Paulo Coelho’s bestseller The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream is one of those books that has been sitting on our shelf for years. His book The Pilgrimage is up there too, along with The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz.
I hadn’t read any of them. I think they’re Amy’s books. They sit between all of my Carlos Castaneda and Joseph Campbell books, which I have read. I always assumed that The Alchemist and The Four Agreements are shorter, easier, pop translations of the Castaneda and Campbell ideas. I knew zero about Paulo Coelho.
A couple weeks ago, a friend — struggling under the demands of commuting and school and career and motherhood — posted a favorite quote from The Alchemist on Facebook because it had helped her in the past:
… before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that was learned along the way. It does this not because it is evil, but so that we can, in addition to realizing our dreams, master the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve moved toward that dream. That’s the point at which most people give up. It’s the point at which, as we say in the language of the desert, one ‘dies of thirst just when the palm trees have appeared on the horizon.’
Shining there on my screen as I also creaked under the combined stresses of life, this quote seemed like one of those “messages through the wall.” Maybe it was time to walk over to the bookshelf, take The Alchemist down, and read it?
This was an easy task. The book is only 167 pages of easy-to-read, loosely spaced text. The translation from the Brazilian author’s Portuguese, by Alan R. Clarke, flows like a childhood fairy tale, in simple prose with exotic touches and humorous winks.
The story is a quickly moving saga — a “hero’s journey,” as Joseph Campbell would call it. Our hero is Santiago, a shepherd in Andalusia, and his journey is a trip to the pyramids of Egypt. There is a girl he longs for (well, a couple of girls he longs for) and a series of characters he meets along the way.
The mystical mentor who helps him at the beginning of this quest is an interesting choice — none other than old Melchizedek, King of [Jeru]Salem, who blesses Abram [Abraham] in the Genesis 14:17-20, and gives him bread and wine, foreshadowing both King David and Jesus.
In the Bible, Abram gives Melchizedek a tenth of everything. In The Alchemist, Melchizedek asks for a tenth of Santiago’s sheep, and gives Santiago an elementary mythology — a set of principles by which to understand his purpose in life and how to proceed in the world. The cornerstone among these is a person’s “Personal Legend” — similar to Campbell’s “follow your bliss” and “hero’s journey,” Castaneda’s “warrior’s path” and “path with heart,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and Thunder Road.”
Somewhat like Superman, another Jewish hero, Melchizedek wears a cape and an excellent concealed breastplate. It’s High Priest of Israel’s breastplate as a matter of fact, which also contained the Urim and Thummim, a pair of objects used for divination.
(Compulsive digression: Urim and Thummim are also the names of the of “two stones in silver bows” fastened to a breastplate, like “two smooth three-cornered diamonds,” that the angel Moroni revealed to Latter Day Saints founder Joseph Smith. They are the “seer stone[s]” through which Smith translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates buried in a hill at Manchester, New York. For that astonishing story, read the classic No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith by Fawn M. Brodie.)
Exactly what the Bible’s Urim and Thummim were is unclear, but in The Alchemist, they are two stones: “The black signifies ‘yes,’ and the white ‘no.'” King Melchizedek gives them to Santiago.
Among the many charming features of The Alchemist is that such technical details are not of particular importance. The book has a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward book knowledge. A book’s value as a pillow might be equal to the wisdom it contains, and one character has his face in books at all times, oblivious to the wonders and dangers the caravan is passing through. Who knows — maybe there’s a meta lesson for someone in this somehow?
As it charts Santiago’s adventures from Andalusia to Egypt, The Alchemist is a trail of delightful lessons. It’s somewhat like the stream of little typeset aphorisms that dot your Facebook feed. There’s also exotic scenery, a little danger and suspense, and a clever twist. A few sprinkles of Islamic and Christian flavoring are added to the mix, but only very lightly. Some basic alchemy concepts, such as the philosopher’s stone, are shredded over the top for crusty, old fashioned appeal.
It’s a nice, quick, uplifting book. As Wikipedia notes, part of the story is borrowed from Tale 14 of the classic folk tale collection One Thousand and One [Arabian] Nights, and Coelho. (The Alchemist does mention A Thousand and One Nights at one point.)
What struck me — perhaps more than the book itself — was the extraordinary story of its success, as summarized in Paulo Coelho’s biography at Wikipedia.
First of all, you’ve got Coelho’s parents committing him to a mental institution at age 17 because he wants to be a writer (reminding me of Bruce Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up” fable about following his dream in his 1978 Cleveland concert). Next, he’s a drug-taking hippie, “traveling through South America, North Africa, Mexico, and Europe” in the 1960s. Then there’s some lyric-writing, some mysticism, some political turmoil, journalism, theatre — all leading to his walking the 500-mile Christian pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela, a turning point in his life described in The Pilgrimmage.
And so he finally became an actual writer, but without any success right away. There were a couple of books before The Pilgrimage, and only after that did he write The Alchemist, which had an initial run of 900 copies, and that was it. He wrote still another book — Brida — before The Alchemist began to take off.
Eventually re-published by HarperCollins in 1994, The Alchemist has now sold more than 65 million copies in 56 different languages. Paulo Coelho’s 30 total books have sold over 150 million copies. Meu Deus!
Now there’s a story I might want to read — and, lucky for me, maktub!
Paulo Coelho: A Warrior’s Life: The Authorized Biography was published in 2009. The Publishers Weekly blurb says that “Brazilian journalist, politician and biographer” Fernando Morais had “access to years of Coelho’s diaries, a goldmine for biographer and reader.”
What was that lesson, again?
(In addition to his 30 books, there’s also Paulo Coelho’s Blog, which is is updated more regularly than my own.)