Recently a friend recommended I read a book he absolutely adored called The Alchemist, by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. This friend of mine is one of life's seekers of light and treasure, and as such he is a deeply spiritual person – much like Paulo Coelho himself, as is obvious when you read his book. I'm different. I believe you make your own treasure and light in life. However, Coelho and I seem to agree on one point – the journey is the most important part of the treasure.
The Alchemist is a fable about a shepherd boy (named Santiago but referred to as just “the boy” throughout the book) from the Andalusia area of Southern Spain. He lives a simple shepherd life, herding his sheep from place to place, finding them good food to eat and clean water to drink, and occasionally selling their fleece to fill his purse. He is simple and innocent and his needs are few, but he craves excitement and adventure, and he wants to travel and see the world. One day he meets an old god/king (the fabled King of Salem, Melchizedek) who promises to tell him where to find treasure, in exchange for one tenth of his flock of sheep. The boy, believing in omens, and that the omens are guiding him, gives the sheep to the old man.
After giving the old man his share of sheep, he is told that he should listen to the omens and follow what they tell him to do. He must take the two hour ferry trip from the tip of Andalusian Spain to Morocco, and from there he must journey through the Sahara desert to the Pyramids where he will find his treasure. He has many setbacks but eventually he reaches his destination, however it is his journey that is his real treasure. He learns better how to read the omens and discovers their importance; they are the voice of the Soul of the World speaking directly to him. He learns how to listen to his heart, to understand when it is lying and when it is telling the truth. He finds true love, an unending perfect love, the kind of love only found in fables.
Although the treasure is the primary aim of this journey, it is only while on the journey that the boy gathers the skills and wisdom he needs to reach his goal. It is also during this time that he meets the alchemist, but this isn't any ordinary alchemist. This is Super Alchemist. Not only can he transmute common metals into gold, and create The Philosopher's Stone, like all alchemists, but he has the wisdom of the ages, can talk directly to the Soul of the World and can even become the wind. He rides a shining white steed and carries a large scimitar, while the image conjured up is not dissimilar to Rudolph Valentino's Sheik. It is the alchemist who guides our shepherd friend through the metaphorical jungle of indecision before leading him, quiet literally, through the desert to find his treasure.
While The Alchemist is a beautiful and extraordinarily optimistic tale, it isn't very well written, but that's not to say the it isn't a good book. It's a strong story related to the reader by the omniscient narrator, told in a way reminiscent of fairy tales or spiritual texts like the Bible or Koran.
Coelho has a bad habit of writing prolix speeches for his characters. In trying to pass along his moral from each wise man who the boy encounters, the lessons are often delivered in a patronising way and can feel more like a soliloquy. Many times I couldn't shake the feeling that I was being beaten about the head with these homilies. The length of these pontifications can disrupt the flow of the story sometimes, to the point of stopping it altogether, and as a result the book can feel slightly long-winded and even faltering in places