Paul Coelho's The Alchemist - PseudoNeoplatonist's Sour Mash

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For some reason every time I read an inspirational book I go to it with a skeptical mind. What platitudes will I read, I ask myself. What commonplaces, pseudo-sage advice will I have to put up with? Although Paul Coelho's novelette is passable, it verified and concretized what I had feared: that it was a book filled with warmed up advice for the philosophically immature.

The story flows like a tame stream with highs and lows along which we encounter strange but charismatic characters. It is the quest story of a shepherd boy who follows his dream to find a treasure. It is a dream that causes the boy to give up his current existence in order to go in search of his destiny.

The protagonist is Santiago, the shepherd boy whose adventure we follow: his crusade to reach the pyramids of Egypt after going across the desert.

A gypsy woman and a mysterious king advise him to pursue his destiny. The old man says to Santiago: "To realize one's destiny is a person's only obligation. All things are one. And, when you want something, the entire universe conspires in helping you to achieve it."

Let's do a bit of analysis: 'To realize one's destiny is a person's only obligation,' is a platitude. Aren't well all realizing our destinies as we move in life? And what are we to make of "All things are one?" Oh, yes, that's the mantra -the nous- spewed by the Neo-Platonist Plotinus in the 3rd century. And if that wasn't enough, we are treated to other similar clichés:

"People learn early in their lives what is their reason for being. Maybe that's why they give up on it so early, too.

"If you start out by promising what you don't even have yet, you'll lose your desire to work toward getting it.

"God has prepared a path for everyone to follow. You just have to read the omens that he left for you.

"The Soul of the World is nourished by people's happiness. And also by unhappiness, envy, and jealousy.

Through Santiago's life Coehlo shows how great life can be and that nothing is easy, but if you believe in yourself and your dreams you can find your fortune in life. This book, once you finish reading it, will (supposedly) help you think about your own life, about your purpose in this life, and how to achieve happiness. Yet, it is the protagonist who must choose whether to stay in his current status or to keep walking and taking risks.

Along the way, Santiago also learns by negative reinforcement, as he listens to the Crystal merchant:

" I'm afraid that if my dream is realized, I'll have no reason to go on living.

"I don't want to change anything, because I don't know how to deal with change. I'm used to the way I am.

"Every blessing ignored becomes a curse. I don't want anything else in life. But you are forcing me to look at wealth and at horizons that I have never known. Now that I have seen them, and now that I see how immense my possibilities are, I'm going to feel worse than I did before you arrived. Because I know the things I should be able to accomplish, and I don't want to do so.

And if the Crystal man doesn't bore you to death with his myopia, there's the English man who with his telescopic vision will definitely bring you to a yawn:

"When you want something with all your heart, that's when you are closest to the Soul of the World. It's always a positive force.

"Everything on earth is being continuously transformed, because the earth is alive ... and it has a soul. We are part of that soul, so we rarely recognize that it is working for us.

The structure of the story can be compared with the style of life of obstinate people who like heat-seeking missiles do not deviate from their target. Obsession will get them there. Chase a dream until they get it. So, in this context the story has practical value-we must act.

Coelho's writing is smooth and fluid; it runs off the page at a fair pace, and you should be able to gobble it up in one sitting. Million copies of this book have been sold world-wide and if you haven't read it yet, go ahead and satisfy your curiosity. You'll make the Portuguese novelist a few bucks richer with your purchase, but at the same time you'll feel like he's picked your pocket, for in the end you'll be left with nothing concrete but clichés and platitudes.

I take Jonathan Livingston Seagull instead any day. At least the dumb seagull taught me how to fly with my own words .

Retired. Former investment banker, Columbia University-educated, Vietnam Vet (67-68).
For the writing techniques I use, see Mary Duffy's e-book: Sentence Openers.
To read my book reviews of the Classics visit my blog: Writing To Live

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Occupation: Retired
Retired. Former investment banker, Columbia University-educated, Vietnam Vet (67-68), Writer, Blogger, Accountant, College professor.

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