Saturday, February 02, 2008

Novel: The Alchemist

(1988) Paulo Coelho

This book is labeled ‘a fable about following your dream’. It seems fables are not intended to be subtle. This story is strictly told, not experienced. It reads much like biblical scripture. And in fact the content is often biblical in nature – concerning God and souls and such.
A young shepherd, Santiago, has a dream and then encounters omens directing him to follow his dream. The journey is a fascinating one filled with arcane mysticism and life lessons.

Key are such concepts as the Soul of the World and the Universal Language.

I must assume that Coelho has more on his agenda then the spinning of a tall tale for the sake of a story (though I can’t rule it out). And I must assume that he doesn’t actually believe in the mystical explanations he gives for everything – at least not at face value. The alchemic formula preached here collapses utterly in the light of reality. However – the actual advice, according to my living experience, does hold up. Furthermore we can treat the story metaphorically, substituting the philosopher’s stone for matter; the elixir of life for cellular organization; God for enlightenment; fate and destiny for cause-and-effect and natural justice and so on and so on. And in doing so the allegory works for me.

But allegories are slippery and devious. For all I know Coelho may have intended an allegory that mirrors separate concepts entirely. And another reader might map it to something different yet again.

Regardless, to me it begs the question, Why does an author choose allegory? I know why I would. I would do it to trick the reader into accepting my opinion on an issue by mapping all of its elements to a different issue on which I’d base the story. There the enlightened opinion would be obvious and would map favorably back to the original (covert) issue. Though I’ve been tempted, I’ve never yet done this. It strikes me as devious.

It so happens I’m currently working on a relatively short novel that is all about life lessons and finding peace etcetera. But I was never tempted to filter my story through a mask of spirituality or mysticism as I’ve witnessed respectively in The Five People You Meet in Heaven and The Alchemist.

So let’s assume for the moment that The Alchemist’s formula is allegorically based on Coelho’s authentic wisdom. Why does he choose allegory rather than spit out the real deal?

Is it that the real deal doesn’t make for compelling story material?

Or is the real deal simply too much for the average reader who isn’t inclined toward the intellectual tenacity required to work through it all? Is it thus too much for the average person to access? And rather than have them despair in their failure to understand, we masquerade realities in the robes of gods or wizards or alchemists or such and in the light of the supernatural it’s okay to not understand? So the dull masses can accept the guidance that concerns the ruling forces of their lives without stumbling through all the fine print? Because gods and stars and such cannot be questioned. You simply subscribe and obey. Faith and trust. Easy peasy.

Is that the purpose of priests and poets? To paint over our stark cold realities with shades palatable and incomprehensible so that everyone else can concentrate on keeping the big machine running and not be distracted?

I’m not saying that’s how it is. I’m just throwing out the question.

I recommend the book by the way. Another quick, easy, compelling read.

Some marvelous quotes:

We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it’s our life or our possessions and property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand.

I would add reputation to that list, as well as the human connections we addict ourselves to. Here’s another:

So that [only] those who have the responsibility for understanding can understand. Imagine if everyone went around transforming lead into gold. Gold would lose its value.

My favorite:

When you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed.



Anonymous said...

I'm a big Paulo Coelho's fan and I don't know if you heard about his blog
I've started as a fan and now I'm collaborating with him and thought that you would like to enter his universe.
Check the blog.
if you want, or subscribe to his newsletter
You'll see a community of warriors of light sharing ideas, dreams and most importantly following their personal legend.


We need to forget what we think we are, so that we can really become what we are.

Have a nice day!


Kathleen said...

Did you have the copy with the book report questions in the back? I read them and my head spun. It's been too long since I've put that much thought into something I've read.

Babs Gladhand said...

Love the post. I guess it's no surprise that I am one that enjoys reality. No matter how harsh or ugly.

Kat - Questions in the back? That's rather strange.

Sukhaloka said...

I liked the Alchemist when I read it, but that was a long time ago.
Then I read "The Zahir" and disagreed with everything I thought it said.

Why allegory? My answer would be - so that people can draw what they need out of it. Some things are so specific that they don't seem to apply to other scenarios. But broaden out that life lesson, turn it into fable or allegory, and it seems to work more often.

Disclaimer: most of the time, I don't make sense.

Fantasy Writer Guy said...

Aart - Great quote, and I will be around to check out your community.

Kats -- Book report questions? Weird. No. Not my copy.

Suki -- Your thoughts make perfect sense. Well said.

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