Santiago is a shepherd in the rolling hills of Andalucia. He loves his flock, but can't help but notice the limited nature of their existence. Seeking only food and water, they never lift their heads to admire the green hills or the sunsets. Santiago's parents have continually struggled for the basics of life, and have smothered their own ambitions accordingly. They live in beautiful Andalucia, which attracts tourists to its quaint villages and rolling hills, but for them it is no place of dreams.Santiago, on the other hand, can read and wants to travel. He goes into town one day to sell some of his flock, and encounters a tramp-king and a Gypsy woman. They urge him to 'follow his omens' and leave the world he knows. The Gypsy points him towards the Pyramids of Egypt, where she says he will find treasure. Crazily, he believes her. He sells his flock and sets sail. Sure enough, disaster is met early on when a thief in Tangier robs him of his savings. So much hard work and discipline for a little adventure! But strangely, Santiago is not devastated, apprehending a greater feeling - the security of knowing he is on the right path. He is now living a different life, in which every day is new and satisfying. He keeps reminding himself of what he was told in the market before he left: 'When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.'
So begins this fable which has delighted millions around the world.
Following the dream
The idea of following your dream is a marvellous one, a support for anyone embarking on a major project. But is it a hope based on nothing? If you think about the energy you put into something once you are committed to it, probably not. The 'universe conspiring' to give you what you want is, more precisely, a reflection of your determination to make something happen. In reading The Alchemist, we are reminded of Goethe's demand: 'Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it - boldness has genius, power and magic in it.'
The book does not get away from the fact that dreams have a price, but as Coelho has noted in interviews, not living your dreams also has a price. For the same money, he said, you can either buy a horrible jacket that doesn't fit, or one that suits you and looks right. There will be difficulties in whatever you do in life, but it is better to have problems that make sense because they are part of what you are trying to achieve. Otherwise, difficulties just seem insidious, one terrible setback after another. The dream-follower has a greater responsibility, that of handling their own freedom. That may not seem like such a price, but it does require a level of awareness we are maybe not used to.
The old man that Santiago meets in the town square tells him not to believe 'the biggest lie', that you can't control your destiny. You can, he says, but you must 'read the omens', which becomes possible when you start to see the world as one. The world can be read like a book, but we will never be able to understand it if we have a closed type of existence, complacent with our lot and unwilling to risk anything. Destiny requires the oxygen of higher awareness.
The Alchemist is remarkable for being a love story that renounces the idea that romantic love must be the central thing in your life. Each person has a destiny to pursue that exists independently of other people. It is the thing you would do, or be, even if you have all the love and money you want. The treasure Santiago seeks is of course the symbol of the personal dream or destiny, but he is happy to give up on it when he finds the woman of his dreams in a desert oasis. Yet the alchemist tells him that the love of his oasis girlfriend will only be proved real if she is willing to support his treasure search.
Santiago's dilemma is about the conflict between love and personal dreams; too often we see the love relationship as the meaning of our life, but the obsession with romantic coupling can cut us off from a life more connected with the rest of the world. But surely the heart has needs? Live your life around the dream, Coelho says, and their will be more 'heart' in your life than you can now comprehend: '...no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second's encounter with God and with eternity'. Romantic love is important, but is not your duty as is the pursuit of your dream. Only through devotion to the dream is the 'Soul of the World' revealed to us, the knowledge which destroys loneliness and gives power.
Treasure of the present
The alchemist Santiago meets in the desert is the real thing. He actually can turn base metals into gold, the goal of the medieval alchemists. Santiago asks why the other alchemists never succeeded, and gets the strange answer, 'They were only looking for gold.' That is, they were seeking only the treasure of their destiny rather actually trying to live the destiny. Their focus on a prize lessened the quality of the present.
This is similar to Hindu concept of not seeking the fruit of our actions, but just doing according to our dharma, or purpose. There is a subtle distinction between living out the destiny, as you have comprehended it, and scrabbling to achieve some distant goal. Destiny is not a prize but a state of being, realised only when, as the camel driver counsels Santiago, we live in the present. Alchemy is difficult to understand for today's mind, because it was a 'science' that blended matter and spirit. The alchemists spent years patiently heating and purifying metals, but the end result, a product of their total immersion in the task, was a purification of themselves. The moral being can make the distinction between the prize and the journey.
Like The Celestine Prophecy, The Alchemist weaves self-empowering and spiritual truths into an irresistible story, complete with an enchanting ending. Readers who have devoured classic literature may find it a bit glib and the characterization shallow (the same criticism can be made of Celestine). But remember that it was written as a fable, and has the fable's simplicity.
So much of the self-help literature is about 'pursuing our destiny', but dreams do not always pull us along by their own force. It takes courage, and dog-eared, stained copies of Coelho's classic have become the constant companion of people needing to make fearless decisions daily in order to keep true to a larger vision. As well as being a great story, this book is a fictional alternative to Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway.
"When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it."
Coelho grew up in a middle-class family in Rio de Janeiro. His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become an engineer, but after stating his wish to be a writer, was put in and out of mental institutions for three years. He became a hippie traveller, joined a cult for a while in Italy, and was held and tortured by the Brazilian police after a stint writing 'subversive' lyrics for a rock band.Now in his fifties, Coelho is one of the world’s best-selling authors, with 18 million books sold, The Alchemist accounting for around half that figure (its first publisher dropped it after selling less than a thousand copies). The movie rights to The Alchemist have been bought by Warner Bros.
Other books include The Pilgrimage, Diary of a Magus, The Valkyries: An Encounter With Angels, By The River Piedra I Sat Down And Wept , and Veronica Decides To Die , set in a mental hospital.
Coelho lives in Rio de Janeiro.
© COPYRIGHT TOM BUTLER-BOWDON, 2021
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