than 65 million copies, so I had high hopes. But it turns out that Coelho is the Brazilian Mitch Albom, producer of bland, preachy morality stories that inexplicably appeal to the book-buying public. I didn’t enjoy Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven, though I understood why readers resonated with the we’re-all-necessary-to-somebody a la “It’s a Wonderful Life” theme. But The Alchemist isn’t a feel-good story; it’s a syncretistic self-help manual masquerading as a quest novel.
The plot can be summarized as follows: Santiago, a young Spanish shepherd, gives 10 percent of his flock to an old man who identifies himself as Melchizedek, king of Salem, in exchange for instructions on how to realize his “Personal Legend.” In response to a dream, Santiago sells the rest of his flock to buy passage to Egypt to search for hidden treasure, and along the way meets a crystal merchant, an English scholar, a beautiful woman, and an alchemist, who teach him “The Language of the World.”
It’s hard to pin down Coelho’s religious worldview. The characters use the Urim and Thummin, the Hebrew divination stones. They quote Jesus and the Qur’an. They call on the sun to make them one with the wind. “There is a force that wants you to realize your Personal Legend,” Melchizedek tells Santiago. From the Englishman’s books, the boy learns that “all things are the manifestation of one thing only.” The young woman explains that the desert men sometimes don’t return from the sands, and “those who don’t return become a part of the clouds, a part of the animals that hide in the ravines and of the water that comes from the earth. They become a part of everything… they become the Soul of the World.” Coelho, in an interview with Belief.net, calls himself Catholic, but immediately states that “in the end all religions tend to point to the same light.” Santiago reflect his creator’s sentiment, when he says of the Englishman, “Everyone has his or her own way of learning things…His way isn’t the same as mine, nor mine as his. But we’re both in search of our Personal Legends, and I respect him for that.” Just as the alchemist can turn lead into gold over the fire since all is illusion and all elements are one, Coelho’s spiritualism melts Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and neo-Platonism into a pot of relativist vapor.
A Booklist review claims, “Beneath this novel’s compelling story and the shimmering elegance with which it’s told lies a bedrock of wisdom about following one’s heart.” The problem is that the “bedrock of wisdom” isn’t beneath the story at all; the text is a string of blatant aphorisms like: “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only real obligation” and “When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of” and “Never stop dreaming; follow the omens.” Santiago’s quest is just a backdrop to the author’s agenda.
Coelho does have poetic gifts, and there are nuances in the details of characters and setting; but instead of letting us discover them for ourselves, he tells us outright what we are supposed to “get out” of the story. The HarperCollins edition I have even includes an introduction in which Coelho defines the four obstacles to following our dreams and declares that we must overcome them so we can “become an instrument of God” and “help the Soul of the World.” I can’t think of another novel that announces its “intentions” so clearly. (Nor do I understand why it has any in the first place; good literature is such because it accurately reflects the human experience, not because it has a moral or agenda. This is my issue with most of what passes as “Christian fiction.” But that’s for another post.)
So despite its “international bestselling phenomenon” status, I was thoroughly disappointed with the literary quality and the gushing religious pluralism. Another of Coelho’s books is titled Warrior of the Light: A Manual; I wonder what distinguishes that book from The Alchemist.
I suspect Coelho’s readers will either strongly agree or strongly disagree with my assessment. So… what do you think? Leave your “loved the book” or “hated the book” comment here, and please include a sentence or two explaining why.