The Alchemist is the story of a young shepherd, Santiago, who leaves Andalucia to journey across North Africa in search of the ultimate treasures of life. I’d heard lots about this book before I read it and how profound and life-changing it is meant to be and, whilst I enjoyed it, I have to say it didn’t live up to the hype.
Three conflicting messages come from Santiago’s quest. First, that we should live our lives in accordance with our destiny, we should follow our dreams in search of personal fulfillment. Second, we have the concept of ‘Maktub’ or fatalism. So no matter what we are searching for, it is all mapped out for us anyway. I felt that the overall message was muddled, free will and fatalism are opposites and this book seems to combine the two managing to tell us everything and nothing all at once. The final idea of the book was that what we are searching for is what we had all along, so the whole search was pointless from the outset. In fact, you can get the same conclusion from reading The Wizard of Oz, much more entertaining too.
The book reads like a philosophy text and I found myself stopping and thinking frequently to absorb the author’s message. But how much of this book is actually grounded in the academic theories of theology, philosophy or science? Or has the author just made it all up to support his own views and to back up his story? Before we get too excited we must remember that this is simply a fictional tale well told, there is neither bibliography nor references to any research on the part of the author, only gushing quotes from the likes of Madonna. For a novel written in the late twentieth century it was pretty sexist too. It seems that men should be following their destinies whilst the women in their lives wait patiently for their return. May I suggest to any young men reading this: if you leave a woman to follow your destiny, unlike Fatima she might not be too pleased to see you on your return.
So perhaps I’m a cynic but it worries me that so many people see this book as inspirational and life-changing. This seems to me to be philosophy-lite, an easy read that you can pretty much take any message you like from and use it to justify your own actions or lack of action. Personally I have chosen not to take any message from this book at all and continue to live my life as I did before. On the plus side this novel is a quick and pleasant read with some lovely prose and descriptions of the desert. I’m glad I read it, if only to see what the fuss was about.