The main theme of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist (transl. Alan R. Clarke; HarperOne, 2014, first ed. 1988) can be summed up in the following sentence: To attain your dreams, you need money. In other words, this fable-like, deceptively simple narration hides a complex web of philosophical assumptions, historical knowledge, religious and traditional beliefs. All of these, however, are by-products of one aspect of the modernist grand narrative: that of money.
The plot follows the journey of an unusual shepherd “boy” (his age is never given – maybe for a purpose), Santiago, who dreams the same dream twice. This dream urges him to go to the Egyptian pyramids to find a treasure. He consults a gypsy and Melchizedek (both for a fee) who simply tell him to follow his heart’s desires, which become his Personal Legend. From his native Andalusia he travels to Tangier where he is robbed so he has to earn money to be able to join a caravan headed for the pyramids. The desert gives him a chance to meditate on his life and learn about alchemy (which does not make an impression on him). In a forced rest on account of tribal wars the caravan has to stop at the Al Fayoum oasis where he falls in love with Fatima, meets a real alchemist, and almost becomes the oasis counselor. This is thanks to this reading of two hawks as an omen of war. Despite the war, the alchemist takes him close to the pyramids where is is robbed again; but the alchemist makes gold and gives some to Santiago. He then returns to Andalusia, and digs under a tree where he once rested with his sheep. There he finds a treasure and heads back to Al Fayoum to Fatima.
Coelho, through his artistic skill, has the reader fall for the fairy-tale atmospheres, mythical Arab wisdom, pyramids, do-what-your-heart-tells-you attitude, so that the protagonist’s “Personal Legend” (dream? purpose in life?), the Universal Language of the World Spirit, and the accoutrements of the mystery of life are prominently foregrounded. The messages are clear: listen to your heart, fulfill your childhood desires, interpret your dreams as omens, follow the ancient traditions and religions, travel, don’t rock the boat, keep making money. Under this surface patina, so attractive to countless readers, there are, however, troubling undertones which make these feel-good concepts look incomplete. Here is just a sample of these bothersome undercurrents, contradictions, and not fully-exploited themes.
1. The novel is set during an undefined era, in a sort of rarefied atmosphere. The protagonist never feels hunger, and although he’s robbed twice, the first time he earns money by working in a crystal shop and the second time the alchemist provides him with gold. His father gives him enough money to buy sheep, in order that he can embark on the occupation of shepherd. So the message here seems to be “believe your lottery ticket is the winning one”, and if you are middle class, so much the better. And therefore, the underlying message often exemplified in the novel says that the universe conspires to help you to achieve your Personal Legend. The fact that giving oneself up to occult and hidden forces is not the reasonable answer is never considered in the novel. Reason is defeated and inscrutability takes charge.
2. The name of the protagonist, Santiago, is highly interesting. Santiago (Saint James, also called Santiago Matamoros) is now the patron saint of Spain (and Portugal and many other nations). One of the legends narrates of his miraculous apparition and help given the Spaniards in their battle against the Moors (battle of Clavijo, 844). When Santiago meets the alchemist for the first time, he “was reminded of the image of Santiago Matamoros, mounted on his white horse, with the infidels beneath his hooves. This man looked exactly the same, except that now the roles were reversed.” (p. 113) Now he is the infidel who waits for the blow of the sword, but it does not come. In the book, Santiago is asked to become the counselor of the group that governs the oasis, an offer which he declines. Clearly, Christian-Muslim relations are one of the latent themes of the book, but never exploited in full. For example, the concept of Maktub (it is written) is mentioned a few times, and reason does not prevail: Tradition is taken as the measuring stick, inscrutability wins again.
3. One of the most prominent conceits in the novel is expressed by the alchemist when Santiago is supposed to perform his metamorphosis and become the wind that sweeps the oasis to show the Arabs that he has mysterious powers (so that they would fear him and let him and the alchemist go). Santiago is doubting that he can perform this miracle, and the alchemist says: “Then you’ll die in the midst of trying to realize your Personal Legend. That’s a lot better than dying like millions of other people, who never even knew what their Personal Legends were.” (p. 146) This statement, smug as it is, contradicts something stated before: children (presumably all children) know what their heart wants, so everyone know their Personal Legend is.
4. Accepting armed conflict as the inevitable result of keeping tradition alive means not challenging the status quo. When the oasis is attacked by a group of Arabs (which is against the Tradition – oases should not be violated in this way), the attackers are killed, their leader hanged from a dead palm tree (death without honor). But the whole battle rests on the reason for the fight: the invading group was starving and thirsty. There seems to be a contradiction here: all religions urge believers to engage in acts of generosity towards those who are less fortunate – but the episode says just the opposite, kill the unfortunate ones, never mind sharing food with them. So Maktub (it is written) makes for contradictory behaviour. Reasoning was not even considered before the conflict started.
5. In the fight between reason and emotion, emotion wins. This is clearly seen from the way verbal language is devalued and disregarded. According to the alchemist, “people become fascinated with pictures and words, and wind up forgetting the Language of the World.” (p. 90) The word language is used often, but with the meaning of non-linguistic communication, especially that of omens, dreams, such as “true language of the universe” (68) , “language of enthusiasm” (64), “language that doesn’t depend on words” (46), even the caravan and desert “speak the same language” (81). The novel does not attempt to build a bridge between reason and emotion, intuition, mystification. On the other hand, it is ironic that novels are written using verbal language, a means that is devalued in this book.
6. Omens form the backbone of the plot, and the Englishman who wants to become an alchemist goes so far as to say that “Everything in life is an omen. … There is a universal language, understood by everybody, but already forgotten.” (74) The camel driver “knew that any given thing on the face of the earth could reveal the history of all things.” (104) The interpretation of omens, though, is mostly the purview of “specialists” (gypsies, old Testament characters, alchemists). Santiago has to rely on Urim and Tummim to give him answers. He is not urged to think on his own, abandoning reason to mystery, intuition, and feeling.
7. Last but not least, the plot of the novel would not exist without the necessary monetary support for the protagonist. There is nothing that happens without money: dreams of traveling, Personal Legend of finding a treasure, looking for help in interpreting his dream, joining a caravan, all depend on his ability to pay. Money is the conduit to the protagonist’s happiness. Although the meaning of the word treasure can be metaphorical, it is the gold and money treasure he finds at last under the tree in Andalusia that allows him to go back to the desert to join his love, Fatima. The only two characters who give him money without asking, in fact, are his father and the alchemist.
In conclusion, The Alchemist is a nice fable, a respite from violence and gore and other unpleasantness. But it is also a great example of the unseen power of the pull of money. Dreams can be fulfilled, but this fulfillment depends on one’s ability to pay. Trusting one’s intuition and heart is not sufficient. The beauty of a fable is that even here there is one dissenting voice, that of the crystal salesman, who tells “the boy”: “I don’t want anything else in life. But you are forcing me to to look at wealth and at horizons I have never known. Now that I have seen them, and now that I see how immense my possibilities are, I’m going to feel worse than I did before you arrived. Because I know the things I should be able to accomplish, and I don’t want to do so.” (60) In other words, to each his/her/its own Personal Legend.