When he first published The Alchemist in his native Brazil in 1988, Paulo Coelho was known mainly as a writer of popular songs. The book failed to attract public attention and went out of print. A few years later, however, a reissue caught on: readers were transfixed by its simple, parable-like story, and recommended it to their friends, who recommended it to their friends. Fan Web sites popped up, and Coelho was invited to speak at conferences. Celebrities talked about how reading The Alchemist had changed their lives. In one country after another the book rose to the top of bestseller lists. It became one of the most astonishing stories in publishing history, joining the top twenty-five selling books of all time, making Coelho one of the most widely read authors living on the planet.
The story concerns a young Andalusian shepherd boy who has a recurring dream of treasures, and the people that he meets on his journey to Egypt, where he knows his treasure is to be found. Deeply allegorical, his adventure introduces him to an ancient king from the Old Testament; a gypsy; a hard-working Muslim crystal merchant; an intellectual; the love of his life; and of course, the alchemist of the title, who has lived for centuries and has been waiting for the boy to show up so that he may guide the boy's spiritual growth. In the course of seeking his Personal Legend, the boy learns that it is the journey, not the reward, that makes a quest like his worthwhile.
The Alchemist was published in the United States in 1993, and is available in a paperback edition from HarperSanFrancisco, as well as in several deluxe gift editions for those who would like to explore the book's spiritual insights.
Paulo Coelho was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on August 24, 1947. In a city known for its poverty, he grew up in a comfortable middle-class household. His father, Pedro, was an engineer, and his mother, Lygia, was a housewife. He entered a Jesuit school at the age of seven. It was there that he started writing, although he was not to publish his first novel until the age of thirty-eight.
At the age of seventeen, Coelho rejected the course that his parents wanted him to follow. They planned for him to be an engineer: when he stopped attending school, they had him committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy. He still suffered from depression and panic attacks, and was admitted a second and then third time, at the age of twenty.
When he was out of the hospital, Coelho began writing for a living, working as a journalist and writing with a theater group. For two years, he traveled throughout South America, Mexico, North America, and Europe. Upon his return to Rio de Janeiro in 1971, Coelho started a long and fruitful collaboration with popular rock musician Raul Seixas: Coelho wrote the lyrics for several of Seixas's albums, and together they created the "Kring-Ha" comic strip series. He also wrote lyrics for other popular musicians such as Elis Regina and Rita Lee. The comic strip was considered subversive, and Coelho was arrested in 1974 and put in prison for a short time, released, and then rearrested and tortured before gaining his release by claiming to be mentally ill.
Soon after his release, in 1976, Coelho ended his association with Seixas and went to work for a record company. His life changed in 1986, when, at the advice of a friend, he walked the ancient Road of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, a journey of more than five hundred miles that led him to a spiritual awakening. His first book, The Pilgrimage, published in 1987, describes his trip and the emotional changes that it brought. The Pilgrimage was well-received, but did not sell well. Coelho's second novel, The Alchemist, sold less than a thousand copies. He did not become an international literary sensation until the publication of his third book, Brida, in 1990. The success of Brida brought international attention to Coelho's writing, spurring reissues of his first two novels and ensuring that his future publications sold millions of copies. Coelho's popularity has enabled him to lend spiritual and financial support to charitable causes around the world, most notably the Paulo Coehlo Institute, a foundation to help children and the elderly citizens of Brazil that is funded solely by the author's book royalties.
The prologue for The Alchemist gives a brief look at the alchemist, a character who will not appear in the story until much later. He opens a book and reads a story about Narcissus. In the ancient Greek legend, Narcissus is a vain boy who falls in love with his own reflection in the clear water of a lake and falls in and drowns when trying to kiss the beautiful person he sees there. In the version that the alchemist reads, the lake grieves over Narcissus's death, because Narcissus's eyes reflected the lake's own beauty back to itself. The alchemist finds this version of the story touching.
A shepherd boy named Santiago is traveling the countryside in southern Spain with his flock and arrives at a decaying church with a caved-in roof. A sycamore tree grows in the middle of the church. He spends the night there and has a dream that he had a week before, telling him that his fortune can be found at the pyramid in Egypt. Up to that point, his fondest wish has been to return to see a girl he saw in Tarifa the last time he was there, the daughter of a wool merchant. He takes the sheep to Tarifa, and there he goes to an old woman, a gypsy, to have his recurring dream interpreted. After he tells her the details, she tells him he must go to Egypt, and that the only payment she will take for her interpretation is one tenth of his fortune once he has gotten it.
On a bench in a square, an old man strikes up a conversation with Santiago. He gives him advice about life, telling him that the greatest thing in the world is to realize one's Personal Legend and that the greatest lie is that one cannot control one's fate. He strangely seems to know details about the boy's life. He says that he is Melchizedek, the king of Salem. He tells the boy to go find his fortune, advises him to heed omens, and gives him two magic stones, named Urim and Thummim, to help him make decisions. The boy pays him with a tenth of his flock, sells the rest, and takes a boat from Spain to Tangier, in northern Africa.
In a café on his first day in Tangier, he meets a young man who speaks the native tongue and offers to rent camels and take him across the desert to Egypt. Walking through a marketplace behind his guide, however, the boy is distracted, and the young man runs off with all of his money.
The next morning, he goes into a shop that sells crystal at the top of a hill and offers to clean the delicate glasses in exchange for food. When he hears that it would take more than a year of working in the crystal shop to earn enough to pay for passage across the desert, he agrees to work until he has enough to cross back to Spain and become a shepherd again.
Santiago stays at the crystal shop for a long time and prospers there, thinking of innovations that help bring in more business. He builds a display case to put outside, to attract more customers to the shop, and decides to sell tea, so that thirsty travelers who have climbed up the hill can have a drink and think about buying the glassware it is served in. The merchant tells him that he should not feel bad about abandoning his search for the treasure he dreamed of; as a Muslim, the shop keeper long dreamed of making a pilgrimage to Mecca, and so he knows what it is like to give up on a dream.
Santiago leaves the crystal shop after eleven months and three days. With the commissions he has earned from helping to sell crystal, he could go home, but instead decides to join a caravan that is heading across the desert.
- In 2008, A-Mark Entertainment announced a film adaptation of The Alchemist, directed by and starring Laurence Fishburne, for release in 2009.
- An unabridged version of The Alchemist, read by Jeremy Irons, was released by HarperAudio on both audio cassette and compact disc in 2001. This release is the R.I.G. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award.
- The Cornish Theatre Collective's stage adaptation of The Alchemist has toured the British Isles with traveling companies since 2002.
- Readers who want to see what Coelho thinks about life on a daily basis can go to his official Web site at http://www.paulocoelho.com/ and read the blog that he updates regularly.
Waiting for the caravan, he talks with an Englishman who is disinterested in the boy until he recognizes that he too is familiar with Urim and Thummim, the divining stones. The Englishman is an intellectual and has a case of books traveling with him. He tells the boy that he is studying to be an alchemist, and that he is joining the caravan in order to go to the oasis at Al-Fayoum, where he has been told that a great alchemist lives who is over two hundred years old, thanks to his use of the Elixir of Life. The alchemist is also reputed to be in possession of the fabled Philosopher's Stone, which is supposed to hold the secret to changing any metal into gold.
The caravan starts out after the leader warns of possible danger out in the desert. While riding, Santiago befriends a camel driver who knows the ways of the desert and talks to him. He finds that he is more interested in reading the signs that present themselves in the world, which he calls the Language of the World, and he throws away the big book that he has brought with him. Later, he tries to learn about alchemy from the books that the Englishman has brought with him, reading biographies of people who have lived out their Personal Legends and performed miracles.
The caravan hears rumors that there are warring tribes in the desert, and that they have to be cautious. They travel day and night without talking. When they finally stop, it is at an oasis of three hundred wells and fifty thousand date trees. They are safe because the warring tribes have a tradition of leaving oases alone. The Englishman is happy because the oasis is Al-Fayoum, the home of the alchemist.
In trying to help the Englishman find where the alchemist lives, Santiago talks to a young woman who is drawing water from a well. The moment that she looks into his face he knows that he is in love with her. He learns that her name is Fatima, and the next day he comes back to the well to see her again. They strike up an acquaintance, and finally he tells her that he has loved her from the first. She tells him that when the war is over and it is safe to leave the oasis he must leave again to find his fortune, that she cannot be responsible for holding him back.
Sitting by himself at the edge of the desert, the boy watches a pair of hawks in the sky. Just as he is starting to fall asleep, he sees one of the hawks turn and attack the other. The vision immediately changes to one of an army riding forward to attack the oasis. The boy goes to his friend the camel driver to tell him of his vision, and he tells the boy that, given the seriousness of the vision, he must go to the tribal leaders and tell them what he saw. So he goes to the most richly appointed tent in Al-Fayoum and, after a long wait, is admitted to tell his vision to the chieftains. The chieftains are unsure whether or not to believe him, but the eldest among them trusts the boy. They will break a long-standing tradition and distribute weapons to the citizens of the oasis, he says, in preparation for the coming invasion. If the oasis is attacked, the boy will be paid a gold piece for every invader killed. If not one invader shows up to be killed, the weapons that were to be used against them will be used to kill the boy.
That night, the boy is walking alone when he is visited by a man in black with a falcon on his shoulder, bearing a sword. He holds the sword against the boy's head and asks why he interpreted the omen of the fighting hawks, and when the boy points out that his action will save many lives, he puts the sword away. As the horseman rides away, they boy realizes that he was talking to the fabled alchemist.
