Our book review this month looks at The Alchemist, written by Paulo Coelho. It has a great sub title: “A fable about following your dream”.
The Alchemist was first published in 1988 and it is now considered a classic book about finding your path, or personal calling. It has sold over 65 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 80 languages.
About the author: Paulo Coelho
Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian author born in 1947. He has had a very colourful and interesting life. He always dreamed of being a writer, however his strict Catholic parents wanted him to be a lawyer. At the age of 17 his parents committed him to a mental institute, from which he escaped three times! After dropping out of law school after just a year, Coelho spent many years travelling in South America and North Africa. When he returned to Brazil he started a career in writing lyrics for popular Brazilian musicians. In this time in his career he became associated with magic and occultism, which led to him being arrested by the Brazilian Government. At one point in his career Coelho became tired of always being an outsider, so became a music executive. Eventually in 1986, after a chance meeting with a man who he first saw in a dream, he walked the pilgrimage route to Santiago. He then decided to return to his original dream of becoming a full-time writer.
The Alchemist is Paulo Coelho’s second book. He reports writing it in just two weeks, as he felt the book was already inside of him. This classic book deals with issues such as following your dreams, finding your calling, looking for signs, making your own choices and dealing with setbacks. We can see from Coelho’s own history that he has lots of experience in these areas. In particular, this book suffered setbacks as its first print run sold only 900 copies and the publishing house decided to discontinue it. It was only after Coelho´s third book was published that readers became interested in The Alchemist.
I was first lent this book by a friend as a teenager and I immediately loved its simple but profound messages about following your dreams, like: “…when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” And “the simple things are also the most extraordinary things and only the wise can see them.”
Re-reading this book whilst writing this review (more than 20 years after I first read it) I am struck by how relevant it is today to questions about finding our calling. Throughout history humans have learnt through stories, and there is something about listening to, or reading, a story that enables us to engage our creative mind. For me, I feel like when I read stories their messages go into my subconscious mind and I experience those soft ‘oh yeah’ lightbulb moments. This book has plenty of those, such as one I read today which chimed with something that is happening for me at the moment “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.”
What is The Alchemist about?
The book follows the story of a boy called Santiago, a shepherd from Andalusia, a region in the south of Spain, close to Africa. Like Coelho, Santiago’s parents wanted him to do a more conventional job and he spent some time in a seminary (priest’s school). However, Santiago loved to travel and became a shepherd. During his time as a shepherd he travelled widely in Andalusia and learned a lot about sheep. One day in a ruined church he had a dream about a child showing him hidden treasure at the Egyptian pyramids. He had the dream interpreted by a Romani fortune teller, and then an encounter with a Melchizedek or the king of Salem, led him to sell his sheep to pursue his dream.
Santiago embarks on a journey in North Africa, where he suffers both losses and gains. At times he loses confidence in this path and at other times he experiences what we might think as setbacks or a stalling in this path. A key part of the story is when he apprentices with the Alchemist (who the book is named after). In this part of the book Santiago learns more about reading signs and omens. Santiago also falls in love with Fatima, an Arabian girl, however she persuades him to continue following his dream. This is where he learns the lesson that even if we love someone, we should not stop them, or stop ourselves from following our dreams.
I do not want to reveal the end of the story, however one of the key things that we can learn from Santiago is the importance of change, embracing adventure and overcoming setbacks. I would recommend reading, or re-reading, The Alchemist particularly if you are at a cross-road in your life or are not sure what to do next. It is a lovely book to read at this time of year as we can use many of the lessons in the book to help set our intentions for the New Year. I also like to think about Coelho as one of the ´wise-men´ bringing treasures in the form of the story and encouragement on our path.
The Alchemist is available from all good book shops and online. It would make a great present for somebody, young or old, who was thinking about the next steps in their life.
Following your dream
Here at La Crisalida Retreats, we use stories and writing in our Life Makeover Retreats to help us to consider our path in life. In one of our workshops we learn about free-flow writing – you can read more in one of our earlier articles how to do free flowing writing. You might also be interested in another short story that might help when thinking about change: finding happiness without a burning passion. If you want to explore some of these things, contact us now and book a retreat.