The most popular novel of the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho (1947– ), The Alchemist combines philosophical ideas and words of wisdom about ambition, perseverance, and success. Since its publication in 1988, the novel has has sold over 150 million copies worldwide, won 115 international prizes and awards, has been translated into 80 languages, and is still on the New York Times bestseller list today.
The Alchemist narrates the story of a shepherd boy called Santiago who travels with his flock, looking for the best pastures for his sheep in the Andalusian countryside. The conflict arises early in the novel’s plot when Santiago chooses to seek an interpretation of a recent dream and is advised to travel to the pyramids in Egypt and look for a hidden treasure. The novel narrates the mystical experiences of Santiago as he travels from Spain, through the Egyptian desert and on to the great pyramids, seeking the fulfillment of his dream.
Coelho’s novel is almost mythical in structure, with a linear plot and single story line recounted in simple language. The tightly written narrative is not embellished by elaborate characterization, explanations, or historical details, and any detail irrelevant to the main plot is conspicuously absent. The entire emphasis of the novel remains on eternally valid truths, which Coelho attempts to convey through the story. The symbolic elements in the narrative, the universal quality of the protagonist’s experiences, and the message the novel suggests to the reader account for much of The Alchemist’s popularity.
The Alchemist underlines an idea or wish that human beings strongly want to believe: If one sincerely desires something, the whole universe conspires to fulfill that dream. Coelho conveys, through the novel, that this sentiment is a lie and that at some point in life people lose the ability to control their lives and become the playthings of fate. He suggests that by listening to one’s heart and by heeding omens and signs, one can control destiny. The strong undercurrent of optimism, which runs through the narrative, is the novel’s greatest charm.
It is notable that in the tale Santiago’s chance encounters with people bring him closer to his aim and motivate him to continue his quest despite his complacence at times. His meeting with the Gypsy fortune- teller in the beginning is followed immediately by a meeting with the old king of Salem, Melchizedek, who is aware of Santiago’s past and future and urges the boy to pursue his vision. An unfortunate experience with a thief in Tangier disheartens the searcher for a time, but his memories of the words of the king guide him to the right course of action. The crystal merchant for whom Santiago works for almost a year prefers to dream of going on a pilgrimage instead of embarking on a journey to Mecca in real life. The crystal merchant’s fear of failure shakes Santiago into resolving to follow his dream.
Santiago later meets an Englishman who harbors the hope of meeting the mysterious alchemist, an Arab who lives at the Al-Fayoum oasis and possesses exceptional powers. Santiago joins the caravan with the En glishman to travel to Egypt, and it is during this journey that the shepherd boy comes to know about the soul of the world, the language of the heart, and the intricacies of the science of alchemy. The shepherd boy’s budding love for an Arabian girl, Fatima, whom he meets during his voyage through the desert, tempts him into giving up his quest for the treasure, but aptly enough Fatima plays the role of a soul mate and coaxes Santiago to continue his difficult expedition. Toward the end of the novel, Santiago’s meeting with the alchemist in the desert helps the young seeker to discover his inner strengths and brings him closer to realizing his destiny.
Omens, signs, dreams, and visions pervade the narrative and act like refrains in this song of the desert. It is only by taking note of these subtle revelations of his subconscious mind that Santiago rises to the alchemist’s expectations and bravely faces all the trials that await him. In The Alchemist, Coelho suggests through Santiago’s tale that it is only by finding and following one’s “personal myth” that one can hope to achieve success, contentment, and happiness. Those who do not have the courage to pursue their deepest desires end up living an empty and doomed life plagued by dissatisfaction and frustration.
Arias, Juan. Paulo Coelho: The Confessions of a Pilgrim. London: HarperCollins, 1999.
Coelho, Paulo. Like the Flowing River: Thoughts and Reflections. London: HarperCollins, 2006.