Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist, translated by Alan R. Clarke (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998)
I think we all have certain goals for our lives. Some of us even believe that we are destined for particular task. Within the Christian tradition, this is often referred to as our calling which isn’t just limited to a calling into the ministry. God calls us to fulfill particular roles. Few of us, however, fulfill our potential. For me, I’m a lot like Calvin (in an old Calvin and Hobbes comic strip) who was so frustrated one day that he complained, “God put me on this world to do a certain number of things. Right now, I’m so far behind, I’ll never die.” What would it look like to completely meet our goals or to fulfill our calling in this life? Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, in his fable The Alchemist attempts to answer such a question.
The Alchemist is about the quest of a Santiago, a young Spanish shepherd, to claim his “Personal Legend.” His sojourner begins with a dream he has while sleeping in an old church that has been long abandoned and now has a sycamore tree growing out of it. Seeking help in interpreting his dream, he visits a gypsy fortune teller. She doesn’t charge him for her services but demands ten percent of the fortune that she says he’ll find. He leaves, thinking he’ll never see her. Later, he runs into an old man who he discovers is a king. He demands ten percent of his flock, up front, to help get him started toward achieving his Personal Legend. At first, he thinks the guy is crazy, but then ponies up ten percent of his flock. All along he’s gathering clues. He risks it all; sells his sheep and heads to North Africa where he’s soon robbed of all his money. Spending a year working for a crystal merchant, he begins to learn how many people have unfulfilled goals in their lives. After saving some money, he continues on his way to the pyramids, traveling by caravan across North Africa. Along the way, he meets a man interesting in alchemy and a girl who is to be the love of his life and finally the Alchemist. He is tested, he’s robbed again, but he finally learns that his treasure is buried back at that church where he had the dream.
This is a simple book. That’s why I refer to it as a fable. On the one hand, the book shows the Santiago making the right decisions when it counts, but he also makes some bad decisions which teach him things he needs to know. Most importantly, he learns that achieving his goal isn’t just up to him. There is a price to pay; yet the universe conspires with him in his quest. He learns to draw on faith from his religion (he’s Christian) but also from the Muslims he meets. He learns from watching the caravan as it winds its way through the desert. He learns from the desert itself (which is one of the reasons I found this book speaking to me.) He learns from the Oasis in which he the caravan stops during a war. With each adventure, Santiago learns another lesson.
This is an easy book to read (I read it in two short sittings). Sit back and enjoy Santiago’s journey. I think I’ll now become a gypsy, for maybe Santiago is right, gypsies are smart for they move around a lot. Or maybe I’ll be like the crystal merchant who never pursued his dream, figuring it was better to dream than to fulfill one’s dream. Stay tuned.
This is the third Coelho book I've read. I also wrote a review of his book, The Pilgrimage.