The next morning, five hundred men attack Al-Fayoum, but thanks to Santiago's vision, the residents are prepared, and kill them all. The boy is paid fifty gold pieces.
As they ride in the desert, the alchemist tells him to watch his horse, which can find signs of life in the desert; when the horse stops, the alchemist puts his hand deeply into a hole in the ground and pulls out a huge cobra. He is not harmed by the snake's venomous bite. The alchemist explains how miserable the boy will eventually be if he abandons his quest for his Personal Legend, the treasure that he has been seeking, to stay at the oasis as an official seer and marry Fatima. Over the years, the alchemist says, he will lose the ability to read the omens that he can read now, and he will become resentful. He offers to guide the boy across the desert to find the treasure at the pyramids. The boy goes to Fatima's tent that night and says goodbye.
Crossing the desert, the alchemist tells Santiago that he can learn to understand the world by listening to his heart. Soon, his heart is talking to him, telling him that human hearts require a search for treasure, or else they will lose their happiness.
When they are only two days' ride from the pyramids, the two travelers are stopped in the desert by tribesmen. The alchemist offers them all of the gold that the boy has earned, and then makes a deal with them. They agree to let the captives go if the boy can, as the alchemist claims, turn himself into the wind. After three days, the boy stands on the edge of the desert and has a conversation with the desert. The boy beseeches the desert, saying that he needs to return to the one he loves, and the desert lets him talk to the wind and then to the sun. In the end, a powerful, blinding wind does arise, and the captors are sufficiently impressed to let the alchemist and the boy go free.
At a monastery, the alchemist turns lead into gold and gives one fourth of it to his hosts and one fourth to the boy, then asks the host to keep another fourth of it for the boy's return. He keeps the rest. Before they part, the alchemist tells the boy the Biblical story about a man who has two sons, one a poet and the other a soldier: when a prophesy tells him that his son's words will be recited forever, the man assumes it will be the poet's, only to find after he is dead that it was the other son, who went on to meet Jesus and utter the phrase quoted in the book of Matthew, "My lord I am not worthy that you should come under my roof."
When he reaches the pyramid, the boy sees a scarab beetle, and takes it for an omen. He digs all night at the place where the beetle stood. In the night, some refugees from the tribal wars find him and search him, finding the gold that was on him. He explains that he is there to find his treasure. After they beat him nearly to death, the leader of the group, mocking him, says that a dream once told him to find his personal treasure, too. He was supposed to look in a crumbling church in Spain, where a sycamore tree grew. Though the man ignored his dream, the boy Santiago is delighted, because he knows the place to which the man's dream referred.
Having stopped to retrieve the gold the alchemist left for him at the monastery, the boy is able to return to the crumbling church where he had his dream that led him to the pyramids. Digging under the base of the sycamore tree, he finds a chest of Spanish coins and jewels. The wind from Africa brings him the scent of Fatima's perfume, and he promises to return to her.
The alchemist of the novel's title is a legendary man, said to be over two hundred years old, who lives at the oasis Al-Fayoum. The Englishman with whom the boy travels comes to the desert seeking him, but the alchemist is interested in meeting the boy, whose arrival he has been expecting. He first appears as a threatening figure and holds his sword to the boy's head, but when the boy does not fear him the alchemist offers to accompany him across the desert to the Pyramids, where his fortune can be found.
The alchemist teaches the boy lessons about following his Personal Legend, lessons that were started by Melchizedek, the king of Salem. He shows him that the perceived difference between the solid world and the imagination is just an illusion by showing how he is able to change common metals to gold. After taking Santiago most of the way to the pyramids, he leaves him before reaching the end of the journey, so that the boy can face his fate alone. Before leaving, though, he tells a story from the New Testament about a relatively minor character whose words have lived on for millennia, to illustrate the point that each person holds an important place in the history of the world.
The Camel Driver
During his trip across the desert, the boy makes the acquaintance of a camel driver. This man, a simple working man, tells Santiago his philosophy of life. He lives in the present and does not concern himself about the past or the future, which makes his simple life a big festival for him.
The Crystal Merchant
When he finds himself stranded in Tangier after his money has been stolen, Santiago stops into the shop of a crystal merchant and asks if he can work for food. He ends up being useful to the merchant, and stays on for a year, during which the shop prospers.
The merchant serves as an example of someone who has not followed his Personal Legend. He recounts to the boy how he had ambitions to travel when he was a young man, particularly to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, as his Muslim faith commands him to do. He became engrossed in making his shop prosper, and then in keeping it prospering as all of the wealthy shoppers stopped coming to his neighborhood in Tangier and took their business to Ceuta. He knows that he could have made more money by moving his shop, and that he would have gotten more satisfaction in his life if he had made the pilgrimage he had dreamed of, but he also knows that he is settled in his ways. It is from the crystal merchant that Santiago picks up the expression "Maktub," which translates roughly to "It is written." It is an expression he uses often after leaving the crystal merchant when he wants to express his acceptance of events.
Throughout the story there are characters who are said to understand the desert. Late in his adventure, when he is crossing the desert, Santiago finds out that this is more than a turn of phrase: the desert is personified as a living, sentient being, and the boy has discussions with it.
Their conversation comes when he is being held by tribesmen who expect him to be able to turn himself into the wind. The desert, lacking emotional ability, asks the boy to explain to it the concept of love. When he does, the desert offers to summon the wind to help him reunite with his love, Fatima.
When he has saved enough money in Tangier to start his trip across the desert to the pyramids, Santiago goes to sign up on a caravan, and it is there that he meets the Englishman. An intellectual, the Englishman has bags of books that he is carrying across the desert with him. He is a student of alchemy and wants to meet the fabled alchemist who lives at Al-Fayoum, in order to learn the alchemist's secrets. He tells the boy the basic principles of alchemy and lends him a book, which the boy struggles with and then returns unread.
Arriving at the oasis, the Englishman asks Santiago to talk to the local people on his behalf in order to find the alchemist. When the alchemist does show up, however, it is not the Englishman that he is interested in meeting but the boy. The Englishman, studying the principles of alchemy by himself, is enthused about his chances of transmuting metal into gold at one point, but he fails.
At one of the many wells at the oasis of Al-Fayoum, Santiago is warned that he should not talk to any of the women dressed in black, because they are married and their husbands will be jealous. The first woman he stops who is not in black is Fatima. He falls in love with her the moment he looks into her eyes.
The boy offers to stay at the oasis with this woman that he loves, but she encourages him to go off and fulfill his Personal Legend. She does not want to be responsible for his living a life of resentment. Later, when the alchemist predicts what will happen to Santiago's life if he stays at Al-Fayoum, he foresees the same kind of resentment. By letting Santiago go without having to worry about her, Fatima ensures that he will be able to find his Personal Legend.
The Gypsy Woman
Soon after bringing his sheep to market in Tarifa, Santiago goes to visit a gypsy woman to have his recurring dream interpreted for him. He is skeptical about her, expecting her to cheat him in some way, particularly when she insists on one tenth of the fortune that he will find, but he agrees to her price. She disappoints him by failing to give any specific information. He will find a fortune, she tells him, but that is all she can divine. She cannot tell him how to get there, and in fact admits that she has never heard of the Egyptian pyramids at all.
Melchizedek is the self-proclaimed king of Salem, who runs into Santiago in a village square in Tarifa and strikes up an acquaintance. He tells the boy that he must follow the dream that he had, that it is his responsibility, as it is with everyone, to follow his Personal Legend. To help him, he takes two stones from the breastplate of the armor that he has hidden under his robe, telling the boy that they are to be used in cases where he cannot make a decision. He says that he will be with the boy in spirit as he goes. One of the last things he does for the boy is tell him the story about a servant boy who was required to view the many splendors of a king's castle while carrying a spoonful of oil, trying to marvel at what he sees but not forgetting to make sure that not a drop is spilled. This story mirrors Santiago's own position as he goes on his quest.
As he goes about his travels, Santiago finds himself in several situations that remind him of Melchizedek. When he is living with the crystal merchant and planning to return to the life of shepherding in Spain, Santiago remembers the old king's admonition that he needs to find his Personal Legend. Later, the Englishman he meets dismisses Santiago until he sees that the boy has Urim and Thummim, the divining stones that Melchizedek gave him. The Englishman is familiar with the ancient legends of the stones, and of Melchizedek.
In the Old Testament of the Bible, Melchizedek is also the king of Salem. He gives his blessing to Abraham. In payment for his blessing, Abraham gives him a tenth of all that he possesses, which is exactly what Santiago promises to do after he finds his fortune.
Santiago is the main character of this book, often referred to as "the boy." When the book begins, he is a shepherd, having chosen that career so that he could travel and see the world. His parents objected to his career choice, but eventually gave their blessing. He is driving his sheep to Tarifa, where, a year earlier, he met a shopkeeper's daughter and became infatuated with her. En route, though, he sleeps within a crumbling church that has a tree growing through its open roof and has a dream that he first had the week before, telling him that he can find a fortune if he goes to the ancient pyramids of Egypt. The dream sets him off on the adventure of his lifetime. He goes to a gypsy woman who he assumes can interpret what it means, and soon after that meets Melchizedek, who tells him that the dream is his Personal Legend and he must pursue it. He travels to Africa, is robbed of all of his money, and works in a crystal shop for nearly a year until he has enough to travel across the desert. His trip across the desert puts Santiago in the way of even more challenges and adventures that bring him greater insights into how his life can be led in a meaningful way.
