Monday, January 10, 2011

12 Months, 12 Books: #4 - The Alchemist by Paul Coelho

This is part 4 of my portion of a book review series brought to you by The Latter Day Bohemian via Middle-Aged Woman.

Sometimes you think you want something, and then - shaZAM! - you find it right there in front of you – at home! And sometimes that thing is a big treasure chest full of gold!! And you can find it using Ruby Slippers! Or maybe if a bell rings on a Christmas tree… Whichever, be assured that it is your DESTINY to find the treasure, and the UNIVERSE will help you find it!...sigh...

A few months ago, my niece wrote a review of The Alchemist, a book I was, until then, sure I’d read (I hadn’t). I wanted to read it until I did; I now I wish I hadn't.

The story follows a poor shepherd named Santiago who has a specific dream about a treasure. Lots of mysterious strangers help him follow this dream. Many years, adventures, and magical powers later, he finds the treasure back at home where he started. The end.

The Alchemist is set vaguely back in time far enough to strip away all modern contrivances like ease of transportation or communication – or literacy. Throughout the book, speech and exposition walk a thin line of fake-o ethnicity, sort-of Tonto-meets-Swami-meets-Yoda: "in heart one will find truth!". This is maybe one of the drawbacks of anachronistic writing, and not universally true of the novel, but true often enough to grate on me.

Clearly - CLEARLY - I’m disinclined and sarcastic when it comes to modern books of spiritual allegory, which generally have the appeal of Christian tracts. When I was in college, or maybe even in High School, somebody recommended to me Illusions by Richard Bach; at the time, I thought Bach’s desire to allegorize his anti-materialist world-view very interesting and enlightening. That was probably the last time an allegory made me feel more enriched than condescended to. As with my feelings about self-help books, allegorical novels have to be especially terrific in both premise and form to not make me roll my eyes. And I don't think The Alchemist has either going for it.

Coelho is not a bad writer. In fact, one of my favorite reads in 2009 was The Witch of Portobello, a sort-of mystery novel about politics, gypsies, adoption, parenting, death, and love. And I really savored that book and Coelho’s writing. And although I set myself up to not enjoy The Alchemist once I realized the overall conceit, I must acknowledge that it’s also written in a sparse, pleasing way, despite the occasional dips into caricaturizing:

"Hmm…" said the old man, looking at all sides of the book, as if it were some strange object. "This is an important book, but it's really irritating."

The boy was shocked. The old man knew how to read, and had already read the book. And if the book was irritating, as the old man had said, the boy still had time to change it for another.

"It's a book that says the same thing almost all the other books in the world say," continued the old man. "It describes people's inability to choose their own destinies. And it ends up saying that everyone believes the world's greatest lie."

"What's the world's greatest lie?" the boy asked, completely surprised.

"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."
The Alchemist had a lot of my own anti-authority, anti-dogma issues to overcome, at which (naturally, perhaps) it failed. It might be a pleasurable book – it certainly has been very well received both critically and in overall sales – but I found myself frustrated with the moralizing intent. Like Richard Bach or O. Henry, I was unwilling to open myself to the homily-laden language to find the path to the obvious Higher Power (Love, God, Faith, or, in this novel, the Universe within). Overall, I found it simple and elegant in its way, but more irritating than compelling.

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