“The boy’s name was Santiago,” Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist begins. Once we are introduced to Santiago, his name is never spoken again. Coelho writes in the style of an extended fairy tale, something rustic and ancient and beyond what a modern reader would ask of an entertaining book, as he sends “the boy” off to distant lands to meet other nameless figures, each of whom carries a kernel of wisdom that the story cracks apart, inspects and interprets.
Coelho, in telling this story like it came from a bygone age and saw endless re-tellings, sacrifices a few luxuries as a matter of style. The characters speak exactly their intentions at every turn, with no delineation between them, every scene has a moral (“Tut, tut, child!” as the Duchess says in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it!”), and Coelho’s writing (or, possibly, Clarke’s translation) is sterilized of any passion.
Yes, let’s just get that out of the way––The Alchemist is less wide-eyed fairy tale and more endless, overly literal lecture. Coelho couldn’t have written something heavier-handed if he opted to pound out a self-help book instead.
All the sacrifices he makes to evoke the fable might have been worth it of only there were a better substance at the fable’s core.
There is a very real reason “follow your dreams” is the territory of wall décor, and the most condescending advice any young adult could receive. Far from the sources of friction Coelho offers––that we feel guilty about pursuing our calling, that we are derailed by love, that we are afraid something will stop us––the real reason The Alchemist‘s invocation of a Personal Legend and everyone’s duty to follow it lands with a dull thud has more to do with how boring an idea it is and less to do with the cowering Everyone Else is supposedly doing as the Enlightened conduct their restless pursuit of the stuff of dreams.
All things considered, Santiago lacks a truly compelling Personal Legend, which might have been the one missing piece enough to conceal all the holes “follow your dreams” ignores. Coelho may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater when he ditched fully-realized characters for plain, folk-tale ones. If Santiago had something more to fight for than a treasure he was told to pursue by a fortune teller, there would be more value in his trying to pursue it. Coelho can’t fully make the case for Personal Legends if the Personal Legend he decides to tell shuffles a pliant dreamer from place to place, no conviction anywhere in sight.
Coelho doesn’t make much of his other characters, either. They’re not exactly meant to be the powerful forces at odds in a tightly-wrung character drama, but voicing the ends of the story gets old in 12-page transcriptions of fairy tales––here it drags for a hundred pages, as Coelho pushes a leading man with not much will to do anything through a landscape of vast simplifications of human beings. He doesn’t even take the opportunity to draw their broad strokes wildly, and make them two-dimensional, but vibrant.
“To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation” doesn’t just ignore the very real obligations our main character happens not to have; it also renders the world that exists in The Alchemist a pale and wanting imitation of itself. When things are as simple as listening to your heart and following the signs, where is the richness that exists outside the path you feel you are ordained to have? Where are the complexities of other lives? Where’s the flavor? Where’s the conflict? In this novel, it is made simple: those other things just don’t exist.
There are moments, though, when The Alchemist doesn’t try to stretch this narrow mission over the scope of all human life, and in those moments, Coelho leans in to the parts of his story he seems determined not to focus on, from the details of magic to its more whimsical use as a means for inanimate things to be brought to life.
At one point, Santiago has a very frank conversation with his own heart, and here, it doesn’t read like its sober admissions are the fable’s robotic workings, or that this scene exists to further a moral with no real weight. If Santiago had a reason to seek this treasure; if the mechanics of alchemy had a reason to make an appearance, the gentle, wise things this book sometimes has to say about fear and wonder might ring humbler, and perhaps even true.
Maybe The Alchemist wasn’t meant to be the literary exercise that it is. Maybe a novel with impassioned characters, an eye for magic, and more adventurous leanings is hiding somewhere deep within this tired parable. Maybe, in it, Santiago even chases the same Personal Legend, only his feelings on the matter have a bit more behind them, and no one tells him about the Pyramids in order to send him searching for them. All he has is a vague, painful feeling in his chest, which––if the book’s ideas were really close to life, is all most of us have.
The version that we’re stuck with being what it is, however, The Alchemist has a lot to tell us about how dogged individualism can neglect those who adhere to it, simplify the world around us, and outsmart us in the end. All these lessons come from a book that won’t stop telling us to follow our dreams. They come because the more you hear the same tune, the more you notice what it is missing.