Throughout the first part of his journey, Santiago is watched over by the spirit of Melchizedek. After he arrives at the oasis of Al-Fayoum, however, and eventually makes the acquaintance of the alchemist, he refers less often to Melchizedek's teachings. At the oasis he also meets Fatima, who, being the true love of his life, is a major motivating force in his journey, as shown by the fact that he begs the wind's help so that he can make his way back to her. In the end, when he finds his fortune in the very place where he started, he wonders why he could not have been told that it was there earlier, but a voice carried on the wind, probably that of the alchemist, reminds him of the adventures that he experienced in his journey, making him glad not to have missed them.
When the alchemist tells Santiago to listen to his heart, it comes across as being just a familiar expression. After a while in the desert, however, Santiago ends up listening to actual words that his heart tells him, and ends up having a dialogue with it.
Santiago's heart is presented as an actual, independent character in the story, and reveals that it has thoughts independent of him. It tells him stories of his childhood, of how it took actions that Santiago was not aware of to protect the boy, such as hiding a gun he had found so that he could not hurt himself with it. Knowing Santiago better than the boy knows himself, his heart identifies his two greatest assets, courage and enthusiasm.
The Young Man
When Santiago arrives in Tangier, everything is unfamiliar to him, He does not know the language or the local customs. He thinks that he is fortunate when a young man in a café approaches, speaks to him in his own language, and offers to arrange a trip across the desert to Egypt. When the owner of the café speaks to them harshly, the young man tells Santiago that the man is a thief and intends to rob them. Walking across the crowded marketplace, however, Santiago is distracted when he sees what he thinks is the most beautiful sword he has ever seen, and when he turns to speak to his new friend he finds that the young man, who was holding his money so that he could buy two camels, is gone. This robbery is the first and one of the worst obstacles that Santiago faces on his journey, and it makes him seriously consider giving up and going back home to be a shepherd again.
Fortune and Luck
When Coelho uses the word "fortune" in this novel, he uses it in a dual sense: though Santiago often speaks of "a fortune," referring to wealth, the narrator makes reference to "his fortune," implying the ways that fate will act on the boy. Throughout The Alchemist there is a continuous question about just how much one controls one's fate. Simple luck seems to have a hand in the way that Santiago meets his future, but luck is not the only element involved. His successes are also a result of how he meets his luck and responds to it.
Early on in the book, Melchizedek, the king of Salem, tells Santiago that he is going to have Beginner's Luck when he first starts out on his trip because there is a force in the universe that wants each person to be encouraged in the pursuit of his or her Personal Legend, and Beginner's Luck will give the person a taste of what success is like. It is a concept echoed later by the owner of the crystal shop, who refers to it as the "principle of favorability."
Although luck does play a role in the first steps of one's journey, the book does not suggest that people should merely rely on luck and accept whatever might come to them. Melchizedek also tells Santiago that he needs to learn how to read the omens in life, and adjust his behavior according to his readings, giving the boy responsibility for his own fate. The old king does give him the two stones, Urim and Thummim, which he says can be used to make decisions for him if he sees no clear direction, but he also tells Santiago to use them sparingly, and in fact the boy completes his journey only taking the stones out once. He knows that the good fortune that will come to him from Beginner's Luck is limited, and he also knows that leaving his fate entirely up to the random reading of the stones is just a way of avoiding the responsibility he has to lead himself to his own fortune. In the end, Santiago attains a material fortune of gold and jewels, but he has also fulfilled his Personal Legend, thus achieving an even more meaningful fortune. It is because he chooses to pursue his own fortune that good luck befalls him.
Though the object of Santiago's quest is a treasure, Coelho makes it clear throughout the story that wealth is not a goal to be pursued for its own sake. At the end, when the treasure is found to be waiting for Santiago at the very place where he began his quest, he questions why he could not simply have found it there without traveling so far, and a voice from the sky makes the point that seeing the ancient pyramids was the important part of the journey, giving the experience more weight than the treasure he gained at the end.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- What recent scientific advances do you think seem related to the book's idea of alchemy? Create a poster that explains your interpretation of what Coelho means by alchemy and show how alchemy applies to three or four advances made in chemistry, physics, or data processing within your lifetime.
- When he last appears in the book, Melchizedek looks to the sky and speaks to "my Lord." At the end of the Epilogue, Santiago speaks to the sky and is answered. Write an essay discussing who you think each of these characters is talking to, whether it is the same entity, and the symbolic significance of the sky.
- Make a list of famous people who you think have spent their lives seeking their Personal Legends and another list of those who you think have merely attained popular success. Write an essay in which you explain what characteristics distinguish the two types from each other.
- Draw or paint portraits that show what you think key characters from this book such as Santiago, Fatima, Melchizedek, the Englishman, the crystal merchant, the gypsy, and the alchemist look like. Alternatively, find pictures in magazines or on the Internet that you believe best represent each character. Mount the photographs or portraits on a display and write a brief statement explaining how the descriptions in the novel led you to picture the specific characters that way.
Another place in the book where material wealth and experience are linked to one another is in the basic function of the alchemist, from whom the book takes its title. To some people, alchemy, or the transformation of matter, which
includes the skill of turning common metals into gold, seems like nothing more than a means of acquiring wealth. Alchemists, however, do not value gold for its market value but for what it represents in ability. Even the Englishman, who is not yet an alchemist but who wishes to become one, knows better than to pursue gold for its own sake. He wants to be able to produce gold for what such an ability can tell him about his own personality; he knows that he must attend to the process of transformation with no fear in his heart if he is going to succeed. He understands that the intellectual process of alchemy means more to him than the gold that will result from it.
The alchemist himself, who has the power to create all of the gold he could possibly ever want, shows no interest in worldly wealth, but instead is interested in the physical process that leads to it. He helps the boy follow his dream because he knows that following dreams is what really matters in the world, just as he knows that seeing the boy transform himself into the wind will be just as impressive to the bandits of the desert as his own power to change metal to gold. Both come from the same place, an understanding of the Language of the World.
When this story begins, the boy is motivated to take his flock of sheep to Tarifa by his infatuation with the daughter of a merchant, whom he met a year earlier but did not talk to long enough to even find out her name. After his second dream about the treasure he is to find at the pyramids, he realizes that the merchant's daughter will likely forget about him while he is away on his quest. He knows that she will probably take up with someone who has more money, or at least more identifiable prospects, but he takes the chance of losing her in order to pursue his Personal Legend.
Later in the book, this circumstance is mirrored when Santiago meets Fatima at the oasis of Al-Fayoum. Rather than an infatuation, however, the relationship that develops between them is presented as true love, even though they know it is love within moments of their initial meeting. The boy is aware that his parents and grandparents would consider it a false way to approach love because they would want love cultivated more carefully over the course of time, but the feelings that he has are more convincing to him than the logical arguments that anyone might present.
Fatima shows her own love for Santiago by encouraging him to go ahead and pursue his Personal Legend. She is aware that he might be lost to her forever, but she knows that taking that chance is better for their relationship than forcing him to give up his quest, which could keep him there but doom their relationship to a lifetime of resentment.
The rhetoricians of ancient Greece used the word "parable" to refer to a literary illustration. The most common association that the word has comes from the Bible, where it is used to describe a brief story that is meant to convey some spiritual truth. One example of this would be the well-known parable of the prodigal son from the Gospel of Luke, which tells the story of a son who leaves his father's house and wastes his inheritance on extravagant, or prodigal, living. When he returns, broken and impoverished, he is welcomed back into the family, offering a lesson in forgiveness that has become familiar to people of various cultures and religions throughout the ages.
Though, at book-length, The Alchemist is longer than parables traditionally are, it does possess qualities of a parable. Coelho uses the book as an instrument to show his readers behaviors that he believes will benefit their lives. Readers can relate events in Santiago's story, such as his encounter with the self-proclaimed king of Salem or his rise from servant to partner in the crystal shop, to their own lives, and draw lessons and generalizations from it that can guide them in how to live their lives.
An allusion is a reference to a character or event that readers might recognize. In The Alchemist, Coelho uses frequent allusions to works with religious and spiritual significance. The character of Melchizedek, for example, is not necessarily the king of Salem who is referred to in the Hebrew Tanakh and in the Christian Old Testament, but giving him that name makes readers think of those two books. Other parts of the book allude to the gospel of Saint Matthew, the story of Abraham, and the Koran's five obligations for Muslim life. By alluding to a diversity of traditional, sometimes contradictory, religious texts, Coelho is able to give The Alchemist a feeling of tradition and spiritualism, lending the new book some of the gravity that has been earned by the ancient works.
An archetype is a literary figure that seems familiar across ages and cultures. One such figure is the person who sets out on a quest. The quest often entails a search for material wealth. While on the way the seeker is bound to find out things about his or her personality that will prove them worthy of accomplishing their goal.
Coelho draws attention to the fact that the main character of The Alchemist should be understood by readers as an archetype, rather than as an individual person, by calling him "the boy" throughout the story. He does have a name, which is given in the book's first line, but his function is to represent all people, not just dreaming shepherds. Similarly, though actual locations such as Tarifa and Tangier are used, the specific places are not given with very many details, to emphasize that it is intended to be a universal story.
The trip that Santiago follows in this novel follows the traditional form of a pilgrimage: it entails a long journey to a place of mystic, ancient significance (in this case, the pyramids), during which the protagonist gains spiritual enlightenment. The pilgrimage is a familiar structure for literary works—a famous example is Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales—with roots in the some of the major religions of the world. Muslims, for instance, are obliged to make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lifetime if they can, a fact that is referenced directly in The Alchemist. Hindus travel to Banares, India, to bathe in the sacred River Ganges. Buddhist pilgrimage destinations include the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Christians journey to such places as Lourdes, France, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared eighteen times to followers in the 1800s. Jewish pilgrimages to the Temple Wall in Jerusalem are common. Paulo Coelho has said repeatedly that the pilgrimage that he took in 1986 to Saint James of Compostella, Spain, a journey that he later described in detail in his book The Pilgrimage, was a turning point in forming his spiritual view of the world. Likewise, Santiago's pilgrimage brings about a spiritual transformation.
