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The Alchemist: Fatuous Fable for the Simple Minded

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The Adolescent Quest

My sister-in-law brought this book over to my house for the winter holidays, encouraging me to take a look at it myself. "It's an easy read," she said. Eek. Is that a good thing? Well, my sis-in-law has interesting tastes in a lot of things, so I thought I'd take a gander.

I got far into the book pretty quickly, as the writing was simple, with no challenging grammar or ideas. Then, another visitor said something to distract me, I put the book down, and that was the end of that. There were too many other substantial books around for me to read to even think about bothering with The Alchemist any more.

What is Portugese word for "Fluff"?

irregular book of the month I can't for the life of me figure out any literary reason for translating this book into English. Financially, of course, it makes a lot of sense -- it's a best seller elsewhere in the world, so why not in the US and UK as well?

Folks, Danielle Steele is a financially successful author, but that doesn't mean that she writes good books. The Alchemist has pretensions to go beyond the works of Madame Steele, but it fails miserably, ending up as a sophomoric tale of simple thinking.

A Pseudo-Mystical Trip to the Shopping Mall

The hero of this story is an adolescent who gets bored with his home town, thinks that everyone around him is an unoriginal sell-out, and hits the road to lead a life of wandering aimlessly. Sound familiar? It should. Just about every teenager in American suburbia feels this way, and each one of them thinks that their thoughts are original.

irregular actionThe Alchemist reads much like the drivel that such teenagers write in their journals. Author Paul Coehlo seems to really believe in the need for literal quests, that people who stay put and settle down are mentally and emotionally asleep, and that the gullible are actually visionaries. He tries to make the hero's journeys appear deep and meaningful, but really the lessons that the hero learns along his path are as superficial as it gets.

The old, genuine myths are metaphor lasagnas, with symbols built upon symbols built upon symbols. Coehlo's pretend myth is comparatively shallow, written in such a way that the symbolism of his book's characters and events could only be missed by the most idiotic and insensitive of boors. For example, the character of the magical king doesn't bother to mask his magic, but talks about it immediately. The alchemist holds no mystery, but talks about the meaning of life as if it's a mere recipe. Yawn.

Real legends have endured over generations because they are able refer to deep psychological themes without being so bland as to talk about them directly. Not so with The Alchemist, which hits us over the head with vapid paragraphs about "destiny" and "truth". Sorry, Mr. Coehlo, but I just don't think that there's much value in the lesson that we each have to follow our own true destiny or else we'll get lost. This is kid's stuff.

If the author had actually ever lived through a meaningful personal journey, he'd realize that the answers to life's puzzles aren't so easy as he makes them out to be. He'd realize that the people who seem to be asleep are often the most alive. He'd be able to see that those who make loud protestations about destiny and magic are the most lost of all. He'd see that richness is to be found in recognizing the meaning in ordinary things, not in taking trips to Pyramids at the behest of fortune tellers and washed up phony wanna-be chemists.

In Sum...

This isn't the worst book I've ever read. It's entertaining in a superficial kind of way, kind of like a soap opera in which the characters do nothing but talk about true love and honor and the meaning of life. In a literary sense, it's comparable to Shirley Maclaine's book, Dancing in the Light: well-meaning but embarrassingly naive and self-centered.

I'll give this book some credit because there are people aged about 12-19 who might get a few basic insights out of it. The rest of us ought to know better than to bother listening to a book which can't see the substance behind symbolism.


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