As you’ll recall from my 6 previous Reading Nook posts, I’m doing the ’12 Meses, 12 Libros’ Challenge. This month’s topic was a book from a genre I’d never read before, I chose travel, and went with the #1 recommendation from people who have opinions: The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho.
I’ll admit up front, I uhh, well I wouldn’t call it a mistake, more that I failed to do my research. When I decided on ‘travel stories,’ I had in my mind non-fiction, or at least creative non-fiction accounts of real people. Semi-autobiographical or a memoir, something of that nature. I wouldn’t call The Alchemist disappointing, just not exactly what I meant. We’re not yet to the middle of the month, so maybe I’ll have time to fit in a book more along the lines of what I expected.
Probably not, though. In a way, I dodged a bullet. I’m not a huge fan of non-fiction as a method of storytelling, as I find most people’s real lives to be depressing and I’m the kind of escapist reader who likes and fun adventure. Misfortune for fictional characters builds tension, misfortune for real people is sad.
But that’s me. If you know of a travel memoir that’s more fun than ‘inspirational’ (‘inspirational’ means ‘bad stuffs happens, but they’re ok in the end’), I’d love to hear about it! It is summer, after all. Time for reading, travel, and adventure!
Anyway, regardless of the fact that The Alchemist is fiction, I did read it, and I did get a lot out of it. And I would call it a fairy tale in a way because there were fantastical events, larger than life characters, a sense of destiny, and a bit of a moral.
The Boy, his guides, and the woman he loves
First of all, I kind of dig that Coelho never names his protagonist. Because he retains a narrative distance, we get a sense of the boy as a character and connect with him emotionally; but, it’s almost impossible not to put yourself in his position, almost out of necessity. It’s like Coelho forces you to see yourself in him, if only to bridge the distance. The boy becomes the vessel by which the reader goes on the journey themself.
That isn’t to say that he doesn’t have agency; the boy grows a lot from the Spanish shepherd into the fully formed alchemist, and we see him have his dreams, doubt his mentors, struggle through his various obstacles, and ultimately prevails.
At times it does feel like he’s coasting, like things are just handed to him. But I have to say that it’s not distracting, in fact, it’s almost the point. This book is more a journey than an adventure. What I mean by that is that the obstacles aren’t the point. The question isn’t ‘how will he overcome this?’ but ‘what will he learn from this?’ The moments of highest tension aren’t when he’s robbed in Tangier, or when he’s kidnapped all those times, or even when he does eventually reach his goal. The high points are when he’s meditating and literally–I mean literally–talking to the desert, the wind, and the sun. The aha! moments are little proverbs here and there that resonate with those of us of a spiritual nature. Indeed, one phrase that is repeated over and over is when one knows what they want, the universe conspires to give it to them.
So it may seem a bit deus ex machina, but remember it’s about following your dream and your faith in the face of adversity, and not neing distracted by things you think are important. Journey, not an adventure.
I’m personally of the opinion that all of his guides are pretty much the same person. Call it the king or the alchemist or God/Allah/the hand that wrote it all, etc. Even the boy at one time noticed that all of his guides shared similarities. Also, I’m a fantasy writer; that sort of this is 100% believable to me.
But one thing I want to address: Fatima. I would argue that Fatima is, for having so little ‘screen time,’ I do think she is a strong character. She is proud of her heritage, she is proud generally, she is secure in herself, she is enlightened. I just think she’s really cool. I don’t want to go too deep into her character because she has such a small chunk that I’d basically have to transcribe it to anlyse it further. But she’s cool. In lots of ways, she’s meatier than a couple male characters.
Now, I’m all down for meditation, and shutting up for a minute so you can actually see what’s going on and getting out of your own way, etc. But when he’s literally talking to the desert/wind/sun and they’re talking back, it got a little weird for me. I know it’s a metaphor, but still. It’s a weird way to do it. Everything up til that was weird coincidence that the boy interpreted, but this scene was an actual dialogue. I think I would have preferred it done a little more subtly. But that’s me. Everyone’s a critic, right?