"New Age" Spirituality
The Alchemist is considered to be an example of the resurgent, independent interest in spirituality that arose during the 1970s and 1980s and is generally identified as "New Age" thinking.
The social movement that is referred to as New Age is not clearly defined. The phrase is frequently used in a derogatory sense; often, people whose works are called New Age would reject being placed into that category. Still, it appears to be a useful term for identifying a distinct social movement.
Throughout history, there have been offshoots from mainstream religions. One of the most prominent of these in American history, for example, was Transcendentalism, a system of beliefs that was supported by American literary figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller in the early nineteenth century. In the late nineteenth century, Theosophy was developed by Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky to unite the physical world with the spiritual world. Mesmerism and Swedenborgianism were other examples of movements that took on the basic shapes of organized religions but engaged in practices, from divination to hypnosis to studies in the paranormal, that had been rejected by older religions.
In the 1960s, cultural changes swept through society and left people questioning tradition. The fall of segregation as a legal social practice due to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s led to skepticism about other social structures. Feminism made people question why women and men were expected to follow certain distinct social roles; the American Indian movement addressed the segregation of Native Americans to reservations; the gay liberation movement raised skepticism about what was to be considered the norm in sexuality. It was natural, therefore, that a decade so driven toward individual thought would lead people away from traditional religions in their search for spiritual meaning.
The term "New Age" was used earlier in the twentieth century to describe independent religious movements, but it came into common usage during the 1970s when shops across the country began identifying themselves as New Age bookstores and the monthly publication New Age Journal began its run. This category, incorporating various movements such as those labeled self-help, spiritualism, paganism, and self-awareness, continued growing throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Bookstores expanded to carry more goods associated with New Age principles, such as incense, crystals, dream catchers, and recordings of New Age music, which grew into a multi-million dollar industry.
Although it is based on diversity, certain characteristics are common to the New Age movement of the late twentieth century. One is an embrace of spiritualism, or a belief that the ordinary understanding of reality sets artificial limits on the abilities of the individual spirit; this is sometimes talked about as the human potential movement. Another is an interest in the religious practices of exotic ancient cultures, usually Native American or Far Eastern: in The Alchemist, this desire to incorporate the established power of older traditions shows itself in the use of stories from the Old and New Testaments, and in observance of rules from the Koran. Often, New Age texts also rely on the existence of mystical beings, or spiritual guides, who are aware of the true state of existence that many people cannot or will not see, and are willing to lead special, chosen individuals to their own enlightenment.
By the 1990s, the term "New Age" was seldom used anymore. Still, the beliefs in individual spiritual growth that led to its identity as a movement a quarter of a century earlier continued to grow. Interest in organized religion declined throughout the late twentieth century, but the same religious impulses that drew people toward religions still existed, and those impulses found themselves satisfied by the New Age religions, books, and music that addressed their questions of spirituality.
When it was first released in Brazil in 1988, The Alchemist failed to attract the attention of the reading public and did not even sell out its initial publication of nine hundred copies. Coelho's publisher dropped it from the publication list. When his following book, Brida, was able to generate more interest in 1990, The Alchemist was reissued. Its subsequent success has made it a publishing phenomenon. The book has been translated into fifty-six languages and has been published in over one hundred and fifty countries. It is one of the best-selling novels in history, with more than sixty-five million copies sold. The Alchemist has made Coelho an international literary sensation: his novels generally are met with much pre-publication interest, arriving at the tops of the bestseller lists in dozens of countries. In all, Coelho has sold over a hundred million books. In addition to his publications, his fans' reverence for Coelho is expressed in their enthusiasm for related products such as calendars, diaries, coffee mugs, and picture frames, all carrying his image and quotes from his works. His fans include such diverse international celebrities as former U.S. president Bill Clinton, Nobel Prize-winner Kenzaburo Oe, and pop singer Madonna.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1980s: Interests in religious practices that diverge from traditional religions are categorized as "New Age." This term covers a wide range of interests, including self-awareness, occultism, holistic medicine, belief in positive thinking and human potential, and music that promotes relaxation.
Today: The term "New Age" is used infrequently. In many cases this label has become associated with the very same commercialism that many practitioners of New Age thinking sought to abolish.
- 1980s: To discover the secrets of world wonders like the Egyptian pyramids, one can read books, watch television specials and films, or travel.
Today: Using the Internet, individuals from all over the world can take a virtual tour of the pyramids.
- 1980s: Alchemy is viewed as a quaint old religious belief, almost as a superstition.
Today: While transmutation of metals into other metals has not been reliably achieved yet, scientists have had some success with electrolysis and sonic cavitation, making it a distinct possibility in the near future.
While Coehlo's popular success is undeniable, his reputation as a literary artist has been a subject of much dispute. In 1992, his nomination to the prestigious Brazilian Academy of Letters was fiercely contested by writers across the country, who felt that his competitor, the social scientist Helio Jaguaribe, would be a much more dignified choice; Coelho won, though even members who voted for him admitted that they were reluctant. "I read one of his books and it was poorly written," said the academy's secretary general, Ivan Junqueria, in an article by Andrew Downie published in the newspaper Scotland on Sunday. "We can't ignore the biggest selling author Brazil has ever had. We'll have to elect him one day so it's better to resolve the problem now and get it over with." Critics who do not fall under the spell of his charm tend to be excessively harsh, as when David Sexton, reviewing Coelho's book Eleven Minutes in an article in the London Evening Standard titled "The High Priest of Spiritual Twaddle," took time out of his review to go back to the author's most famous work. "Actually," Sexton wrote, "The Alchemist, his world-beating classic, is even worse, an insufferable little yarn about an Andalusian shepherd boy who journeys into the Egyptian desert to be told by a two-hundred-year-old alchemist to follow his destiny and find his treasure in his heart. ‘Listen to your heart. It knows all things, because it comes from the Soul of the World, and it will one day return there,’ the alchemist instructs the boy—and the slackjawed multitude who have purchased this egregious volume."
Kelly is a writer and an instructor of creative writing and literature at two colleges in Illinois. In the following essay on The Alchemist, he looks at the artistic merit of the novel's structure.
Many discussions of Paulo Coelho's novels, and in particular his breakout book The Alchemist, focus on the author himself or his massive worldwide popularity. His sales numbers are indeed astounding—by some counts, The Alchemist is included in the top twenty-five best-selling books in all of human history, and it certainly is one of the biggest sellers by any living writer. People across the world say this book changed their lives and realigned the way they viewed the world. The book's impact on the publishing world cannot be doubted.
Being a publishing success does not necessarily make one's work an artistic success, much as the two might seem to be inseparable to people who can see no other standards for judgment. Many people are willing to dismiss the artistic achievement of The Alchemist as illusory after-effects of the book's breathtaking sales records, but they need to offer reasonable evidence for their position; it makes no more sense to say that something is not artistically sound because it is popular than it does to say that its popularity proves its artistic worth. Elements of the novel need to be looked at in their own context for evidence of talent and skill.
One way to test a work's artistic sensibilities is to look at its overall structure. The structure is the place where one can see if the author has a sense of the big picture, if he envisions his novel as a canvas that he is working on and not just as a series of events. Legend has it that Coehlo wrote the book over the course of just a few days, working under a manic sense of inspiration, but the furious pace at which it was produced does not indicate whether it has a sound overall structure; some people are simply able to understand what they want to accomplish as soon as they start. Besides, there is nothing that says that a work written through hurriedly cannot be revised; whatever his inspiration, it is the structure of the finished work that counts.
The Alchemist is divided into four sections. The novel itself is split into Part One and Part Two, both of which are sandwiched between a prologue and an epilogue. Since these parts are situated in parallel places to one another, it would be reasonable for a reader to expect each of them to show some relation to its counterpart.
Readers might be surprised to find a break in the novel when they reach the end of Part One, while the boy is working in a crystal merchant's shop. This division does not occur in any obvious breaking point in the plot of the story. A more natural breaking place might have come fourteen pages earlier, for instance, when the book's main character, Santiago, leaves European soil for the first time in his life and ends up in Africa, or twenty pages later, when he sets off, at last, after a year of distraction, to cross the African desert for Egypt. As it is, the break between the two parts comes in the middle of one of the boy's smaller adventures, when the boy takes up work in the shop of the crystal merchant, whom he is still working for in the beginning of Part Two.
The break between the two parts comes at a low point in Santiago's spiritual life. Not only has he suffered a reversal of fortune in losing his money but at the end of Part One he has lost his momentum. He decides to abandon his quest for the treasure he has been told he can find at the pyramids and return to being a shepherd, the life he lived in comfort for years. In this respect, it is a very fitting place to bring the novel to a halt as well. This is, after all, a book about a quest, and a quest can only be stopped when the person who is conducting it decides to consider it done. But readers know that this will just be a temporary lull, that the quest is not really called off at the end of Part One at all.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Coelho has said that he drew much of the inspiration for his 2006 novel Veronika Decides to Die: A Novel of Redemption from his own experiences with depression and suicidal feelings, for which he was institutionalized several times in his youth. The book has a more realistic setting, but retains his identifiable spiritual tone. It is published by Harper Perennial.
