“Is this a joke?” Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”

The back cover of the book carries endorsements from no less than Madonna and Will Smith, the latter of whom identifies it as “One of my favorite books.” Gee, thanks, Will Smith. I wouldn’t have read it without your blessing.

The Alchemist

Do you remember the title of J.K. Rowling’s first book as it was published in the U.K., Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone? Do you also remember that magic isn’t real? Ok, good. Just checking. Because the Philosopher’s Stone is a real thing in The Alchemist, as is the ability to transform lead into gold, as is the ability of people to communicate with each other and with the elements through The Universal Language of the World. Oh, I forgot to add that all of the knowledge of the world is inscribed on the Emerald Tablet. Yeah.

I wish I were exaggerating, but this book is nothing but trite aphorisms from beginning to end. The basic premise is that a young boy from Andalusia, Spain isn’t fulfilling his destiny by being a humble shepherd of sheep. Thankfully, a king wearing a gold breastplate intervenes and tells him to believe a recent dream he’s had about finding treasure at the Pyramids in Egypt. Boy decides to sell his sheep and travel to Tangier, where someone steals all his money but then he earns it back because he has a knack for selling crystal! Then he falls instantly in love with a “woman of the desert” after traveling via camel to an oasis in the middle of the desert! Then he meets the famous alchemist who refuses to teach him how to change lead into gold, but it’s ok because he insists that the boy listen to his heart! HE DOES AND THEN HIS HEART LEADS HIM TO THE TREASURE!!! It is written! It is a miracle!

It’s narcissistic, delusional, simplistic, and self-affirming, which explains why it’s sold 65 million copies. Let me pull a few choice examples:

The boy was beginning to understand that intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it’s all written there. (p. 77)

It’s Slumdog Millionaire all over again! Just as the universe conspired to make Jamal win one million rupees on a game show, so did the universe ensure that the shepherd boy from Andalusia would find a treasure chest filled with gold coins.

We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it’s our life or our possessions and property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand. (p. 80)

Everything happens for a reason. We must not question tragedy because it is written into the history of the world. Poor people are poor because it is their destiny. Rich men become rich because they had the wisdom to listen to the omens and claim the treasure that was destined to be theirs. Of COURSE! How could you possibly misinterpret something so simple?

‘I had to test your courage, the stranger said. ‘Courage is the quality most essential to understanding the Language of the World.’ The boy was surprised. The stranger was speaking of things that very few people knew about.’ (p. 117)

This book works for the same reason that horoscopes work, a little something known as the Forer, or, colloquially, the Barnum Effect after the Ringling Bros. circus. Basically, if you make something vague and profound enough, everyone will see themselves reflected in it. Give it a try. Read a horoscope that doesn’t belong to your star sign and see if it still applies to your life (hint: it will!). An article from Psychology Today explains why the Barnum Effect is so seductive:

The second reason people fall for the Barnum effect applies more to predictions about the future, the ones we find in fortune cookies and horoscopes. These provide a comforting, if not always reassuring, sense of control over the unknown. In our constant struggle to see into the unknown, these vapid pronouncements give us a handle with which we can open the door.  No matter that it’s not going to be a very clear view, nor that if we were keeping records, we’d realize that these prognostications were completely off-base. (emphasis added)

Celebrities love The Alchemist because it justifies their fame. They were destined to be wealthy and admired — the very stars in the sky prove this. Everyone else loves The Alchemist because it’s endlessly forgiving. It’s hard work listening to The Universal Language/your intuition/God/wise old men with gold breastplates, but as long as you try to follow your destiny, that’s all that can be expected of you. Something go wrong? It’s just a bump in the path to your true realization.

All of this new-age nonsense aside, let’s take one last moment to consider how sexist this book is. You remember how I said the shepherd boy fell instantly in love with a woman of the desert that he met at an oasis? Well, she’s a strong woman of the desert, so she doesn’t mind waiting while he goes off to pursue his destiny. Women of the desert are strong and are capable of waiting faithfully for their men to return.

