Written by Paulo Coelho, translated by Alan R. Clarke.
Reviewed by Amy MacInnis
I was excited to read this. It was recommended and given to me by a dear friend and I wanted to be able to tell her I liked it. At first glance there seemed to be no reason to dislike it. Millions have purchased the book, which has been translated into over fifty languages. Of particular appeal to the theologian in me, I discovered that the bestselling Brazilian author and his main character were Catholic, and that the story was a spiritual journey. I was eager to dive in, but the more I read, the more my disappointment grew.
A standard piece of advice for authors is “show, don’t tell.” In other words, a story is more compelling if the reader can extrapolate the meaning of events without being told explicitly; for example, “Bob was sad” is less effective than “Bob bit back tears.” Because of this principle, there are novels with excellent character or plot development that I have thoroughly enjoyed even while disagreeing with their underlying philosophy, e.g., Life of Pi. I cannot say the same for The Alchemist. Actually, I had a difficult time getting through the 167-page story. I felt distanced from the narrative, as if something was preventing me from living through the main character, a Spanish shepherd boy named Santiago, and I think this was precisely because Coelho tells the reader more than he shows. The message he relays too explicitly is that happiness is found by following one’s ‘Personal Legend,’ that is, by seeking self-fulfillment without losing a sense of the divine beyond the self—like keeping oil from spilling out of a spoon while touring a palace, as Coelho illustrates with one of his parables that attempt to sound more profound than they are.
While I disliked the delivery, I recoiled even more from the message. Granted, there are undeniable rings of truth throughout the book, such as the notion that the heart’s deepest desires are put there by God, and the author’s rejection of fate in favour of destiny, acknowledging both free will and predestination. However, Coelho’s is ultimately a New Age philosophy, speaking of the “Soul of the World” and a universal “Language of the World” that can be heard through everything, including palms, crystal and cards. He claims that “all things are one,” not in the sense that God is three in one or we are all members of one Body of Christ, but in the sense that all is part of the divine which transcends its parts—blatant panentheism. Case in point: “The boy reached through to the Soul of the World, and saw that it was a part of the Soul of God. And he saw that the Soul of God was his own soul” (p. 152).
Oprah’s Book Club would fawn over The Alchemist because it expresses a spirituality detached from religion, although it borrows from several traditions, including Greek mythology, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In a bonus interview at the end of my edition of The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho shares his stance on organized religion: “The danger is that every religion, including the Catholic one, says, ‘I have the ultimate truth’” (p. 184). On the contrary, the danger is the dictatorship of relativism to which he has succumbed. Relativizing truth makes the self the measure of reality, and because the self is not the measure of reality, relativism distorts reality. Since Coelho centers truth in the self, he can claim that “[t]o realize one’s destiny is a person’s only real obligation” (p. 22) and not mean the goal of union with God in heaven, but a self-directed end on earth. Hence, his main character seeks the realization of his dream above all else, choosing to be a shepherd rather than a priest to initiate the fulfillment of his “Personal Legend” to travel and discover the treasure of his dreams. Especially troubling, Santiago tells us that he “couldn’t have found God in the seminary” (p. 10). What, so the seminary is somehow the exception to all things being one? Incidentally, there are several such contradictions in the novel, as in all relativism, which claims as an absolute truth that there is no absolute truth.
The touting of self-fulfillment and religious relativism in The Alchemist turns to dust in the light of reality. As our Holy Father’s most recent encyclical, Lumen Fidei, points out so exquisitely, “Idolatry does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading to nowhere” (§ 13). The quest of The Alchemist’s protagonist is unsatisfactory because Coelho uses it to advance his self-centered view of reality instead of directing Santiago toward the objectively true, good, and beautiful. Claiming to be wise, Coelho foolishly rejects one of the greatest human truths found in the religion of his birth: it is only in giving of ourselves that we find ourselves, only in submitting our egos to God as He is, not as we wish Him to be, that we find fulfillment.
The Alchemist offers an answer to the question of life’s purpose that is ultimately a prevarication. Perhaps people well-grounded in the truth can still glean something of value from the novel; I hope this was the case with my friend. I worry, though, that the seeming depth or wisdom of the story may be taken at face value. Needless to say, I would not recommend The Alchemist. If you want a good book about a spiritual journey that actually goes somewhere, start with Augustine’s Confessions.