The subtle deception of The Alchemist

On January 17, the “Alchemist” completed 388 weeks on the New York Times list of Best Sellers books. Achieving an outstanding record of being the longest book currently staying on the Times bestseller list.

The Alchemist was written in 1987 by Paulo Coelho and was first published in Brazil in 1988. Since that day, the book has sold over 65 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 80 languages making Coelho the most translated living author.

The 25th Anniversary Edition of “The Alchemist”

The story is about a young Spanish shepherd called Santiago who dreams about a treasure buried at the pyramids in Egypt. He decides to travel to Egypt to search for that treasure. Once he reaches the pyramids he encounters a group of bandits, and after they robbed him, one of them tells him that he had the same dream about a treasure hidden under a tree in an abandoned church in Spain, which happens to be the same tree that he used to sit under. Santiago then travels back home and unearth the treasure chest.

The plot of the Alchemist is based on one of the tales of “The Thousand and One Nights” The tale is about a man from Baghdad who saw in a dream someone telling him about a treasure buried in Cairo. The man travels to Egypt to search for the treasure but he was captured by the police and was questioned about the purpose of his visit to Cairo. He told the police chief his story and surprisingly the police chief responds that he had once the same dream about a treasure hidden in a house in Baghdad but he wasn’t a fool to travel to Baghdad to search for that treasure because it was just a dream. The man was astonished because the house in Baghdad that the police chief described was exactly his own house! Then he travels back to Baghdad to unearth the buried treasure under his house.

The Thousand and One Nights (aka The Arabian Nights)

For some reason, this tale from “The Thousand and One Nights” resonated with a lot of people in different countries around the world and became one of the folktales -after being localized- in Persia, Turkey, England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Austria, Denmark, etc… Professor D. L. Ashliman has compiled a comprehensive list of those folktales that can be found on this link.

The first time I read the Alchemist was in 1999 and from the first read I found myself totally overwhelmed in fascination with this book. I have read the book more than 27 times in the last 16 years and I have carried a copy with me everywhere I traveled all those years. After reading the Alchemist, I went on reading every book Coelho published, starting from his first book “The Pilgrimage” to his latest “Adultery”.

Book cover of first english edition of The Alchemist

Over the years and the more I read the Alchemist I started to feel that there is something missing, something that I was unable to figure out, but I had a feeling that kept growing that what is missing is so fundamental that without it the story couldn’t be concluded the way it did. That was until last year when I read a remarkable novel called “The Journey of Ibn Fattouma” written by the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.

Naguib Mahfouz 1911–2006

When Coelho visited Mahfouz in Cairo in 2005, he revealed that his earlier visit to Cairo in 1978 was the inspiration behind The Alchemist “I visited Egypt the first time in 1978. I was really touched on seeing the Pyramids. When I went back to Brazil The Alchemist had found its genesis in my mind and so I immediately embarked on writing it.”

During that meeting, Coelho told Mahfouz that he had read all his books that were translated into Portuguese. Mahfouz commented on The Alchemist that he felt like he had read it before and mentioned to Coelho that he had tackled the same search theme in Ibn Fattouma.

Paulo Coelho meeting with Naguib Mahfouz in Cairo, 2005

Ibn Fattouma is fiction set in an undefined time but seemingly medieval period. The story is about a boy from Cairo called Ibn Fattouma who was so fascinated by travelers stories that he decided to make a trip to a city far away that all travelers are telling numerous stories about it and how everyone managed to reach that mysterious city never returned again. To reach that city he had to go across 5 different cities on the way to his destination. Every city of them had a strikingly different system and customs from each other and from his own city. Shocking events and accidents happened to him during visiting each of those 5 cities that resulted in making him spend more than 40 years in a journey that should have taken less than a year. Throughout the story, the protagonist is faced by a lot of harsh experiences that shock up his religious beliefs, his appreciation of ethics, values, and humanity overall. The journey of Ibn Fattouma was published in Egypt in 1983.

Book cover of the English translation of “Ibn Fattouma” published in 1992

After reading Ibn Fattouma, I felt that I must have a fresh read of the Alchemist because I felt that I was finally ready to find that missing piece and when I found it, I realized how deceptive it was.

