“I don’t live in either my past or my future. I’m interested only in the present. If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living now,” writes Paulo Coelho in his best-selling allegorical novel, The Alchemist.
Readers follow the journey of a young Andalusian shepherd, Santiago, who has the recurring dream of promised treasure in the Egyptian pyramids. After some hesitation, he sells his flock and starts his journey to seek riches. Along the way, he meets Fatima, with whom he falls in love, and becomes the apprentice to the Alchemist, who can turn metal into gold.
The Alchemist holds the Guinness World Record for the most-translated book by a living author, having been printed in 71 languages in addition to its original Portuguese version. Frankly, it’s not a work of pure literary genius comparable to Franzen or Eggers, and Coelho did not set out to write the next literary masterpiece. Coelho aimed to tell a tale of how to live one’s life, and has succeeded: The Alchemist seems to have found a niche in the self-help book market. Its celebrity fans include Will Smith, Bill Clinton, and Madonna.
At points in the novel, cliches appear in earnest; for example, Coelho writes: “The simple things are also the most extraordinary things.” He espouses the idea of following a Personal Legend, or a goal that one is instinctively driven to achieve, despite the hardships one may face along the way. By blatantly stating these oft-repeated ideals, Coelho weakened the message of the work as a whole.
Additionally, one must suspend disbelief while reading, because while The Alchemist is intended to be a parable, some elements are purely fantastical and cannot be taken seriously. In this story, Coelho includes premonitions, an alchemist, and a boy who learns to turn himself into the wind in order to defeat his enemies. Readers unprepared for elements like these will find themselves lambasting the plot, instead of listening to the message.
The Alchemist coaxes us to return to a way of thinking with child-like wonder – and it is definitely a great read for the disillusioned.