Paulo Coelho still calls himself Catholic, but his statements in interviews reveal non-orthodox ideas the Church rejects. Many of these attitudes surface in The Alchemist, as a young unnamed shepherd follows his Personal Legend to find unlikely treasure in unlikely places. Along the way he meets mystic guides, learns the Language of the World and how to read omens, grows to understand alchemy, and falls in love.
If this sounds like New Age mumbo-jumbo, it is. The shepherd leaves his native Andalusia to travel in Africa and the northern deserts pursuing "his treasure" which appeared to him in a dream. He encounters Melchizedek, who gives him the Urim and Thumim to interpret omens, all of which point the boy toward his destiny. It's a story we encounter too often—it all hinges on self-discovery and self-actualization.
But there is one difference between Coelho's parable and others like it. Throughout the boy's adventures he meets Muslims who teach the idea of maktub, which in English is roughly translated "it is written." The story centers on the shepherd's gradual realization that he determines his own path, and that everyone is responsible for their own future; fate as such is a non-entity. At the same time, frequent statements affirm that the future is prescribed, that it is written.
The resulting conflict of ideas lends nuance to The Alchemist and makes it more than spiritualist tomfoolery. The question whether the shepherd determines his own destiny or merely follows the path laid for him—or if he chooses his own destiny because it was already determined—is left unresolved. The tension adds depth to the story which a definitive answer would negate. Coelho's simple yet elegant prose is captivating, and Alan Clarke's translation retains haunting echoes of the original Portuguese.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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