In the Alchemist, we travel on a journey with Santiago from his home in Spain to Morocco where he gets robbed of all his money and decides to find some work in the city until he has enough money for the return journey to his home. But after making a small fortune at the crystal shop he decides to continue his conquest and travel to Egypt where he meets the alchemist who joins him in his journey to the pyramids and while they were travelling together they fell into the hands of tribesmen who suspect that they were spies and decide to kill both of them.

Until that point, all the obstacles Santiago faced were things that more or less can be overcome by a man determined to fulfill his dream or his “personal legend” as Coelho puts it. But the challenge Santiago faced with the tribesmen is totally unusual or we can clearly say impossible. Because the alchemist in the story decides suddenly to tell the tribesmen that Santiago has a magic power that enables him to turn himself into the wind! The tribesmen then challenge Santiago to perform his magic in front of them otherwise, they will kill him and the alchemist.

Throughout the story and up until this scene Coelho made it very clear that Santiago is an ordinary guy that does not possess any superpowers. So, when the alchemist said that about him to the tribesmen he was totally shocked and became too frightened and informed the alchemist that he does not know how to turn himself into the wind. The alchemist replies on him “If a person is living out his Personal Legend, he knows everything he needs to know. There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” when Santiago replies that he is not afraid of failing but “It’s just that I don’t know how to turn myself into the wind.” The alchemist simply responds “Well, you’ll have to learn; your life depends on it.”

So, Coelho decided to solve this dilemma by making Santiago speak to the sun, wind, and desert. And just all of the sudden Santiago starts conversing with the wind asking her to help him to save his life and makes the same dialogue with the desert and the sun. Then the three natural powers agree to help him by creating a huge storm that made him vanish and subsequently the tribesmen let him & the alchemist free to continue their journey.

The message of the Alchemist is “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” But as we can see in the storm incident that Santiago would have never been able to accomplish his dream “personal legend” or even save his own life without possessing an incredible magic power that he utilized to overcome the obstacle life throw on his way.

This is the missing piece in the Alchemist. That while we are struggling in life to realize our dreams and if we are unfortunate enough to face some existential threats that separate us from our dreams, we as ordinary people feel helplessness and despair because we don’t have what’s required to overcome those obstacles and the way we tackle these situations varies according to our conditions, capabilities, and determination. Which also happened to Santiago before Coelho decided to make him wear the magician cloak and become Harry Potter.

Paulo Coelho

The pivotal role sorcery played as the only way out to save the life of the protagonist is a stark contradiction to the message of the book. Because we have a guy who believed in his dream and acted upon realizing that dream in spite of the obstacles he faced. But when he is faced with this existential threat, he all of the sudden manages to talk with the nature and turn himself into a storm.

One may say that the Alchemist is a parable and the storm incident is just a metaphor of the obstacles one may face while seeking to achieve his dream and it’s not meant to refer to an actual transformation of a man into a storm. This would have been correct in another context in another story but not in the Alchemist. Because the Alchemist is a demonstration of man’s will to have his own life the way he wants. This is why we see throughout the story Santiago, the ordinary guy facing realistic troubles that we as readers can easily identify with.

Even the Urim and Thummim stones don’t count as any kind of magic because they were just an omen and didn’t play any major role in his journey, even in the only time he checked them at the marketplace. Actually, the way Santiago used them was like he was flipping a coin, and some of us use such omens when we are hesitant to make a decision. This interpretation was acknowledged by Coelho at the epilogue when he motioned that Santiago’s “life and his path provided him with enough omens” that made him in no need for Urim and Thummim.

The only other scene in the story where there was a role for magic was when the alchemist transformed lead into gold. But it was not Santiago who performed this trick and even when he asked the alchemist to teach him how to do that, the alchemist refused and told him that this magic is the alchemist’s own personal legend.

Coelho’s concept of “The whole universe conspires to help you ….” might have worked well for him making him reach a profound international fame and success. In fact, Coelho’s life is exemplifying this motto. But despite my belief in signs and omens and the strange twists of fate that happen to some people, I also strongly believe that to expect some divine intervention that sorts out things for you at times of crises is catastrophic in most cases.

Yes, when we read the Alchemist we become under the influence that “yes we can do it” but the more we go on our journey to achieve our dream, only a few of us are lucky to have the universe on their side conspiring for them, while the rest are slowly and painfully realizing how badly they miss that touch of magic that they need to overcome those crucial turning points on the way to their personal legend.