‘You’ll remember that she never asked you to stay, because a woman of the desert knows that she must await her man.’ (p. 126)

‘I’m a desert woman, and I’m proud of that. I want my husband to wander as free as the wind that shapes the dunes. And, if I have to, I will accept that he has become a part of the clouds, and the animals and the water of the desert.’ (p. 103)

“I also have Fatima. She is a treasure greater than anything else I have won.” (p. 121)

Oh, right. Thanks for reminding us, Paulo Coehlo, that women are possessions just like treasure, horses, or houses. They are prizes to be won by men brave enough to pursue their destinies. Remember: in Coelho’s world, it’s only the men who have destinies. Women just wait around, hoping to be picked up like so many gold coins.

I’ll tell you what, though. This book was good for many solid laughs. I read sections out loud to Greg, and each time, he’d ask: “Is this a joke?” Sadly, most people don’t seem to realize that’s exactly what this book is. It also means that I won’t make the mistake of reading another book by Coehlo, ever again.

Overall rating: 1/5 stars

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32 thoughts on ““Is this a joke?” Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”

  1. Thank you for this post! I just heard a friend recommend this book to another friend. I tried to tell her that this book and Coelho in general is overrated but she gave me a lecture about how it inspires people to believe in destiny and all the other ludicrousness suggested in the book. I personally took away nothing from the book aside from the fact that the vague sounding mystical ideas sell like hot cakes. And now that you have mentioned it, the Barnum effect is the perfect way to describe the misguided phenomena that is this book. I read it when I was a kid and didn’t understand a thing. I read it again a few years ago and all I did was just scoff and chuckle.
    I am going to forward this link to my friend. I think I have a full blown debate on my hands!

  2. I just read this book last night. I definitely picked up on some of the tones you described in this post. I was searching on Google since I also thought Coelho had a hint of sexism in his story. And your post popped up 🙂

    However, I think you went a bit too far. For instance, you don’t like how Santiago said Fatima was a treasure above everything else he had found. I mean, really? Have you never said that your partner (bf/gf/husband/wife/whatever) is a treasure? That you treasure their company? That you value them in your life more than your possessions? Heck, I call all my friends treasures sometimes. Because I like them and value them.

    “They are prizes to be won by men brave enough to pursue their destinies. Remember: in Coelho’s world, it’s only the men who have destinies.” There was nothing in the book that alluded to Fatima being a “prize to be won.” I think that you might be you inserting your own script there. Unless I’m missing something? At the same time, it is interesting how only the guys have their “Personal Legends.” This is what made me search Google to see what other people think. After contemplating it a bit, I think this goes to the set and setting of the book. In the Middle East, the culture is different. As we all know, women and men are treated very differently. In the culture of the oasis in the story, the women seem content to wait for the men. I think the point he was really trying to drive home was that your partner shouldn’t stop you from achieving your dreams. Perhaps I am “inserting my own script” but I took away that man or woman can have their own Personal Legend. And if whoever you are interested in romantically isn’t down with your Personal Legend, then you aren’t a good match. I don’t think it would be a stretch to extrapolate the story with a female protagonist based in a different set and setting, with a male or even female partner who is down to let her pursue her Personal Legend.

    Again, I searched for somebody talking about this on Google. So thank you for posting. I just wanted to add a bit to the conversation that wasn’t 100% “I totally agree with you!” like everybody else seems to have done.

