It is a tale of self-discovery. It has magic, mysticism and wisdom. It became a “modern classic.” It has sold over 150 million copies worldwide and won 115 international prizes and awards. It has been translated into 80 languages.
It is an allegorical novel. The story follows a young Andalusian shepherd named Santiago on a journey to Egypt. His journey begins with a recurring dream he has of finding treasure there. The dream, which he feels is prophetic, leads him to a fortune-teller in a nearby town who interprets the dream as a prophecy telling the boy that there is a treasure in the pyramids in Egypt.
Coelho wrote The Alchemist in only two weeks in 1987. He explained he was able to write at this pace because the story was “already written in my soul.”
A friend loaned me her copy in 1988. I was skeptical. It sounded more “New Age” than literature, but she was a reader I respected, so I read it.
Paulo Coelho was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1947. He worked as a director, theater actor, songwriter and journalist.
In 1986, he made the pilgrimage to Saint James Compostela (in Spain). The Way of St. James was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during the Middle Ages, together with those to Rome and Jerusalem. The pilgrimage was a turning point in his existence.
A year later, he wrote The Pilgrimage, an autobiographical novel that is considered the beginning of his career.
The following year, he published The Alchemist. The initial sales were not good. His original publisher dropped the novel. Big mistake. It went on to be one of the best-selling Brazilian books (originally written in Portuguese) of all time, and then a global best seller.
The New York Times reviewer said it is “more self-help than literature.” I think that was meant as a putdown, but plenty of us are seeking help.
The novel reminds me of The Prophet, a book of prose poetry fables written in English by the Lebanese-American artist, philosopher and writer Kahlil Gibran.
It was originally published in 1923 but continued to sell and had a resurgence during the 1960s. It has been translated into over 40 languages and has never been out of print.
Parallels have been made to William Blake’s work, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The ideas of those writers, such as reincarnation and the Over-soul and more modern symbolism and surrealism, seem to run through The Prophet. I knew people who loved the book, and I knew people who made fun of it.
In The Alchemist, an old king tells Santiago that, “when you really want something to happen, the whole universe will conspire so that your wish comes true.” That is the kind of philosophy that fills the novel. You might find it inspiring. You might dismiss it as greeting card philosophy.
I read Coelho’s latest novel, The Spy, which is very different. It is the story of one of history’s most enigmatic women: Mata Hari. She arrived in Paris penniless and became a dancer, a courtesan, and in 1917, she was arrested in her hotel room on the Champs Elysees, and accused of espionage.
Coelho is not a guru. He is a prolific writer. He loves writing. He likes Kyudo (a meditative archery), reading, walking, football and computers.
He is very active on social media. He was the second most influential celebrity on Twitter in 2010 according to Forbes and he is the writer with the highest number of followers in the social media.
It sure seems like the universe has conspired so that his wish has comes true. maybe I should reread The Alchemist.