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A MYTH RATHER THAN A FABLE
on December 31, 2001
Believe it or not, the author of this book starts his narrative by recounting how he lost and then FOUND his way seeking truth in alchemy.
All straight-faced. Anyone who was taught elementary chemistry is left dumbfounded.
But the first pages of 'The Alchemist' are just an indication of what's to come: this book is a mixture of supposedly apocryphal wisdom, recycled spiritual teachings and fantasy. All delivered in a tranquil, friend-to-friend (not to say Master-to-novice) manner which adds a false sense of credibility to the storyteller. Coelho must either be a misguided fool with a talent for words or an expert exploiter of peoples' need for a purpose.
Possibly the latter. That's why he calls his tale a fable. But that it ain't, unless we mean to re-write the rules of the genre as set down by its father, Aesop, more than 2500 years ago. Short as it is, 'The Alchemist' is still way too long to be rightly called a fable. That nice term though is smooth cover for Coelho's chosen means of delivering his moral: the story unfolds in a twisted imitation of '1001 nights' (too bad Aladdin-type heroics have to be mixed with recent day Englishmen, one almost misses a couple of mad dogs). But maybe Coelho's moral needed this kind of imaginary setting: how else can you justify a hammering of 'If you follow your dream the whole Universe will conspire in your attaining it'? In 'The Alchemist' we read of the wind, the sun and other elements assisting the hero (Santiago, a boy shepherd and, doubtless, a future Master Alchemist) overcome all odds in his quest. Which is?... None other than finding a treasure in the Pyramids... That, we're told, is Santiago's 'Personal Legend'. This catchy phrase presumably denotes what we too are supposed to look for in our lives (and then follow, no doubt).
Coelho though is a gifted writer. All the folly is remitted in a slick, deceptively enjoyable bedtime story style. This has prompted many a reviewer to suggest this book is great for kids. I think not; I would be very wary of any material that suggests to my children it's OK to become soldiers of fortune if the whim takes them.
All said, this book does not live up to its illustrious reputation. Moreover, to this reviewer it appears a phoney. If you like the mystics I would suggest you seek 'The Book of Mirhad'; if you are after spirituality go for the real thing, 'The little Prince'; if you want fantasy 'The Lord of the Rings' will offer it to you aplenty minus the didactic overtones; and if you're looking for a good children's story Rowling's 'Philosopher's stone' is the vastly preferred choice.
With 'The Alchemist' you may think you're going in for a fable. But in reality you'll be going in for a myth.