    Cheers 🙂

    P.S. I just wanted to leave one thing about your criticism of his “Language of the World” and how we are all connected (the Slumdog Millonaire part of your post). It reminded me a lot of Carl Jung’s ideas on synchronicity, which is as he put it, an “acausal connection which manifests itself most conspicuously in the form of meaningful coincidences.” Similar to the omens in the story. Anyway, I just thought that was interesting. I’m of the mindset that we are a lot more connected to the world than we might think. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synchronicity

  3. Seems like I read a short sample of this deplorable trashy book a year ago and was appalled that it made it past even a poorly- read editor or publisher. Then this week I heard three people (one a high school English teacher ! Yikes ..no wonder the standards of taste and appreciation of literature, or even mediocre novels and have collapsed!!!) on NPR giving their opinions of this book for an hour ! no less ! I can’t believe that they couldn’t find something better to discuss. I place no value whatsoever on publishers reviews and a majority of readers unfortunately are like sheep. I think the availability of books and the publisher’s hype has flooded the market with books that barely meet the lowest denominator of what constitutes good interesting writing.
    Very refreshing to find a site that’s honest and fearless in calling it as it is :dross dressed up in Rumi trite feel- good sentimentality. When universities are turningn out teachers who’ve never been exposed to the classics and dishonest to boot ….look-out. At least one person on the panel did voice reservations about the book’s merit. They all agreed with the host that love is important…. what a no-brainer….did wen need Coehlo to tell us that well-known piece of information?

  4. Somewhat of a nice little story but nowhere near the spiritual guide that so many make it out to be. You might read for an hour and get one little psycho-babble message about ‘being in the present’ or some such line. People must be starved for some message – especially the simple ones – if this book excites them.

  5. Fascinating review. I did some checking after reading this post. This Self-Help novel is based on / a retelling of “The Ruined Man who Became Rich Again through a Dream” (Tale 14 from the collection One Thousand and One Nights) . The source of the Tale is the poem “In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo: In Cairo, Dreaming of Baghdad”, by 13th century Persian poet Jalal al-Din Rumi. The English folktale from Swaffham, Norfolk – Pedlar of Swaffham, has much the same dream plot. More significantly, the Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, published a short story called Tale of Two Dreamers (1935). Paulo Coelho never acknowledges any sources for his miracle dream book..

    There have been a slew of these quasi-allegorical self-help narratives in the past few years. People are desperate to find some life meaning/justification.The collapse of trust in many religious institutions has created a real hunger & uncertainty.

    1. Yes, I heard about Coelho’s plagiarism in the course of writing this review! Quite nasty of him, I have to say.

      Your point about the collapse of trust in religious institutions is very interesting. Not too long ago at my previous place of work, everyone was supposed to read “Strengthsfinder 2.0,” take the quiz, and become superstar workers thanks to (a rather expensive process of) self-realization. I commented to someone that it was a quasi-Christian undertaking, that these nonsensical, “secular” books have, for many people, replaced the original teachings. While I’m not religious at all, I still stand by what I said then: The original stories are better. The conflation of self-help, management, work ethic, and corporate culture is nauseating, but unfortunately I don’t see it ending anytime soon.

      Anyway, thanks for commenting! I’m really glad to know I’m not the only person who’s had that reaction to books like this.

  6. Thrilled to read your review because you eloquently nailed exactly what I was thinking–but couldn’t put my literary commentary on. The Barnum effect–exactly! Coehlo’s sexist treatment of female characters! That’s it!.And the banal diatribes disguised as subtle wisdom–har! How have so many millions of readers been duped by an author with the equivalent literary talent of a Kim Kardashian. All hocus-pocus and no actual content! Whew. I say, you write a book and give your characters your sassy and delightful tone and I will certainly line up to buy it!