- Readers often compare the style of Coelho's novel to the 1943 book The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Saint-Exupéry's Little Prince, like the boy in Coelho's story, goes on a journey in which he finds meaning in the simplest metaphoric relationships, although his trip covers a more cosmic terrain. This book was published in a new sixtieth anniversary edition by Harcourt in 2003.
- The short story "In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo: In Cairo, Dreaming of Bagdhad" by the thirteenth-century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi (known in the West as simply Rumi) is said to be one of the clear inspirations for The Alchemist. It is available in the Penguin Classics publication of Rumi's Selected Poems, published in 2004.
- The principles for living well that Paulo Coelho outlines in this book are explained more directly in the 1997 collection of his teachings titled Warrior of the Light: A Manual. Reissued by Harper Perennial in 2004, this book is often described as a companion piece to The Alchemist.
- The title character of Herman Hesse's classic work of literature Siddhartha also goes on a spiritual journey to find true meaning in his life. Hesse's book is based in the tenets of Buddhism and Hinduism, which Hesse, a German, combined with European sensibilities, just as Coelho drew from several religious traditions to produce his work. Originally published in 1922, Siddhartha was re-released by Shambhala Classics in 2000 in a new translation by Sherab Chodzin Kohn.
- Before The Alchemist, Richard Bach's novel Jonathan Livingston Seagull, first published in 1970, captured the imaginations of millions of readers worldwide with its simple, meaningful fable about a seagull who transcends the basic selfishness of his breed to indulge his love of flight. It is still available from Avon Press, having never been out of print.
- Coelho has listed the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges as one of his literary inspirations. Critics note that The Alchemist appears to be based on Borges's 1934 story "Tale of Two Dreamers." The story was originally published in Borges's first collection of stories, A Universal History of Infamy, which Putnam reissued in 1992.
- Many of Coelho's fans throughout the world are also attracted to the writings of Irish novelist Niall Williams, who also explores spirituality in ordinary life through signs and omens, writing in a similarly graceful, understated style. Williams's first novel, Four Letters of Love, published in 1998 by Grand Central Publishing, concerns a man with a steady government job who quits to be a painter because God has spoken to him, and the ramifications for his son after his suicide.
When Part Two begins, Santiago's circumstances are not that much different than they were before the break: he is still working in the crystal merchant's shop, still optimistic enough about his life to turn a profit at his job as the merchant's assistant, and the crystal merchant is still glad to have him there. He spends nearly a year in the crystal business, and then decides that he will not return to Tarifa after all, though planning to do so was the climax of Part One. His decision to renew his quest and travel to Egypt is described in such an off-handed, casual way that he actually explains himself by saying, "Why not?" The crisis that ended Part One apparently was not such a personality-changing crisis at all, leaving readers to wonder why that particular spot would warrant the novel's only division.
It is an important moment, but there are other moments in Santiago's life, as it is related in the story, that are at least as important: his arrival at the oasis of Al-Fayoum; his meeting the love of his life, Fatima; or, certainly, his meeting with the alchemist of the novel's title. As it stands, the book is lopsided, with Part Two comprising roughly two and a half as many pages as Part One. If another break had been added later, Coelho could have divided it neatly into near thirds.
There is a good case to be made that the lopsidedness is consistent with the book's message. The shape of the book could be seen as emerging naturally as Coelho followed his own impulse, just as the story chronicles Santiago's spiritual journey as he throws away the book he is carrying and learns to heed the Voice of the Universe. This might justify the unevenness of the book's structure. It is difficult to tell the difference between a work that is unbalanced to illustrate the randomness of the world and one that is just the work of an author who does not have firm control of his material.
The only other sections of the book, the Prologue and the Epilogue, are poised at either end of the work like bookends and are particularly suited to examination as complements of one another. The Prologue begins with a scene that occurs outside of the flow of the novel, at some time before or after the events described. The alchemist has a book that has been left by someone in a caravan; assuming, with no other evidence, that the caravan referred to is the one that brought the boy, then the book would have been brought by the character called the Englishman, who travels with a heavy load of books. He reads a version of the Greek myth of Narcissus, this one taking the point of view of the lake that Narcissus drowns in after admiring his own reflection. The lake proves to be just as vain as the legendary character, having admired its own reflection in his eyes while he admired his image in its water. The alchemist enjoys this story.
The Prologue adds nothing to the development of the book's specific events. Instead, its significance lies in preparing readers for personification of natural phenomena, which plays a big part in the book when Santiago converses with the desert and the wind. The alchemist's pleasure in this story hints at the values that are in play in the book, with a natural world that is ready to interact with humans on an equal footing. It does not say anything about significant characters or events.
The Epilogue, on the other hand, is an important piece of the story. Part Two of the novel ends with the boy, Santiago, lying in the Egyptian sands, having taken a beating from a band of thieves. It is not until the Epilogue that he finally fulfills his quest and holds the treasure he has been seeking in his hands. He makes plans to return to the gypsy woman he met in Part One, to pay her, and to return to Fatima, whom he met in Part Two, to marry her.
The Prologue is all allegory, and the Epilogue is a continuation of the book's action. They are not designed to match one another at all; there is no attempt made to finish the story in the way it started. They are different styles.
This, along with the division of the novel proper into two vastly uneven parts, broken at an arbitrary point, indicates that The Alchemist takes its shape from principles other than artistic design. Paulo Coelho may indeed be a master of allegory and sublime symbol, and his book may have touched the hearts of tens of millions of readers, but at least on the level of artistic design, there is no reason to believe that the book is an artistic success.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on The Alchemist, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following interview, Coelho addresses his religious background and discusses why he believes The Alchemist has been so well received.
What role does spirituality play in your books?
I was always a religious person. I grew up, like almost all Brazilians, in a strictly Catholic family. Later, at the age of rebellion, I doubted Catholicism, and felt that I must try something new. Then I became a hippie. During this time, I traveled a lot, met people of different backgrounds, and had learned different paths to come closer to spirituality. After I did a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, I returned to the Catholic faith—just because it is in my blood, not because it is the best religion (although the current pope may disagree …). All religions have advantages and disadvantages.
Humans have always looked for a sense of purpose for their life. And there are essentially three ways to achieve this: art, science and religion. But if science and religion meet, we will have problems. Spirituality has nothing to do with whether you believe in God or not—it is an approach to life. During the twentieth century we experienced the dictatorship of science, which tells us that the world consists only of scientifically provable things. Thus the amazement and surprise of experiencing our souls were lost to us.
What issues do you explore in The Zahir that you have not explored in previous works?
This is the story we hear about success: If you are successful, you should buy this brand, go to this restaurant, talk about this book or this opera, drive this car. In fact, this goes back, in my opinion, to Darwin's theory of the survival of the more strong and fit. We try to prove that we are capable of rising above the average. Although we are not in the caverns anymore, we still behave as if we were—struggling to prove that we are the best. One of the most important things in The Zahir is that the main characters are constantly thinking about this: Who am I? Am I who I am, or am I believing in a story that was OK some centuries, millennia, ago, but now is totally outdated? This is the main subject: What story did people tell me? Why do I still believe it? Is this story in fact totally outdated?
Why do you think The Alchemist has been so well received?
When I wrote The Alchemist, I was trying to understand my own life, and the only way that I could do it was through a metaphor. Then, the book—with no support of press coverage, because the media normally refuses to publish anything about an unknown writer—made its way to the readers, and the readers started to discover that we share the same questions. Little by little, the book started to travel abroad, and today is one of the bestselling books of all time. But this success came slowly, based on word-of-mouth, and this gives me the sensation, the wonderful sensation, that I am not alone. Of course, by being a well-known author, I never feel myself as a stranger in a strange land, and I am pleased with the idea that many people, all over the world, share a similar modern perspective on life.
What question do you wish people would ask you?
"Are you happy?" The answer is: "No." Happiness is like a Sunday afternoon—very boring. I am in my personal turmoil, which is much more interesting than happiness.
If you could only keep one material possession, excluding a writing tool, what would it be?
A lawnmower and enough fuel.
Source: Kirkus Reviews, "Q & A: Paulo Coelho," in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 73, No. 11, June 1, 2005, p. S4.
Stephen M. Hart
In the following essay, Hart details the use of magical realism in The Alchemist, places the novel in the context of other works of magical realism, and provides an explanation of the work's success.
We are nothing: imitations, copies, phantoms; repeaters of what we understand badly, that is, hardly at all; deaf organ grinders; the animated fossils of a prehistory that we have lived neither here nor, consequently, anywhere, for we are aboriginal foreigners, transplanted from birth in our respective countries of origin. (Lihn, El arte de la palabra qtd. in Yúdice 8)
O Alquimista (1988) by the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho is one of the best-selling novels of all time. Coelho's work has to date sold 31 million copies in fifty-one different countries, making him what one reviewer in The Independent on Sunday called a "publishing phenomenon" (qtd. on the book's back cover). A reviewer in The Times said his books have had a "life-enhancing impact on millions of people," and another in the Express observed that The Alchemist "gives me hope and puts a smile on my face" (both qtd. on the book's back cover). One possible explanation for Coelho's popularity is that he uses the shorthand of literary cliché expertly. Consider the following passage that occurs halfway through The Alchemist:
The boy couldn't believe what he was seeing: the oasis, rather than being just a well surrounded by a few palm trees—as he had seen once in a geography book—was much larger than many towns back in Spain. There were three hundred wells, fifty thousand date trees, and innumerable coloured tents spread among them.
"It looks like The Thousand and One Nights," said the Englishman, impatient to meet with the Alchemist.
Here are a young Spanish shepherd boy who has sold all his sheep to look for treasure in the Egyptian pyramids, an oasis worthy of The Arabian Nights, and even an English Orientalist looking for the Alchemist: a passage that clearly presses all the buttons of the easy read.
