The magic of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist comes from its simplicity. It is a short, fun, and beginner-friendly book, guiding you through a magnificent and exotic journey in the great Sahara. The book is a must read for young adults, especially university students. If you read it with an open mind and not take it too literally, it can leave a positive impact.
Alchemy refers to the old art of transforming materials from one form to another. Thus, the book is a journey of following your calling and dreams; about adapting and transforming ourselves depending on the environment, while keeping our true essence. It suggests that life is a journey, not a specific destination to reach, and that following your dreams is worth the risk. According to the author, it is this path that makes life worth living.
The book’s simplicity, which is also its magic, is a double-edged sword. The style can feel childish to more advanced readers. If you critically analyze the plot and take it literally instead of metaphorically, you would find it silly, basic and fable-like. On the surface, it seems to give the message that any impossible dream is achievable by simply just wanting it very hard, without acknowledging how difficult it is to achieve, or the consequences of such decisions. Real life simply does not work this way; rock bottom exists. Additionally, following our desires blindly can often have disastrous consequences, as our best interests often do not align with our dreams. Since most humans have actual responsibilities that stop us from following these desires, adjusting or compromising them would offer better and happier solutions.
My biggest issue with the book is the claim that not knowing your destiny, and not realizing it, would make you a very unhappy and unsatisfied individual; and that achieving your dreams would make you very happy indeed. Examples from all around the world prove how wrong this assumption is, and the danger of believing such statements is not to be underestimated. For instance, the tragedy of Robin Williams and the midlife crisis of Jim Carey both prove that not everyone who realizes their dream finds happiness. On the other hand, my local barber is satisfied with his life, even though he gave up his dreams. His interactions with customers, having a nice family, and living in a warm house, gives him all the happiness and satisfaction he needs.
Coelho does a bad job explaining some of the terms and references that he borrowed from the cultures that the story existed within. A lot of the messages are lost if you aren’t familiar with the depth of certain words. For instance, the word “Maktub”, meaning it is written. Coming from a Middle Eastern background, I grew up hearing this word constantly, as my mother uses it all the time. Thus, I understood the depth this choice of language held, and its various meanings. However, a person who was not raised in a Middle Eastern culture would completely miss its true significance. The word refers to the state of acceptance to things that have happened, or things that are out of our control. It comes from the Islamic belief that Allah (god) has written all of your possible life lines. This helps us move on with life and not dread over what might have happened.
In order to get the most of the book, you must not take it seriously or literally, because each one of us has a different definition of happiness. For some individuals, having a very successful career would satisfy them, and for others, having a normal life with a nice family would do the job. Nevertheless, the book can leave helpful reminders if we get side-tracked in life.
Some of my favourite quotes from the book were:
- “And, when you can’t go back, you have to worry only about the best way of moving forward.”
- “You will never be able to escape from your heart. So it’s better to listen to what it has to say. That way, you’ll never have to fear an unanticipated blow.”
- “It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.”