Have you ever installed a sound system in a cheap car? The panels shake. The floorboards hum. Each bass hit is accompanied by a dying asthmatic rattle from your car, because the chassis is thin and nothing is spec’d to exact tolerances. It doesn’t matter how expensive the amplifier, speakers, and subwoofer is: you also need a good, solid car to put them in.
I was constantly aware of rattles and hums while reading the Alchemist. I think Coelho is a cheap car – or perhaps he had a poor translator.
Santiago, a young shepherd in Andalusian Spain, begins a journey to find his Personal Legend (portentously capitalized). He gets around a lot. He goes to Morocco, the Sahara desert, and Egypt, while meeting people such as a crystal merchant, an Englishman, and the king of Jerusalem. These were the strongest parts of the book – going places and doing things. The book has a simplicity and directness when relating day to day events that made me wish it had been about someone else, someone unburdened by a dream from God.
But all through the book there’s a falseness to it. It’s partly undone by its need to be a fable, and partly undone by the fact that Coelho never got me to buy into the story. Santiago rides through the desert on a horse named Author’s Convenience. You soon adapt to the book’s approach, and feel no worry or alarm at anything happening: there’s always an amazing stroke of luck around the corner. A fortuitous meeting. A freak meteorological event. Hard to care about Santiago’s fate when you know Paulo Coelho has a skyhook ready to yank him to safety.
Is this the point? That when you trust your life to fate things work out? Who gives a shit? It’s a fictional book – there’s an author operating the gears here. When Santiago receives a pair of stones that allow him to predict the future, you’re not awed by the wonder and whimsy of the universe. You’re aware that this is a MacGuffin in a preconceived plot and that it’s going to be used by Coelho to cheat.
Perhaps the book cleverly (or unintentionally) breaks the fourth wall. Santiago becomes aware he’s a fictional character, and that his author has teleological ends. I think we’d all be a lot bolder if we knew there was a sympathetic author writing our story. But this isn’t compelling reading.
Descriptions are thin and perfunctory. He journeys through the Sahara, but we don’t hear about grit under his fingernails and the agony of climbing shifting sand dunes. Somewhere in the book he meets an Arab girl called Fatima, who he vows to marry once he fulfills his Personal Legend. I don’t recall the part where they discussed the fact that he’d have to convert: Muslim women cannot marry unbelievers.
The book is based off an old Yiddish fable, about a Jew who has a dream about a fortune buried somewhere in Venice. He travels there, digs fruitlessly, until eventually he meets a man who scorns him for his foolishness. “Why, for years I’ve been dreaming of some nonsense about Jew with massive fortune under the basement of his house!”
It’s an interesting premise for a book: a treasure right under one’s nose that you’d have to go around the world to find. Maybe someone is actually searching for treasure right now. If you’re that person, put this book down. It isn’t it.