This play with stereotypes, indeed, is one of the reasons Coelho's work has not always endeared itself to academic audiences, who often see it as pandering to popular taste. Coelho has a column in the online version of the Brazilian newspaper O Globo, and he regularly includes a horoscope column (see http://oglobo.globo.com). In some ways his fiction expresses the rather simplistic ideology of the horoscope writ large; his novels are animated horoscopes.
It is also true that Coelho's work is often full of grammatical errors when submitted to his Brazilian publishers. Coelho resists having his "errors" corrected, because it changes the "numerology" of the text. Publishers routinely give in to his demands. (I am grateful to João Cézar de Rocha for this information provided in an interview in London, June 24, 2003.) Whatever the literary quality of Coelho's fiction—and many argue it is minimal—there is no doubt that Coelho is a sociological phenomenon. His books have changed what it means nowadays to be a Latin American author (for more discussion on this, see Hart, "Isabel").
Coelho's fiction indeed has broken out of the shell of a mere novel. It now is sold routinely in bookshops on the new age philosophy bookshelf; in my local bookshop, The Alchemist appears in the "Mind, Body, Soul" section under the heading of "Visionary Fiction," and alongside Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
There are, moreover, a few delicate hints of magical realism in The Alchemist. Magical realism possesses a broadly based public appeal. Indeed, it was the only "foreign" fiction genre chosen by Bloomsbury when the publisher launched the new Reading Group Internet books on various aspects of world literature. The genre of J. K. Rowling's hugely successful Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is listed as none other than "magical realism" (see http://silicontenge.com/recommendedreading/reviews/philosophersstone.html).
The alchemist functions in Coelho's novel in a way reminiscent of Melquíades in García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude—that is, as the sage who knows the answer to all of life's questions. Omens in The Alchemist are used similarly to those in Chronicle of a Death Foretold (see Hart, Gabriel 43-47), and the appearance of the King of Salem to Santiago smacks of the appearance from beyond the grave of Clara's ghost to Alba when she is in prison in Isabel Allende's The House of Spirits.
At this point, the inevitable question arises: What is magical realism? My point of departure is the following observation that appears in Julian Barnes's novel, Flaubert's Parrot:
A quota system is to be introduced on fiction set in South America. The intention is to curb the spread of package-tour baroque and heavy irony. Ah, the propinquity of cheap life and expensive principles, of religion and banditry, or surprising honour and random cruelty. Ah, the daquiri bird which incubates its eggs on the wing: ah the fredonna tree whose roots grow at the tips of its branches, and whose fibres assist the hunchback to impregnate by telepathy the haughty wife of the hacienda owner: ah, the opera house now overgrown by the jungle. (Barnes 104)
Though witty, Barnes's point is misleading because he misses a sense of how the genre has evolved over time and place. This is precisely because of the ways in which magical realism has crossed national, linguistic, and genre boundaries. In addition to the Spanish American variety, there have been studies of magical realism in West African fiction (Cooper); in German, Italian, Flemish, Spanish, French, Polish, and Hungarian literatures (see Hart, Reading); and in the visual arts, painting, and cinema (Jameson). In fact, quite a strong case can be made for seeing magical realism's favored genre being the visual arts; it had its indisputable roots in the German art movement Neue Sachlichkeit in the 1920s (Weisgerber). But where did the term come from?
The period from the mid 1920s until the mid 1940s might be called the pre-baptismal stage of magical realism. The term was first used by Franz Roh, a German art critic, in his book Nach Expressionismus (Magischer Realismus) in 1925. Roh argued that post-expressionist artists painted concrete, real objects in such a way as to reveal their hidden mystery, that is, the magic that lies just beneath the surface of everyday things. Roh's work had an impact in Spanish-speaking countries when translated into Spanish by Fernando Vela and published by the prestigious cultural magazine Revista de Occidente. However, the idea only bore fruit some twenty years later, not in Spain but Latin America. What Roh identified as the combination of a crisp, sharply defined phenomenal world with a metaphysical dimension—evident, in his view, in the works of Chirico and Otto Dix—emerged some forty years later as the hallmark of Latin America's version of magical realism. Hence the standard definition, which is evident in the work of critics such as Luis Leal (for further discussion, see below), whose influences can be traced back to Roh and which may be summarized thus: "[T]he secret of magical realism lies in its ability to depict reality objectively but with a magical dimension" (Hart, "Magical Realism in the Americas" 115).
Its first real breakthrough came in the form of Alejo Carpentier's classic essay "De lo real maravilloso," published in the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional in 1948 and republished a year later in the preface to Carpentier's novel The Kingdom of This World. Carpentier proposed that the marvellous real defines, no less, the most appropriate way of seeing the history of Latin America:
The marvellous real comes into existence in an undeniable way when it is born from an unexpected change in reality (a miracle), from an enhanced revelation of reality, or from an illumination which is unusual or singularly able to reveal the hitherto unnoticed richness of reality. (Carpentier 108, my translation)
Carpentier went on to say that the marvellous real is not a mere literary fabrication; rather, it is a question of the people in Latin America actually believing in the supernatural, miracles, and ghosts, even in the twentieth century. As if on cue, one of Carpentier's compatriots, Esteban Montejo, gave the following account to Cuban sociologist Miguel Barnet of the most supernatural breed of creature, the Caribbean witch:
In Ariosa I saw them catch a witch. They caught her with some sesame seeds and mustard, and she was trapped to the spot. As long as there's a little grain of sesame on the floor, they can't move. […] So they could fly off the witches used to leave their skins behind. They would hang them up behind the door and then they would fly off, just wearing their bare flesh. All of them were from the Canary Islands. I've never seen any Cuban witches. They would fly here every night from the Canary Islands to Havana in a few seconds. (Barnet 125-26, my translation)
During the 1960s the Latin American variant of magical realism finally came into its own. Following Carpentier's 1949 novel, a number of works, including Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo (1955), José María Arguedas's The Deep Rivers (1958), and especially García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) set the mold for years to come. The criticism written about the movement during the 1960s and 1970s was basically concerned with elucidating the formal mechanics of the work, rather in the style of the new critics. Highly influential during this period was Luis Leal's definition of magical realism as "capturing the mystery which palpitates within things" (Leal 234). This interest in the formal qualities of the work also was evident in the structuralist readings of the 1980s (for examples, see Chiampi; Ricci; for discussion of their approaches, see Angulo 8-18).
But as the structuralists reached their conclusions, the carpet was being swept from beneath them. The Chilean journalist turned novelist Isabel Allende asserted a new brand of magical realism. Her The House of Spirits became an instant bestseller in 1982, as did its English translation published a year later. The 1980s were a decade of transition for both the critical analysis and creative writing of magical realism; in turn, Allende's feminized version of the magical-realist formula led to a further spin-off version by Laura Esquivel. Her Like Water for Chocolate, published in 1989, was an enormous bestseller when published in English, in particular when her (now ex-) husband's film version of the novel came out in 1994. I use the word transitional because new theories of magical realism were on the horizon, theories that initially were inspired by cultural studies and later by postcolonial theory. These theories provided new readings that honed in on the portrayal of cultural boundaries, the cross-mixing of cultures, the mixing of races, the mixing of high and low cultural styles, and a whole new gamut of issues that were as far from the structuralist readings of the 1980s as much as the new criticism that preceded it.
A landmark study was Lois Parkinson Zamora and W. B. Faris's edition of Magical Realism:Theory, History, Community, which came out to great acclaim in 1995. To make things even more complicated, hot on the heels of this new version of magical realism were the final stages of the internationalization of the movement that had begun in the 1960s with García Márquez and that meant that the term no longer just referred to Latin America. It now included the fiction of various post-colonial nations of the world. As Aijaz Ahmad puts it (with ill-disguised sarcasm):
The bastion of Englishness crumbles at the sign of immigrants and factory workers. The great Whitmanesque sensorium of America is exchanged for a Warhol blowup, a Kruger installation, or Mapplethorpe's naked bodies. "Magical Realism," after the Latin American boom, becomes the literary language of the emergent post-colonial world. (qtd. in Cooper 30-31)
This internationalization often was accompanied by a flagrant promotion of the mixing of races and cultures, what Salman Rushdie called "mongrelization." As Rushdie said of his masterpiece:
The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Melange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world. It is the great possibility that mass migration gives the world, and I have tried to embrace it. The Satanic Verses is for change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining. It is a love-song to our mongrel selves. (qtd. in Cooper 20)
There has been a growth in this approach since the 1990s and beyond of a group of writers whom Timothy Brennan has called the "Third-World cosmopolitans." Brennan began his book on Rushdie "by looking at a group of literary celebrities from the Third World who all seemed to share something in common. Originally, this included Mario Vargas Llosa, Derek Walcott, Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, Bharati Mukherjee, and a few others—a group I would call ‘Third-World cosmopolitans’" (qtd. in Cooper 20).
So what distinguishes the traditional approach to magical realism and the new cultural studies approach? Are they that different? The traditional approach sees magical realism in terms of a conflation of two literary genres—realism and the fantastic. So in the master narratives of the nineteenth century—Dickens, Balzac, Perez Galdós, for example—the realist mode leaves room for the emergence of the magical, but it is done in such a way that the monofocal vision of the text is not undermined. Prosper Mérimeée's La Statue de Vénus is an excellent example of what is meant here. Magical events are reported, alluded to, and discussed, but they are separated from the world of the narrator by an invisible line; that is, they occupy the realm of the bizarre, the strange, the "Other" (see Hart, "Magical Realism in Gabriel" 40-42). In a text such as García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, however, it is not immediately clear from which side of the invisible line the narrative speaks. In this novel, what the cosmopolitans regard as fantastic—ghosts, young beautiful girls going up to heaven when hanging the sheets on a line, gypsies disappearing into a puddle of tar—are not seen by the locals as magical in any sense. What is magical for them is what the cosmopolitan sees as ordinary—railways, trains, the cinema, false teeth.
