The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

A review of the literary fable fiction novel The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Having sold over 150 million copies worldwide since its release in 1988, it’s been an immovable object on the New York Times bestseller list and has won numerous awards and international prizes in its time. Despite its acclaim, it’s also the most boring book I have ever had the misfortune to read.

This supposedly ‘philosophical’ tale of an Andalusian shepherd boy who has a dream which he believes is prophetic sees him journey to the pyramids of Egypt to fulfil his personal legend, whatever the hell that is. What follows, in less than 200 pages, is a laughably bad story which seems to extol the reader to ‘follow your dreams’ and ‘believe in yourself.’ That’s basically it. It wouldn’t be so bad if these messages weren’t so evidently obvious anyway. I almost wish the boy had stayed home and stuck to his stupid job shepherding sheep.

Naturally, The Alchemist is manna for the hippy dippy bleeding hearts. One can almost imagine them chanting om over lattes and listening to ‘world music’ while reading this claptrap.

The biggest issue I have with Coelho’s novel, however, is that it truly does not deserve its lofty reputation. I am baffled that such bewildering tripe is considered good literature, particularly when it seems to lack even the faintest glimmer of nuance. What on earth possessed people to buy this book in droves?

Well, perhaps it’s due to the cultural shift towards postcolonial literature at the turn of the last century. Great art is produced by those from all corners of the world and therefore veneration and acclaim by the literary establishment should be more evenly distributed. Unfortunately, many great writers from across the globe will still remain unacknowledged as all the publicity is still being showered upon authors like Coelho and books like this piss-poor excuse of a fable. Clearly literature has lost its way.

The real mystery is that if I am correct and this novel is so bad, then why is it so successful? A crucial factor may be in its simplicity—it seems to have found a way of appealing to a mass audience, mainly those who are presumably of a spiritual persuasion, who relate to the allegorical nature of the story. It speaks to them in the same exasperating way that Chicken Soup for the Soul would, making the Alchemist a sort of cross between an overhyped self-help book and a philosophical dime novel.

Paulo Coelho has gone on to claim the book only took him two weeks to write. Well, it shows. It’s so basic it’s practically a sixth-form creative writing exercise drafted in crayon; a splurge of amateurish waffle overstuffed with over-righteous moralising and pious blabber. Whoever would have thought that believing in something actually makes it happen? Wow, thank you very much for showing me the mysterious ways in which the Universe works, Paulo. What a wise oracle you must be.

The Alchemist is nothing but a tossed-off, stream-of-consciousness pile of sanctimonious guff, full of bullshit quotes and phoney nuggets of quasi-wisdom. If you believe in the healing power of crystals, then this book might actually change your life and good for you for being comfortable living in that bubble. For the rest of us, the only thing this book deserves is to collect dust. Frankly, the dust is welcome to it.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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