    1. Oh my goodness, thank you so much for this comment! It was sitting in my inbox this morning and genuinely brightened the start of my day. I thought twice about publishing this review, because sometimes I hesitate to share such violently negative opinions… haha. But so far, everyone has seemed relieved to know that someone else hated this book, too! Great comparison to Kim Kardashian, too — both she and Paulo Coehlo have made millions by tricking people into thinking they are worth watching and listening to. I’ve never tried to write anything as complicated as a book, but your comment gives me great encouragement! Unfortunately, I’m afraid that I couldn’t possibly invent characters more interesting/wacky/crazy/complex than people I already know in real life… 🙂

  7. Yes! Finally someone who doesn’t just love this pompous, presumptious and much overrated book! We read it in our book circle and people were just oohing and aahing over this profound piece of invaluable wisdom… I felt kind of … freakish… I just finished Reading The Girl With All the Gifts, a zombie book that I thought I never would read. But actually there is so much more wisdom and humanity in that book compared to The Alchemist that I just have to say: Learn from the Zombies, Coelho! Thanks for following my blog by the way! Your’s is great!

    1. Haha yes, a lot of people seemed to appreciate this post! I should have known — any book that sells 65 million copies is bound to be duplicitous. When I first started reading it, I felt like I was going insane. Like, “Wait a sec… what did that sentence say, exactly?!” The Girl With all the Gifts sounds interesting — I do like zombie books, so I’ll keep it in mind! Your blog is very cute 🙂

  8. Whoops, I thought it was Ok! Well, I started off thinking it was, and that it was a nice little parable, but it did grow increasingly tiresome as it went on. Luckily it isn’t particularly long. I didn’t hate it, just didn’t end up loving it either.

    1. The only good thing about this book was its relatively short length! How long ago did you read it? You might read a few pages now and see if you find them nauseating! Admittedly, it did take me a little bit to realize how crazy it all was. The first part where he’s just hanging out with his sheep seems relatively ok. But then he starts to learn about The Soul of the World and it all goes to shit, haha.

      1. I only read it a few months back, but I’m of the same opinion as you. The beginning when you are just getting into it is quite nice and then it just starts to get a bit tedious.

  9. Absolutely spot on. This post deserves one of those slow claps like you see in films. I’ve always detested this book because of its pseudo-spiritual but actually incredibly problematic message. It seems like most people prefer to follow what everyone else likes in literature instead of actually thinking about the validity of the views expressed!

    I was told to read this during my final years of high school because it would “change my life” and all I felt was angry and annoyed that I’d wasted a bunch of time on it. Shame on you Paulo Coelho!

    1. Woo hoo, thank you! Yes, the core messages are absolutely rotten! I’m so sad that Paulo Coelho is the best-selling Brazilian novelist of all time, there’s got to be WAY better stuff from that country! I was going to mention that the book isn’t actually *completely* badly written, in the sense that it’s quite lyrical and poetic sounding. But I didn’t want to give Coelho credit for that, because I suspect that Portuguese as a language is that way naturally (just as Spanish is infinitely more poetic than English). I think most of the novels that have made it into Oprah’s Book Club are best left avoided!

      1. Oh yeah, the book certainly sounds good and the use of language is quite interesting. But it’s a shame about the rest! Never trust Oprah! Throughout my years at the bookshop we had so many customers who bought books that had her sticker of approval on them and then eventually they would try and return things they didn’t like. It was so annoying. I think she might have mind control powers.

        1. No way! haha that’s actually quite funny. And it validates my generally low opinion of Oprah. I’m always so sad when people’s first reaction after I tell (*told*, now, I supposed) them I live in Chicago is, “Oh! Oprah’s hometown!” I smile weakly and I’m like, yeah. I don’t watch her show because I don’t have low self-esteem, thanks…

  10. Ha! Thanks for my laugh of the day! I have heard of this book a lot, but have always thought there’s something about it that I just wouldn’t like. Now I know. Thank you!

  11. Thank Christ, I recently read it on holidays as one of those books that had always been recommended but I never got around to reading. It made me feel ill and I didn’t finish it because I thought I was going insane. This makes me feel a lot better about myself 🙂

    1. And thank goodness for your comment! I always get a little nervous whenever I post a review as negative as this one! Luckily everyone seems to agree with me so far. 🙂 Yes to feelings of insanity — when I first started reading the book, I kept thinking, “Am I missing something?!?” Nope, it’s just crazy!

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