A cultural studies approach to magical realism, by contrast, is one that focuses on the cultural politics underlying the ideology of representation. According to this methodology, the emergence of the magical-real is predicated on the existence of cultural bi- or trifocalism—that is, a cultural system in which no one single system of thought is given precedence over another. It is not that the savage is magical and the nonsavage refuses to see this, or that the narrator—in a gesture of anticolonialist recuperation—brings the savage's worldview to the fore in his or her fiction. For this in itself would still be monofocalism, not colonial but anticolonial. Rather, it is that the novel presents a worldview that is characterized by hybridity, in which no one of the competing visions is accorded preeminence (see Rowe). It is, indeed, from within the jaws of the Lacanian béance that the magical-real emerges.
In my view, however, there is an aspect of magical realism that runs deeper than whether one takes a close reading or a cultural studies view of the genre and that concerns the ambiguous way in which magic appears within the economy of the magical real novel. Often it is at odds with stereotypical views about what magic is. The inevitable question arises: What is magic? When a magician does a conjuring trick—creating magic before our eyes—he does something ordinary, hoping we will miss the trick and see the magic. As we all know, the conjurer uses apparatus of three types: apparatus that is exactly as it appears to the audience, equipment that secretly has been prepared to aid the performance of the trick without altering its appearances, and equipment that is hidden from sight and used without the knowledge of the audience. The knowledge possessed by the conjurer is in direct proportion to the audience's ignorance—in other words, if the audience sees behind the scenes, the trick fails and the magic is dispelled. This relationship between the magician and the audience is very different from the "magic"—if such a word is permissible—that is found, for example, in the Old Testament. Here it is as if the conjurer does not know what he is doing but the audience does.
There is a famous story in the Book of Exodus when Joseph correctly divines the meaning of the dreams of the baker and the butcher. Both men tell their dreams to Joseph, but they do not know what the dreams mean. Joseph—who listens to the dreams in the way an audience witnesses a story—does know what they mean and correctly predicts the stories as omens: The baker will be spared and the butcher hanged. The baker and the butcher have no idea what the magic means, although it comes from within them, and yet somebody external to the process does. The unconscious speaks a language that the subject misunderstands but the Other divines. The unconscious, to quote Lacan, is the language of the Other.
It ought to be added that Joseph fulfills the role of Other in the Old Testament in another far more fundamental way. He is a Hebrew in a foreign country (Egypt): "I was stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon" (Genesis 40.15). It is not only butchers and bakers who do not understand their dreams, but also the pharaoh of Egypt who is ignorant of the meaning of his dream about the seven fat and the seven lean cows. In the Old Testament the Hebrew is the one able to see the magic depth within external phenomena, whereas the Egyptian simply sees the surface reality of things and reads dreams literally. To use a metaphor quoted from Luis Leal's definition of magical realism, we could say that Joseph "captures the mystery which palpitates within things" (Leal 234).
Santiago, the protagonist of The Alchemist, operates in the story of his own life in a way that is reminiscent of Joseph's role in the Old Testament, although he takes divination one step further. He is able to interpret objective phenomena, rather than simply dreams, as omens of future events. When he sees a hawk swooping down to make a kill, he "knows" the oasis will be attacked:
Suddenly, one of the hawks made a flashing dive through the sky, attacking the other. As it did so, a sudden, fleeting image came to the boy: an army, with its swords at the ready, riding into the oasis. The vision vanished immediately, but it had shaken him.
What is intriguing about this vision—which turns out to be a correct premonition—is that it came to a boy who only recently arrived in the oasis. Like Joseph, Santiago is a foreigner. The chieftains want to know why this has happened:
"Who is this stranger who speaks of omens?" asked one of the chieftains, eyeing the boy.
"It is I," the boy answered. And he told what he had seen.
"Why should the desert reveal such a thing to a stranger, when it knows that we have been here for generations?" said another of the chieftains.
"Because my eyes are not yet accustomed to the desert," the boy said. "I can see things that eyes habituated to the desert might not see."
It is precisely because Santiago is a stranger—because he sees with the eyes of a foreigner the land he inhabits—that he is able to divine the future, to see the divine within the everyday.
In various guises this idea—that individuals are often unaware of the magic staring them in the face and need a nudge to see it—weaves its way through Coelho's novel. This is especially evident at the point of anagnorisis when, after years of searching, Santiago suddenly realizes where the treasure is hidden. Thus, when Santiago is discovered digging for treasure near the Pyramids he is attacked and nearly left for dead. But then the leader comes back and says to him:
You're not going to die. You'll live, and you'll learn that a man shouldn't be so stupid. Two years ago, right here on this spot, I had a recurrent dream, too. I dreamed that I should travel to the fields of Spain and look for a ruined church where shepherds and their sheep slept. In my dream, there was a sycamore growing out of the ruins of the sacristy, and I was told that, if I dug at the roots of the sycamore, I would find a hidden treasure. But I'm not so stupid as to cross an entire desert just because of a recurrent dream.
Again, while the Egyptian sees nothing in his dream—that is, interprets it as meaningless—the foreigner, the Spaniard, sees that it contains the truth. The real suddenly has burst open to reveal its magic. Santiago discovered his treasure, which was—the whole time—just beneath his feet near the sycamore tree. The leader is the unknowing recipient of treasure, and although the answer comes from within him in the form of a dream, he is unable to decipher its meaning. It is the foreigner who is able to decipher the rebus that comes from the unconscious. The system where by the subject's unconscious needs to be interpreted by the Other is echoed by the rule whereby the events of a national culture need to be deciphered by a foreigner to function as omens.
There are a number of ways in which The Alchemist overlaps with the ideology and techniques of magical realism—in the use of the omen to structure the story and its vision of magic just palpitating beneath the surface of things. But perhaps just as important is the sense in which the novel reenacts the drama of cultural hybridity that lies at the core of magical realism. In an interview Coelho pointed out, "Even if I don't write about Brazil, I see the world with Brazilian eyes. […] I don't have this wall. I believe that everything is magic and profane at the same time, everything is sacred and mundane" (Coelho, "Interview," http://www.fireandwater.com/microsites/coelho). This admixture of the magical and the profane is echoed in Coelho's novel by the collision of cultures; The Alchemist, to use Rushdie's words, is, after all, "a bit of this and a bit of that."
First, it is important to note that Santiago's name is chosen deliberately—alluding to the patron saint of Spain—and yet his journey will take him to the heart of Arabian culture, understood in a generic sense, through Morocco and on toward the Pyramids of Egypt, such that his journey reenacts some of the topoi of The Arabian Nights (for more about these topoi, see Irwin). The first person he meets is a mysterious individual who turns out to be a high priest of the Old Testament (because he possesses the Urim and the Thummin, that is, the divinatory devices contained within the breastplate of judgment worn by the high priest described in the Book of Exodus 28.15). Right from the beginning, therefore, the protagonist is portrayed as standing at the crossroads between various ancient cultures; he simultaneously is intersected by Christian, Hebraic, and Arabian cultures. This is what I think Coelho means when he says that he sees the world with Brazilian eyes. His eyes are those of the hybrid in which there is no single, overriding monofocal vision of reality. Instead, it is a culture of palimpsest in which different cultural surfaces slide over one another, supplanting each other momentarily. Just as one day is followed by its successor in historical time, so each day is proved retroactively to be an omen of the following day, and so the faces of different cultures melt into each other.
In this brief analysis I have shown some similarities between the magical realism in Coelho's fiction and the fiction of, for example, García Márquez. Some differences are in tone. Whereas the Colombian's fiction is predicated on an ideology that verges on the nihilistic, viewing Latin American history as repeating the mistakes of its past with depressing regularity, Coelho's fiction grows from a vision of reality that is, as The Times critic put it, "life-enhancing." Coelho's fiction uses the techniques of magical realism, but endows them with a visionary quality, promoting the notion that each of us is destined for treasure, that each of us has a magical dream buried deep down within us, and that it is up to us to search the reality around us until we finally discover where the magic is.
Source: Stephen M. Hart, "Cultural Hybridity, Magical Realism, and the Language of Magic in Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist," in Romance Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 4, Fall 2004, pp. 304-12.
Baghat Elnadi and Adel Rifaat
In the following excerpt from an interview conducted by Baghat and Rifaat, Coelho discusses his spiritual background and its influence on The Alchemist.
… In the two centuries since the Enlightenment, man has become the measure of all things. This attitude of mind has changed many things for the better, but it gives short shrift to the spiritual dimension of human existence. People today need to rediscover a relationship with transcendence, but only on condition that it is through their ownexperience and that they [give] consent to that experience, which should not be subjected to any religious authority. By putting forward a model for an individual spiritual quest in your novel The Alchemist, you put your finger on this overriding concern of people today. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for its tremendous success.
Paulo Coelho: The Enlightenment did not prevent people from having their irrational side or rule out intuition or enthusiasm. Humanity gradually turned its back on them for other reasons. Yet I am convinced that humanity is now quietly opening its doors again to things which it had rejected and ceased to respect. The most important of these seems to me to be the idea of mystery. This is something that must be understood—not so much the fact that there is a limit to human knowledge as the fact that mystery is part of the human condition. When I fall in love, it is not because the person I love is the best in the world or even the best person for me. Love is beyond reason, and so is spiritual questing. Why do we need spirituality? I do not know. That's part of the mystery. Some people have sought a recipe for the human condition. "You've got to do this," they tell us. "You've got to do that." I don't trust them. But I do trust those who have sufficient humility to respect the mystery surrounding our lives and to acknowledge that there are major reasons that are beyond our understanding. When I wrote The Alchemist, I obviously did not know that it was going to be such a success. I only wanted to write about what I firmly believe, which is that everybody needs to live out their personal legend.
This is what's new, that people who feel the need to get down to essentials no longer have to go through a priest, a rabbi or an imam. The Alchemist suggests that they can find self-fulfillment by pursuing a personal quest which is a source of fulfillment rather than a curtailment of their freedom. This changes a lot of things.
P.C.: We all feel an inner need to see the world not only as it appears to our senses but as a vaster intangible reality embracing the Whole. This is what I called the "soul of the world" in The Alchemist. Spirituality, which caters for this need, can therefore only be a personal quest. There is a path to God, marked by signs which are so many letters of an alphabet ensuring direct communication with the divine. However, this does not preclude the need at certain times for collective adoration and prayer. At those times, we turn to religion. Religion is there to satisfy a desire to belong to the community, to find brothers and sisters. But it does not show us the path to God. This path starts from within each of us. It is up to us to unravel the thread.…
Yet your own personal quest first led you in different directions. At one time you were a hippie and then you flirted with left-wing politics.…
P.C.: Yes. I have tried just about everything. I have wanted to live my life to the hilt. I was raised by the Jesuits, which is the best way of completely losing your faith, because God is forced on you. I left the Catholic church precisely because it had been forced on me. I returned to it later after a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, not because it is the best or ultimate religion but simply because I carry it within me. The world opened up in the 1960s. People, especially young people, started to travel, meet and make contact with each other. It was a magic moment, a moment in the history of humanity when an entire generation set about answering basic questions such as: What am I in this world for? Who am I? Why was I born in Brazil instead of in Egypt? These questions have been pursuing people ever since the dawn of time. They can't be avoided, even if people sometimes feel they have given up on them. In an attempt to answer them, people have explored the three paths of art, science and spirituality. These are three very different things, but they impinge on each other. In fact, the three overlap and blend together. But there are certain things that it is very dangerous to mix up. Spirituality and art can cross-fertilize one another and great scientific geniuses often have poetic intuitions. But when people want to find some kind of scientific basis for religion, the result is catastrophic. The experience of faith belongs to an order of reality that cannot be reduced to the world of concepts or be forced into a scientific mould.
Collective religious experiences are creating many conflicts, instead of prompting people to understand each other better and share things.…
P.C.: The experience of true faith always brings us back to the Other. This being so, the first person I see is my neighbour. There is a sense of joy which I want to share with him or her. If that joy is not shared, it ceases to be joy. On the other hand, in sadness that is truly shared there is room for joy.…
Even misfortunes are opportunities to learn the price of things.
P.C.: Yes, provided we persevere along the path of our own personal legend, provided that we do not give up. Unfortunately, in the course of their journey, many people betray the dream which connects them to the soul of the world. They sacrifice it to the acquisition of social status. If a person's true vocation is to become a gardener and if by becoming a gardener that person achieves self-fulfillment, nothing should deter him or her. However, in our day, people will be forced more and more often to abandon their dream—often under family pressure—and become lawyers or doctors. They will forget their personal legend, they will lose their sense of belonging, they will no longer have the resources to transform each experience and each misfortune into a fresh opportunity to lift themselves up.
No sooner has the hero of The Alchemist decided to follow his dream than he is robbed. You can imagine his disillusionment! He who had found the inner strength to fulfill his personal legend, who thought, as if by right, that the whole world would conspire on his behalf, finds himself alone and penniless. You need courage to launch out into an unknown world, abandoning all you possess. At the threshold of our quest, the fear of stepping into an unknown world and the desire to stay at home lie in wait for us. It is a crucial moment of initiation. But we cannot stand on the threshold for ever. We must dare to move. Only corpses do not move. Life is movement. But where to? This is what we all have to discover for ourselves.
The need to cast off from our moorings.…
P.C.: To do this, we have to give free rein to our rebellious side. I am a great believer in inner rebellion—not lifelong rebellion or rebellion without cause or restraint, but rebellion against the force of habit, against the fear of change—which is really fear of living—rebellion that will enable us to make our own way by strengthening our determination. Take the example of the struggles we have to wage with the family from childhood on. My mother was always opposed to my personal destiny. But at the same time she helped me find the strength and skills to control myself, persevere and find my own way. Without this conflict, I would never have developed will-power. These are quite legitimate struggles!
I do not know where this rebellion comes from. It is a force which is liberated in us and which liberates us in turn. It is the quest for personal space and time. We cannot accept that our life span should be measured in terms of so many years of primary school, followed by secondary school and then a job. All this is only our collective space-time and it should on no account stifle our personal space-time. It is necessary to strike a balance between the two.
You say that we do not know where we are going, and yet you speak of rebellion. Isn't there a contradiction in this?
P.C.: Yes there is, fortunately. This is what freedom is all about. There has to be rebellion against the forces of inertia and death in order to liberate the forces of life and creation, which are not programmed in advance. Otherwise, there would be no freedom. By that I mean freedom in its existentialist sense, in other words a compromise. I am free, I can leave this room right now, but I won't because I have freely imposed a certain code of behaviour on myself. I am also free to write a book, but to do so I have to sit at the computer for several hours a day. I impose this constraint on myself in complete freedom. On the other hand, if I am sitting in front of the computer and all the ideas are already in my head, there will be nothing creative about it. We have to leave a space so that inner freedom can express itself.
How did you set about writing The Alchemist? What ideas did you start out with? Did you know how the story would develop beforehand?
P.C.: You may be amazed to learn that the story of The Alchemist comes from the One Thousand and One Nights. It is quite a short tale, only a few lines long, about a hidden treasure for which the hero searches far from home, only to find it eventually within himself. I took four guiding ideas from it: the personal legend, the language of signs, the soul of the world and the need to listen to one's heart. I started the novel with this very short tale as my guide. The rest was vague, like being in a fog. The only thing I knew was that the boy would eventually return to his starting point. There were times—and this is the experience of creation—when I felt as if I was trapped by my own story. At one point, the boy has to transform himself into the wind. It is a matter of life or death. He has to do it. But how do you start describing such a thing? As you can imagine, I myself have never transformed myself into a wind. I panicked.… Then I told myself that I had to take the plunge and I went right on to the end of the book.
Hemingway used to say that when he started a novel he had no guiding theme, but that when he stopped writing in the evening, he knew what he was going to write on the following day.…
P.C.: In my youth, when I came across quotations like that, I used to say to myself that they were hooey. Now I know they make sense. The wellsprings of creation bubble up in ways that are to some extent unpredictable. In Hemingway's case, the limits of the predictable were on the following day. The day after that was always a blank page. Writers are like pregnant women.…
In my own case, I don't write all the time. I let two years go by between one novel and the next. Things happen during those two years which, together with many others that happened long before, beget a novel in me, like begetting a child. Everything we say today may find its way into some future book.
Frederic Rossif, the well-known film director who died some years ago, once met a Sufi mystic in a cave in Iran and asked him: "What is a saint?" The holy man's answer struck everybody to whom Rossif told the story. It was: "A saint is a man who has pardoned God".
P.C.: That was a brilliant answer. It strikes a particular chord with me since my book The Fifth Mountain starts out from the idea that we should struggle with God. According to the Bible, God should be accepted as a father. Personally, as I said earlier when talking about my mother, I am rather more inclined to wrestle with Him. It is a legitimate struggle. Pardoning God implies that one has already fought with him, as a way of gradually coming closer to Him.
By raising all these questions, The Alchemist has gone well beyond the realm of literature.
P.C.: The novel has inspired a classical symphony, composed in the United States, which will be played at Tarifa in Spain next June. This concert will also be an occasion for an international debate to be held on religions and on ways and means of defusing the religious wars that are threatening us. It is in this capacity, in fact, that I have been appointed an adviser to the Director-General of UNESCO.
Source: Baghat Elnadi and Adel Rifaat, "‘The Beyond Is Accessible to Those Who Dare,’" in UNESCO Courier, Vol. 51, No. 3, March 1998, p. 34.
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Downie, Andrew, "Novelists' Talents Brought to Book in Brazilian Literary Battle," in Scotland on Sunday, July 21, 2002, p. 21.
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Sexton, David, "The High Priest of Spiritual Twaddle," in Evening Standard (London, England), August 4, 2003, p. 35.
Arias, Juan, Paulo Coelho, Thorsons Publishers, 2000.
This authorized biography of the author's life gives the details of his story in a complimentary way, as Coelho would like them presented; still, it is the only comprehensive overview of his career to date.
Hauck, Dennis William, The Emerald Tablet: Alchemy of Personal Transformation, Penguin Press, 1999.
With simple, direct language, Hauck gives the history of alchemy and outlines seven basic steps for transformation, corresponding with the principles discussed in Coelho's novel.
Ortolano, Glauco, "An Interview with Paulo Coelho: The Coming of Age of a Brazilian Phenomenon," in World Literature Today, Vol. 77, No. 1, April-June 2003, pp. 57-9.
While there are many interviews with Coelho in publication, this one focuses on him as a writer, not as a figure of inspiration. Ortolano keeps the focus on his inspirations and his place in the literary world.